Fiona Wikaira could’ve been an accountant in Sydney, or a mathematician in Auckland.
But fate took her down a different career path to her dream job working for the benefit of Maori as Moana New Zealand’s Shellfish Operations Manager. “We travelled around a bit when I was younger,” she said.
“Dad is Maori and was in the New Zealand army, Mum is Scottish and was a nurse in the British army. They met and got married in Singapore.
“When they moved to New Zealand, we lived between both islands and spent time in Singapore. But Whakatane is where I did most of my schooling.
“In my final year of high school, my parents moved to Sydney. I moved with them but only lasted a month before I came back to Whakatane and finished school by myself.
“Sydney was a big culture shock. I found the concrete landscape claustrophobic and I missed the lifestyle and community in Whakatane where I could ride my bike to the river or the beach with friends.”
As well as surfing and playing tennis, Fiona excelled in high school and wanted to go on to university – but needed help in choosing a direction. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to go to university, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study so I applied for a different degree at every university in New Zealand and Sydney. From commerce and science, through to maths and engineering degrees.
“I left it up to the universe to decide what I should do.”
The universe ultimately delivered a scholarship from the Department of Scientific and Industry Research and an offer from the University of Auckland where she was the only M ori and one of few women to study a Bachelor of Engineering, with chemicals and materials.
“What appealed to me about it, was that you were able to go outside areas of traditional engineering. You could take your degree and go very broadly,” she said.
“For me, it’s been about understanding what’s going to drive efficiency gains, managing capital projects, process design etc.”
With a fresh degree, Fiona joined Unilever as a process engineer for their Abels refinery, before going on to learn from world leaders, Fisher and Paykel, whose manufacturing culture was 20 years ahead of the competition at that time.
From whiteware, she moved to beverages and spent nearly 15 years with Frucor in a range of roles encompassing, production, innovation and development, where she helped the company grow from a value of $26 million to $1.4 billion.
“I joined them at the start of their incredible growth journey – and it was a huge journey in terms of cultural change as well,” she said.
“I was responsible for all of our production and had a team of 160 people, a $140 million operating budget, and about $140 million capital expenditure budget.
“Our competitive edge was innovation. I was the Production Development Manager who had operational responsibility for all of our manufacturing lines which included the responsibility to set up capability and commercialisation of our new products. Frucor at the time would bring around 70 new products to market each year. This required new lines to be set up, capital investment, transfer marketing requirements, and R&D specifications.
“Some of the projects were firsts for the southern hemisphere.
“We produced ‘V’ and created the energy drink category in the process.
“Right from the start we were focused on people and setting up the right frameworks and culture and successfully lifted production engagement by 86 per cent.”
Much of her focus is on creating great work culture.
“It’s about creating great work environments and attracting and keeping great talent who do great things while they’re there and unleashing the latent potential that already exists within organisations,” she said.
“We delivered millions in operational improvements and significant capital projects that enabled growth, by creating great working cultures.”
From Frucor, Fiona went on to spend four years with EasiYO before getting shoulder tapped again by fate, to join Moana New Zealand (Moana) last year.
“While I was with Frucor, we did a lot of work around introspection and looking at what I wanted to achieve and who I wanted to work with. I knew then that I wanted to work with Iwi. I wanted to help ensure treaty settlements were being managed well for future generations and I felt I had experience that could help give back in that space. I wasn’t sure how I could do it, but it became very clear that this was the space I wanted to move into.
“And then I got the call. “I had never heard of Moana, until this role came to me serendipitously, through a phone call from a recruitment agency.
“I wasn’t even looking at the time, but I did some research and asked: Who is Moana? And the response I got was “we’re owned by all 59 Iwi as an entity set up to manage Maori fishery settlement assets. What we do makes a difference for Iwi as 40 per cent of the profit is returned directly to Iwi. You can come and use your experience to help us build a long-term sustainable business.
“And that really spoke to me.”
As Shellfish Operations Manager, Fiona oversees Moana’s Pacific oyster production, along with wild and farmed paua production and meal division.
“Effectively, it’s a similar journey to my other roles, and it’s about maximising asset base, improving our ROI through creating great teams,” she said.
“Prior to starting, I had no exposure to the industry so its been a very steep learning curve, but I’ve come up to speed over the past year and we’ve put forward a five-year plan.
“It’s really exciting what’s possible for us as an organisation. The business has set up a really strong foundation for us to leap forward. We’ve got a really exciting growth plan in the making.
“Moana has led the industry in terms of selective breeding and that is what we see as key to creating a premium product offering that is uniquely Moana. Innovation is a key focus.
“Our industry has evolved from a lot of smaller independent farmers and we haven’t seen the consolidation that we’ve seen in mussels, which provided the volume to really drive innovation.
“We’re looking at on-farm practices, leveraging partnerships better with science providers and looking globally at what other players are doing.
“We’ll be looking at driving innovation in farming and husbandry, improving environmental outcomes and attracting quality on-farm workers.
“What Moana is all about is maximising returns for Iwi.
“Our whole five-year strategy is looking to double our return on investment, and improving return to investors, but it’s also important how we ensure what we are doing is sustainable in the long term. It’s also around social outcomes for Maori, Iwi and communities and looking at how can we work with them to create job and enterprise opportunities. “ While Fiona has loved all her past roles, working for Moana is her dream job.
“The fact this is a Maori organisation is really important to me,” she said. “I’m learning about the history of our country through contextual application.
“It’s really complex with the number of stakeholders and I love the diversity and richness of the people I work with.
“I love the sea. I love kaimoana, and our products and the company align with my values.
“I’m not working for a big corporation. What I do makes a difference for my people.”