“True leadership is about servitude.” So says Mark Solomon, the 2012 Designworks Visionary Leader of the Year. rangatira worthy of the title is, he believes, servant of the people. As kaiwhakahaere (chairman) of the commercially and socially successful South Island iwi authority Ngai Tahu, Solomon is dedicated to living this model and personal belief.
Solomon was picked from relative obscurity as trustee of his Kaikoura Runanga in 1995 to become its representative on the South Island’s overarching Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu. Just three years later, in September 1998 and just few days after the tribe’s original settlement with the Crown, he was appointed chairman, job he has held for 14, often politically tempestuous, years.
Solomon is humble, compassionate but simultaneously astute leader. His articulation of cooperative, sustainable and culturally attuned vision of the future, and not just for Ngai Tahu, has helped shape and advance the renaissance of Maori enterprise and society.
His success comes by dint of dedication and self learning. He was tapped for his job because individuals recognised his potential but he had to live up to promise and deliver. “He has done that in spades,” said this year’s Top 200 Awards judges.
On the commercial side, the investment returns coming from Ngai Tahu’s substantial business activities are outstanding. But while commercial success is critical, from Solomon’s and Ngai Tahu’s perspective business success is simply the means by which to secure the financial, cultural, physical and emotional wellbeing of future generations. “My dream for our people is simple: to be culturally strong, healthy and happy,” he said recently.
Solomon believes Ngai Tahu must act as guardian of “set of values handed down by our ancestors. For us and our children after us we invest our time and collective resources in initiatives that will create opportunities to enhance intergenerational wellbeing of Ngai Tahu whanau and grow our communities into the future.”
Solomon’s vision of what Maori might achieve by working cooperatively led him, with the backing of the Maori Queen Dame Te Ataarangikahu, in 2005 to invite other tribes to establish an Iwi Chairs forum which now meets four times year to discuss issues of common interest.
At settlement there were just 15,000 identified members of Ngai Tahu. Today it is powerful affiliation of 50,000 that exists because of the tribe’s success and because of what it is doing for its people.
The success of Ngai Tahu’s operating model owes much to Solomon’s overriding concern for people and his commitment to distributing funds.
The tribe aims to share out between four and six percent of its net asset value each year. Last year it distributed $22.6 million on an operating net surplus of $37.3 million. The rest was held for reinvestment. In the past 12 years, Ngai Tahu has distributed $227.9 million: $57 million more than the total Crown settlement, with group assets now well over $800 million.
Solomon sees iwi capital investment as an increasingly essential component of the New Zealand economy. The New Zealand business community, however, still struggles to comprehend the scope and scale of this growing capital base.
Unlike some enterprises, Maori investment trusts are not leaving New Zealand. They are firmly wedded to the country’s future and Solomon understands why there cannot, therefore, be disconnect between Maori and the rest of New Zealand. “He is unquestionably one of the most constructive players involved in trying to deliver positive, fair and enlightened future for New Zealand,” the judges added.
“Solomon is highly principled and committed to protecting the longer term interests of all New Zealanders. He never loses sight of the need for sustainability of the profitable parts of Ngai Tahu’s business activities. He articulates vision that New Zealand is potentially strong because it has all the positive features of diversity, cultural understanding and the environmental attributes needed to survive in the future.”
Under his guidance Ngai Tahu has also managed to successfully merge very complex traditional Maori governance structures with state-of-the-art governance structures to run its commercial operations. There is much business organisations generally can learn from that. M

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