Date posted: 21/06/2018 8 min read

From ledgers to leadership

Maxine Moana-Tuwhangai FCA was awarded a New Zealand Order of Merit in the New Year’s Honours List – and it all began with her decision to choose accounting as a career.

In Brief.

  • Her Order of Merit was awarded for services to governance and Māori.
  • She’s concerned about the loss of the Māori culture and fears NZ may be one or two generations away from losing the culture.
  • Accounting has opened doors for her to work at NZ Co-op Dairy Co and Telecom and to chair NZ Rugby League’s Upper Central Zone board, covering 44 clubs.

By Helen Ozolins.

Maxine Moana-Tuwhangai was appointed a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the New Year’s Honours List, at the same time as being made a Fellow of Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand. When it happened, one of the first people she wanted to tell was her former accounting teacher at Otorohanga College, Dawn Davidson. She was “a fabulous accounting teacher”, Moana-Tuwhangai says. “I wanted to be just like her. In fact, I wanted to be an accounting teacher just like her.”

Moana-Tuwhangai went as far as applying to be a teacher, and was accepted onto a program in Auckland before deciding that the City of Sails wasn’t for her. “I’d never been away from home and I didn’t want to go to Auckland; it was too far for me,” she says. Instead she started a degree at the much closer Waikato University. An 18-month break from university to become a full-time missionary with the New Zealand Christchurch Mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints proved defining and gave Moana-Tuwhangai increased focus when she returned to her studies.

“You ended up doing things you never thought you could do,” she recalls. “I found during that period of time that I was more capable of things than I ever thought I was.”

The journey of Māori accountants

Attending the 2017 Indigenous Accountants Conference in Vancouver has given New Zealand BDO Māori partner Kylee Potae great hope for the future.

Marketing’s loss

Despite swapping to a marketing major in the second year of her degree, the “much more exciting” prospect of marketing failed to lure Moana-Tuwhangai away from accounting. Instead she followed her gut and rejected the offer of a job in marketing with Ford that followed the completion of a Bachelor of Management Studies. It was a decision she never regretted.

Instead, the new graduate chose an accounting career and became a finance graduate with the New Zealand Co-operative Dairy Company (NZCDC, later to become Fonterra). In fact, she had already had an interview with NZCDC, but hadn’t had a response. In one of those chance, career-defining moments, Moana-Tuwhangai met the NZCDC recruitment manager at an Institute of Personnel Management meeting – she’d done personnel management papers as part of her course – and after three interviews, had a job.

“If I hadn’t had the ‘aha’ moment, I wouldn’t have been ready for NZCDC or the switch back to accounting. It’s one of those times when a seemingly insignificant decision has significant consequences,” Moana-Tuwhangai says.

A factor that worked in her favour was that while NZCDC wanted someone with a degree, it didn’t want a graduate who only knew accounting. The company wanted someone a little more “rounded”. Moana-Tuwhangai knew she wanted that accounting qualification, and studied while working at NZCDC and later at Telecom. She became a chartered accountant in 1994. 

(Maxine Moana-Tuwhangai with the Governor-General of New Zealand, Dame Patsy Reddy, at Government House after being awarded the insignia of a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit.)

Order of Merit

Moana-Tuwhangai credits her role as chairman of Waikato Tainui’s iwi (Māori tribal group) authority, Te Whakakitenga o Waikato Inc, for the Order of Merit nomination. Her Order of Merit was awarded for services to governance and Māori. She is proud of her work with the group, not least because it changed the way people thought of the body and its responsibilities. “It was the way the focus moved from being a committee to recognising that that group was the governing authority for the iwi,” she says. 

The reorganisation over which she presided included a new strategic plan, a different method of reporting, and a major review of the authority’s rules that changed the makeup of that governing entity. There was also a court case that included challenging a previous ruling declaring the body a public entity. Moana-Tuwhangai was determined to “go all the way” to get that decision reversed, and the case went to the court of appeal before it was won. The original decision would have left the entity open to anybody questioning its processes. As a private entity “we are primarily responsible to the Marae beneficiaries and the governing body itself”, she says.

Life lessons

Moana-Tuwhangai got her first taste of governance in 2002, when she became a ministerial appointment to the Counties Manukau district health board. “Following the elections, they had no women and they had no Māori and they had no accountants,” she remembers. 

For the mother of a newborn, governance gave her flexibility and although she returned to accounting after a three-year term on the board, governance was something she would pick up again in 2009 when she was elected to Waikato Tainui’s executive committee, Te Arataura. She is currently a board member of Te Aho o Te Kura Pounamu (Te Kura) and the Duke of Edinburgh Hillary Awards Trust and chairs the Central Waikato Catchment Committee, whose discussions on water management, biodiversity and biosecurity go through as advice to Waikato Regional Council.

Given her passion for rugby league – “I love rugby league,” she says – it’s perhaps not surprising that she also chairs New Zealand Rugby League’s Upper Central Zone board, covering some 44 clubs across the Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Coastline and Gisborne districts. Accounting once again opened the door, as the then-chairman was looking to bring an accountant onto the board as well as introducing much-needed gender diversity.

“The thing that opens the doors is the accounting qualification. The fact that I [am] chartered is what gives me credibility. Experience does, but it always comes back to what technical skills do you have … that’s why I’m so grateful for Dawn, for pointing me in that direction,” Moana-Tuwhangai says.

The thing that opens the doors is the accounting qualification. The fact that I [am] chartered is what gives me credibility.
Maxine Moana-Tuwhangai FCA

Future choices

“Do something you enjoy, do something that can support a family, and do something that can help others,” is the career advice Moana-Tuwhangai was given. And helping others – be it in health, education or local government – is the thing that she finds most rewarding about her various roles. Moana-Tuwhangai is also concerned about the loss of the Māori culture. “I believe we’re always one generation, may two, away from losing our culture because if our children don’t learn our ways, their children may not be taught them either,” she warns.

At some stage, a return to her Mokai Kainga marae in Kawhia is likely. But that is still a few years away. First Moana-Tuwhangai is “looking for something challenging, something to get my teeth into” in governance, and possibly on the board of a government agency. 

Helen Ozolins is Acuity’s deputy editor based in Wellington.

Photographs: Peter Drury