- Award-winning company director Traci Houpapa recently joined the CA ANZ board.
- She believes directors should bring their whole selves to the table, to fully represent stakeholder constituencies.
- Her Māori whakapapa has given her a strong appreciation for the wisdom and relevance of Indigenous thinking in business.
When Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand’s newest board member Traci Houpapa considers where her interest in business and finance came from, it stems from her childhood in King Country, New Zealand.
“I grew up on a sheep and beef farm,” she explains. “This was the beginning of my business experience because my mum and dad owned and ran the farm. On Thursdays and Fridays, my mother would do the accounts and my father would give all the shepherds and farm staff a little brown envelope with their wages. We always used to ask, ‘what’s in the brown envelope, dad?’, and he’d say, ‘that’s pay’.
“Our mother used to put a little biscuit into a brown envelope and, at the end of the session, our dad would say, ‘right, Traci, here’s your pay’. He’d give me a little brown wage envelope and I’d eat my biscuit out on the steps. So, from a young age, I always understood the exchange of products and services for monetary value, and I suppose that’s really guided my life.”
A serendipitous career path
Pictured: Businesswoman Traci Houpapa photographed in New Zealand’s North Island town of Cambridge. Image credit: Ruth Gilmour.
Houpapa didn’t set out with a C-suite and boardroom career in her sights. Instead, a range of jobs – from tour guide to wool handler – provided varied on-the-job experiences.
“There were probably 4000 people in Taumarunui, so it was very small, very rural, very country,” she says. “You had to make do. The pathway that my career has taken has, in many ways, been because I’ve been given options or been approached by people who have said to me, ‘Traci,we’d like you to sit on this board, or we would like you to come and work for us’ and I’m deeply grateful for that.”
She says those early jobs taught her the value of a good, strong work ethic and how to engage with different kinds of people.
“Being able to work with people on their farms or in their forests or in their businesses – as an employee or as an advisor or consultant – made me realise how important the equation of people and assets and interests are, alongside vision and value,” Houpapa says. “I often roll that around in my brain, especially these days when we’re chairing companies and organisations that are really coming up against that whole resilience factor and how we adjust and flex according to external impacts beyond our control.”
Houpapa is always keen to seize an opportunity and says she’s hardwired to say yes first, then make things happen. “If it gets to no, it will be because I’ve exhausted every opportunity to say yes,” she says.
That’s not to say she’s immune to self-doubt. “Sometimes in the early stages of my career the imposter in me would say, ‘you don’t know what you’re talking about’, or ‘you’re not ready’. But I trusted that these people who were way more successful and advanced in their careers and in their businesses – and as people and leaders – knew what they were talking about. They saw something in me, so I trusted their belief in me.”
Bringing culture into business
Houpapa’s whakapapa (genealogy) is German- Croatian, Irish, Scottish and Māori, and she and her whānau (family) attended Māori land meetings when she was a child. In her directorships, she brings a keen sense of the value of community and Indigenous culture in business.
“The Māori economy is burgeoning and it’s now recognised that we own some of the most successful businesses and enterprises in the country,” she says. “How we manage our reporting and what we measure for each of those enterprises and entities is increasingly important: balancing our cultural values alongside ESG (environmental, social and governance) and ensuring we’re profitable.”
The Māori culture of putting people first meshes well with a consumer-led market. “How do we deliver for our consumers or customers or clients? What do they want? And how do we engineer our businesses appropriately, in order to meet that market need and demand? That’s fundamentally Indigenous thinking,” Houpapa says.
Her first board role began in 2000 on the family-owned property Te Uranga B2 Inc, a founding member of FOMA (Federation of Māori Authorities), where she would eventually serve as the organisation’s chair. She sees the role of company director as one which requires people to bring their full selves to the table, with all their personal and professional experiences.
Houpapa says boards should reflect a constituency: whether that’s a community group, shareholders or members.
“Boards need to have richness for discovery, discussion and debate at the table, so that we land in a place where we might best advise on strategies that meet the needs of our people,” she says.
Addressing the gender pay gap
CA ANZ’s 2022 research on the gender pay gap – and how it starts from day one, rather than when women take a career break – strikes a chord with Houpapa.
“The gender pay gap really starts even earlier: in our education system, where we are training women to accept less and it’s not OK,” she says. “Many of our business owners and leaders have daughters. They should ask themselves whether it’s OK to pay somebody’s daughter less, just because she’s a woman.”
“Many of our business owners and leaders have daughters. They should ask themselves whether it’s OK to pay somebody’s daughter less, just because she’s a woman.”
Houpapa has been part of board meeting discussions, where people have said the gender pay gap is too hard to address, or the company simply can’t afford to fix it.
“Boards need to be brave and do the right thing,” she says. “They need to tell their chief executives their new KPIs (key performance indicators) for the year ahead includea strategy and implementation of a plan to address the gender pay gap. It should be linked to the leadership team’s annual KPIs and bonuses.
“You have champions in Australia and we have champions for change here in New Zealand, so we’re seeing real allies standing up on these important issues. The next step is activation and implementation. That’s my challenge to everyone.”
Accountants leading change
Houpapa currently serves on boards as diverse as the National Advisory Council for the Employment of Women, New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, and the Chiefs Rugby Club. She was attracted to serving with CA ANZ because she feels wealth and wellbeing are critical for strong economic growth, and says CA ANZ and its members have a really important role to play in helping transform infrastructure and systems.
“We still need to run our businesses; we still have compliance obligations and regulatory responsibilities. And on top of that, there is this big wave of what’s good for humanity and how we deliver on that to people and the environment, across countries and cultures,” says Houpapa. “My sense is CAs need to step into that role and the design thinking.
“I was reading the CA ANZ documents and the annual reports from the last few years. What came through overwhelmingly is a sense of change and active participation in resetting strategy commercially and for communities. And I think that’s cool.
“It feels like we’re on the edge of doing some neat things at the right time in history. Right now, level heads, good leadership and people who care about people are really needed, and it feels like I’m joining a board that’s like that.”
Words to live by
When thinking about the advice that has guided her, Traci Houpapa points first to Doreen Chase.
“She’s passed away now and she was hugely influential for me; her wisdom was a significant change point in my life. ‘Aunty Dor’ would say to me, ‘Traci, no one’s taken your rangatiratanga [self-determination] away from you.
You were born with it. The more you use it, it’s like a muscle: it grows’. “That kind of ancient Māori wisdom wrapped into a professional context is a good true-north marker for me.”
Another key influence was Harry Kereopa, a kaumatua (elder) from Tainui waka.
“He always used to say to me, ‘the most important thing in life is aroha mo te tangata’ [empathy for mankind and for humanity]. When I was younger, I didn’t think about it that much but now these drivers are critical to sustainable, profitable business and also to how we navigate our way through these challenging times.”
Bio in brief
NAME Traci Houpapa
LOCATION Hamilton, New Zealand
EDUCATION MBA from Massey University
Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand; Chiefs Rugby Club (Hamilton); New Zealand Trade and Enterprise; Te Arawa Group Holdings; Australia New Zealand Leadership Forum (ANZLF) policy group; Hineuru Holdings Limited; OTPP New Zealand Forest Investments Limited; National Advisory Council on the Employment of Women; FOMA (Federation of Māori Authorities); Massey University Council; New Zealand Ministry Foreign Affairs and Trade; Public Service Commission.
Named one of the top 10 most influential women in New Zealand agribusiness; one of the Listener’s top 10 influencers in New Zealand; winner of the Westpac Fairfax Media Women of Influence Board and Management award; on Westpac’s New Zealand Women Powerbrokers list; awarded the Massey University Distinguished Alumni Service Award for services to New Zealand agribusiness and Māori; one of the BBC’s 100 Most Influential Women in the World; member of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
Chartered fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Directors; justice of the peace; marriage celebrant.