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Democratising procurement for healthier communities

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This article was published on 11 July 2022

Callaghan Innovation is proud to sponsor once again the NZ Hi-Tech Kamupene Māori o te Tau – Māori Company of the Year award. Ahead of the awards announcements on 5 August, we’re checking in with the four finalists – AgriSea, Envico Technologies, Plink and Height – to find out how they’re making their mark as Māori innovators.

Procurement in construction and infrastructure is competitive, stringent, and complex.

Project management consultancy, Height, is using innovation to make procurement more equitable through offering project and procurement expertise to government agencies and companies. 

Led by their values, the company is demystifying the bidding and procurement process, saving companies millions, and creating better social and environmental outcomes for communities.

We hear from Height’s CEO Warner Cowin (Ngāti Porou), an ex-Air Force boy and engineer by trade who, alongside his wife Liz, decided to try out entrepreneurship in his late 30s.

Building team Height

After a few years in the corporate world and with a young family, Warner realised that he needed to have better flexibility of time, own his own situation and control his family's destiny. He saw a niche opportunity: contributing independent project expertise to major construction projects and complex tender and procurement contracts.  

In 2013, Warner and Liz decided to launch their business idea with a two year old and two-month-old baby in tow, so balancing business and whānau needs was always going to be at the core of their business model. They created Height, drawing on Warner’s engineering expertise and Liz’s complimentary HR experience.

“We just had to have trust in each other to take care of each side of things. Liz looked after the whānau, while I focused on getting the business off the ground. Starting out with that perspective really made us value flexibility in the workplace from the get-go,” says Warner.

Height’s core purpose is building relationships and creating mana, while their mission is to democratise procurement to make contract opportunities equitable and available for all. 

“We want to expand access to government contracts from corporate entities to include small businesses, Māori businesses, local businesses, minority-owned businesses, veteran-owned businesses and more,” says Warner. 

Height not only helps businesses win government contracts but also support them to be financially sustainable in delivering them - while concurrently helping government agencies to open up to a market that has not yet been corporatised.

They have now grown to a team of 27, offering a full suite of management expertise including bidding, procurement, sustainability, communications and design. In growing the team, the focus has been on providing flexible working arrangements that empower people to reach their potential both at home and in the office.

“When we started hiring staff, we were really wanting to appeal to parents and in particular from Liz and my experience, mothers returning to the workplace. You see it all the time that Mums organise their whānau at home, and then bring that same logistical capability to work with them.”

We’ve also hired eight ex-military personnel. So, between the engineers, mothers and veterans, we have a mixture of creativity, empathy, discipline and structure – which really is our secret sauce” says Warner.  

Leading their organisation with values is also a reason they’ve been such a success. Warner says creating vulnerabilities and strengths through storytelling – both positive and negative – linked to their values is absolutely essential as a part of the workplace culture at Height.

At the core of it, it’s smart engineering

It is thanks to Height’s team diversity that the company began to look at project management in a different light.

“Without the diversity of perspectives in our team, we may have gone down the traditional hard edges and concrete route. The diversity within our team could identify a social dimension within the transaction of procurement – and this is truly what differentiates us as a business,” says Warner.

“For example, if you are looking to build a new subsection in Porirua, we think: how do we partner with Mana Whenua to create the best outcomes for the community? How can we create job opportunities for kids in the Porirua region? How do we restore the wairua of the streams? We’re looking at a piece of infrastructure and seeing the broader outcomes we can achieve by bringing a social dimension to it.”

Height now has a team of seven who focus solely on the implementation of broader social outcomes within projects.

“At the core of it, it is just smart engineering. Through good community design, we can encourage kids to attend school, enable access to livelihoods through infrastructure or make a community feel safer through the use of good lighting and open spaces. Unlocking educational and economic potential within communities is our ultimate goal,” says Warner.  

They have also launched a Sustainable Outcomes Toolkit with Auckland Council, which is a free online guide to help businesses make decisions that lead to better social and environmental outcomes.

“It is our most low-tech offering, but it can be the most impactful. We really want to empower people and business to innovate to solve community problems,” says Warner.

Why Māori bring another dimension to project management

As a culturally driven organisation, focused on improving outcomes for Māori and Pasifika communities, Height brings a different perspective to project management. 

“Māori bring another dimension to project management. If you look at a road maintenance contract with a Māori business, they’ve got to maintain the road, but they also are connected to kaumatua who work near those roads.

So immediately, it adds a social dimension because kaumatua are connected to the communities that the road maintenance is serving. The ability to connect with communities in a different way is a huge advantage.”

Warner says that applying a te ao Māori lens to work enables them to see opportunities that others might not.  

“In construction, you can provide opportunities to discuss mātauranga Māori with Mana Whenua, which brings a cultural narrative.”

Ultimately, Height’s aspiration is to work with Māori contractors to deliver big contracts to government agencies. They’re now looking at how they can build up this ecosystem to reach that goal.

“We’re also looking to grow our digital tools so that we offer products rather than a service. But in doing so, our purpose will always stay front of mind – which is democratising procurement and unlocking potential within communities,” says Warner.