‘No better time to be involved in the Pacific space’: Don Mann, PCF chief

Don Mann is the new Chief Executive of the Pacific Cooperation Foundation (PCF). 

PCF was launched by then Foreign affairs Minister Phil Goff in August 2003 as a non-governmental organisation under the umbrella of Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.  Its purpose, to facilitate information sharing about the Pacific through media and seminars, promote academic excellence through scholarships and engage in public/private sector economic development and socio-cultural initiatives in the Pacific region.

Mr Mann took over from Craig Strong in January, after Mr Strong returned to Fiji to become the permanent secretary for Ministry of Fisheries after a year at the PCF helm.

Pacific Periscope spoke with Mr Mann two days after his official welcome to PCF to get a picture of the direction of the organisation.

Meeting in PCF’s conference room the view overlooks The Cloud and Auckland City’s harbour.  It’s a stunning but familiar vista for Mr Mann, who was previously the Head of Corporate Partnerships with Auckland, Tourism, Events & Economic Development (ATEED), five floors above.

Mr Mann is of Māori descent – Tangata Whenua through his mother from Ngāti Ruapani and Ngāti Kahungunu.  His Tongan heritage comes through his father Don Snr who came to New Zealand in 1947.  He describes himself good naturedly as “haka/hula” – a reference to the Māori Haka, a war chant and the Hula, a dance well known in the Pacific.

As a Māori Tongan he says, “I’ve had the benefit of all that is good from Aotearoa.” His unique identity holding him in good stead.  Growing up, he spent time with his Māori whānau one week and his Tongan whānau the next.  It was something that continued on through until his late teens and early 20’s.

Adding to the picture, he says his Te Reo Māori language skills are “passable” (he attended St Stephen’s School, a boarding school for Māori boys and has completed a Te Reo Maori language course) He’ll also give his Tongan language a boost with evening classes in Tongan language and culture at Manukau Institute of Technology.

When asked about the leadership qualities that won him PCF’s top post, he is reluctant to use the usual buzzwords.  “A kumara doesn’t speak of its own sweetness,” he says with a laugh.  But as a newly appointed CE, still adjusting to his new role, conscious of the power of words, his replies are thoughtful and deliberate.

With 14 years in the New Zealand Police, 14 years as the General Manager Commercial with the Vodafone Warriors and then a four-year stint with ATEED under his belt, his career achievements speak for themselves.

Along the way, he took his best advice from his Dad.

“Worry about yourself first and get your own backyard in order,” he said.

Don’s induction into PCF included a meeting with his Board to be clear about the strategy and work programme.  Understanding and articulating a way forward alongside other Pacific focused organisations.

Through his role at ATEED he navigated his way through by listening, building relationships and forming partnerships,

“I’m used to the space of overlapping strategic pillars.  I don’t see it as a major issue,” he says.

Instead steering the organisation toward areas where they can make a difference. “Staying in our lane” and working with other organisations including PTI NZ, MFAT, Business Councils and other stakeholders to make a difference is a recurrent theme throughout the interview.

Despite the size of the organisation with seven staff members, he believes they can make a big impact.

“The remarkable thing is we have the ability to have an exponential impact with a relatively small team.”  Through meaningful interventions Mr Mann believes they can amplify and carry on the quality work already started by others.

“I can think of no better time to be involved with an organisation like PCF…or any organisation involved in the Pacific space,” referring to the current Government’s Pacific Reset programme.

“It’s not going to be the gospel according to PCF” he says. Rather, about listening and partnering with others and allowing communities and individual pathways to self-determination and prosperity within their own beliefs.

Another part of PCF’s work is building Iwi (Maori tribal groups) and Pacific Island partnerships.

The recent TDB Advisory Iwi Investment Sector Report 2018 released this month showed the combined wealth of New Zealand’s Maori Iwi (Tribal) groups rose by $1.2 billion in the past year to almost $9billion.  The financial performance of the eight largest Iwi, represented $5.5billion of the total asset base.

Maori Iwi are significant players in the New Zealand economy, Mr Mann says.

“There’s a clear opportunity to share knowledge from the iwi entities that operate in a corporate setting whilst holding true to tikanga Māori or cultural protocols,” he adds.

Growing investment and trade relations with the Pacific is not new, acknowledges Mr Mann. But PCF has an opportunity to create a platform and space for connection and knowledge sharing for partnering and collaboration. For now, Mr Mann’s focus is outward facing stakeholders, building platforms in the region with MFAT’s presence, going out to the Pacific rather through a keyboard.

“Kanohi ki te kanohi”, in English – face to face – it’s how he’s always operated.  And how the Pacific operates.

Family are also a big influence in his life and he’s very proud of them.  His wife Louise is with the New Zealand Police in Wellington.  His two daughters, Sarah (25) is a law and Maori graduate from Victoria University, Olivia (23) holds a Commerce and Science degree from Auckland University.

Don is part of the Mann Family, well-known, respected members of New Zealand and Tongan League communities.  His father Don Senior played for the New Zealand Kiwis in the World Cup in 1972.  He himself is a Rugby League stalwart and was part of the Warriors Management team.  Whilst his brother Duane Mann, a Warriors Player and a NZ Kiwis representative.

His family ties to Tongan Rugby League goes back to 1985, when, intent on forming a representative Tongan Rugby League team, his late Uncle George Mann approached the then King of Tonga to sanction its formation.  His Uncle George then went on to become the founder of Tongan Rugby League’s Mate Ma’a Tonga (MMT).  For his late Uncle George, it was more than Rugby League.  It was about creating a sense of identity and embracing prosperity. Fulfilling their dreams of going to Australia, New Zealand.  Rugby League, the conduit.

Mr Mann’s experience with the Warriors and the impact the organisation has had on changing people’s lives through empowerment has had a lasting influence.

“I think of Leadership and action and what’s possible.”  witnessed through his Father, Uncle, Mother and family.  With a little of that stardust in his style, Mr Mann is set to steer PCF into new waters.