Business Leaders

Mavis Mullins – from the shearing shed to the boardroom

The Bay’s own Mavis Mullins has been inducted to New Zealand’s Business Hall of Fame, adding to the already long list of her accomplishments in the nation’s corporate sector. Hawke’s Bay born and bred, the self-described country girl has left a lasting impression on a world she never intended to inhabit.

“I have to say ending up where I have wasn’t by design,” she said. “It has been a bit of a collision of a number of things. They say that timing is the key to everything.”

“When I first turned my hand to a higher education, I enrolled in an arts degree at Victoria University, but I didn’t last – primarily because I met this good-looking shearer.”

So how did Mavis go from the shearing sheds in Dannevirke to the boardrooms of Auckland?

Her first job was working for the family business as a wool handler, this was where Mavis got here business grounding, saying “it was honest, real work”.

“It was long days hot grubby, grimy work working with a group of people tasked to

do a job, but I learnt so many skills there particularly around communication and understanding people and how you bring people together.”

From wool handling to marrying the ‘good- looking shearer’ and starting a family, Mavis [eventually] made her way back to university – this time enrolling in a business degree at Massey.

Not only did she complete this degree, she attained her masters and has subsequently spent valuable time at California’s Stanford University.

But none of this wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t inherited the family business.

“Time spent at Massey University completing my MBA did more than open doors for me in the business world. It opened a lot of windows for in terms of my own self- awareness about what was out there.

While she may not have ended up in the business world by design, her want to succeed was very much fashioned by life experiences.

“As it so often does it comes back to your parents. I had a father who was innovative

and saw things that no one else could see. He was a shearer and a farmer so he had those big gnarly, rough hands that really exemplified that hard work can push you well ahead.

“And then I had my mother, who was the quintessential mum who made sure everybody had food and she was the real mother of old. So there was a whole lot of lessons about the power of a team.”

And then there were her beloved shearing sheds.

“If my parents gave me my grounding, my drive to succeed and initiate change came from my time in the shearing sheds. At the time there was a very low opinion of the work that was done in certain sectors of New Zealand and of the people who worked in them.”

She said this was a real wake-up call for her. Being a relatively new mum she said she never wanted any of her children, but especially her girls, to feel embarrassed or ashamed of the work they ended up doing in a sector that “butters our bread”.

“These workers were handling product that is worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the economy and at the time they were looked down on without any opportunity to have qualifications or endorsements, to have their work recognised. For me that just wasn’t right.

“Everything I have done since has grown from that and today I am still advocating for rural people, so they are not excluded from the conversation that shapes our country.”

Mavis says she is tested on a daily basis around the boardroom table – challenges that stem from often being the only Maori or the only woman, that she is somehow representative of a whole group of people.

“That is just not the way it is. People ask me if I feel under pressure for being the only woman on the board, I say no because at the end of the day we are all people and with each one of us comes a diversity of thought.

After decades in the business sector, Mavis now finds herself in the realm of professional directorships.

“Right now I chair the Taratahi Agricultural Training Centre in Wairarapa and the Post Government Settlement Entity for the Rangitane o Tamaki nui a Rua Incorporated, which is due for its final reading in Parliament.”

Mavis has also joined the Hawke’s Bay Rugby Union Board, saying yes to this because growing up with the Ranfurly Shield she knows firsthand how a sport such as rugby can benefit the whole community.

“I remember when the Magpies united the whole of Hawke’s Bay – it didn’t matter whether you were from Wairoa, Hastings or Dannevirke – everyone felt a part of it. I think we have lost a little bit of that over the years, and people don’t feel a part of it anymore” she said.

While boards across New Zealand are clamouring for her experience, she wouldn’t have such choice if it was not for her time at telecommunications provider 2degrees.

“I was one of the founding members that took the idea of a third mobile network to fruition. I then sat on the board that took it through that whole greenfield to strategy to implementation that was an amazing opportunity. It blew me away how much of an impact we had by just adding to the competitive environment.”

With her long list of accomplishments including winning the Golden Shears, being recognised with the New Zealand Order of Merit, celebrating 43 years of marriage and being inducted into the NZB Hall of Fame,

Mavis said her success came down to her approach.

“I think everybody brings something quite different whether it’s to a conversation or a view,” she said.

“The fact that I am a Maori-Irish-Chinese woman offers a somewhat different point of view, one that I brought to the table in a non-threatening way.

“I think I would like to be remembered as someone who was a part of the movement that bought this diversity to the table.”

With her wealth of knowledge, Mavis offered this advice to anyone starting out in business.

“Do something you are really passionate about, do something that you totally love because but it won’t bother you taking three steps forward and five steps back,” she says.

“Put yourself out there into challenging situations and learn to like being uncomfortable. I was often the only Maori or woman in a meeting and would question my being there – but I challenged this paradigm and everyone has been better off for it.”

To this day Mavis still calls the shearing sheds of her Dannevirke property home. “With all the service stuff I do there is something really grounding about coming back to small town New Zealand,” she says.

“Where scones and a cuppa are a reality and the people are genuine and friendly. Generations of my family were and still are being raised here. I don’t want to be anywhere else to be honest.”