29 Oct 2022

Steve Saunders: 'Culture eats strategy any day of the week'

From Māpuna, 12:45 pm on 29 October 2022

Why are American food producers choosing to work with a robotics company based in Tauranga?

Partly because of a strong company culture founded in Māori values like manakitanga [hospitality] and kaitiakitanga [guardianship of the environment], says Steve Saunders (Ngāi Te Ahi and Ngāti Ranginui).

The co-founder and CEO of Robotics Plus was named 'Outstanding Business Leader' at this week's Māori Business Leaders Awards.

Steve Saunders, CEO of Robotics Plus

Steve Saunders, CEO of Robotics Plus Photo: Robotics Plus

"[The Americans] said 'a lot of the other [robotics companies] don't listen and you guys listen. We liked your relationship/partnership approach.' Even me as a CEO, I come from the whenua and really understand [agriculture]. That connection was really powerful," he tells Julian Wilcox.

In a fast-changing business environment, a strong company culture empowers workers with a sense of identity and belonging, Steve says.

"Culture eats strategy any day of the week."

Māori people inherently understand the value of culture-building, he says.

"The key things that Māori are really good at are culture, relationships, courage and self-belief that you have to have to go out and take on the world. We have that spades. The final piece for me always is being a great storyteller, which we're really great at."

"Sometimes you've got to go out and tell a really great story to get people to believe in where you're going. And once you get that belief then things happen. That's always been my motto … it's being able to tell the story, the differences you want to make. That belief actually helps you to be successful."

Since Māori scientist Hemi Rolleston "dragged [Steve back] into the fold" of Māoridom in 2013, he's met a lot of inspirational leaders.

But he's also excited by rangatahi [young people] like 16-year-old Georgia Latu (Kai Tahu, Ngāpuhi) – CEO of the world's largest poi manufacturer and winner of this year's Young Māori Business Leader Award.

''The young are really connected to what's happening in the world and really care about a lot of things," Steve says.

"They don't need crusty role models like me anymore. They just need people that listen to their aspirations and give them the ability to live those dreams out.

''We need to listen to our rangatahi [young people] more to empower them and help them with their dreams and ambitions."

To remind himself of where he came from, Steve keeps a payslip from his first job after leaving school at 17 – he made $3.18 an hour for sweeping floors and potting plants. 

So how did that kid become an agritech entrepreneur tackling really complex global problems?

Steve says he's always listened closely, paid attention, taken risks and – crucially – kept his focus on the future.

"Today already happened, you can't change it … so you've got to get off dwelling on what was as opposed to what can be."

Steve Saunders says his goal for Robotics Plus is to help the agriculture industry remain sustainable in the face of environmental and labour pressures.

READ - Tauranga firm's robot cut above rest at US agri-tech event

Tauranga-based Robotics Plus' hybrid vehicle was showcased at the FIRA agricultural robotics event in California.

Tauranga-based Robotics Plus' hybrid vehicle was showcased at the FIRA agricultural robotics event in California. Photo: Robotics Plus