Saia Latu has experienced enough ups and downs for several lifetimes. The man behind one of New Zealand’s most successful recycling companies – and the recently named Pacific business entrepreneur of the year – tells Justin Latif how he made it to the top.
Saia Latu’s life reads like a movie script.
Aged eight, his mother died of cancer, only three months after Latu had moved from Tonga into a humble state house in Māngere.
At 14, to help support his family, he quit Māngere College to work as a cleaner at Auckland Airport.
At 16, he found himself on the wrong side of the law after getting caught breaking into cars in Ōtara.
And at 21, despite running a successful security business, he was forced to fold after an ill-conceived investment turned sour.
But it was the death of his brother in a horrific car accident four years ago which had the biggest impact, putting him on a path that ultimately led to him becoming a leading specialist in recycling construction waste. His company TROW Group, one of the country’s largest deconstruction firms, finds innovative ways to repurpose hundreds of tonnes of building materials to be re-used for schools, social housing, community centres and churches across NZ and the Pacific.
And to confirm his incredible ability to turn a negative into a positive, he was named Pacific business entrepreneur of the year at the Pacific Business Trust awards this month.
Latu says the key to his success has been being able to mix an eye for an opportunity with a desire to help others. “My business philosophy is ‘do good for others’. Don’t be a business person, be a good person – with a business,” he says.
From bodybuilder to building wealth
It could have all turned out so differently. A tumultuous upbringing had him turning to petty crime as a teenager, and he credits legendary Ōtara youth worker Sully Paea for helping him change tack.
“Because my dad was never home I went to live with my sister in Ōtara, but then I got into trouble for breaking into cars. The police picked me up and they got me to see Sully. That’s what really saved me. Sully ran a gym, and I just started training, dieting and competing as a bodybuilder.”
Paea’s gym would also reveal to Latu the power of turning one man’s waste into another’s treasure. “Our gym gear was just made out of recycled rubbish. We’d pull shopping trolleys out of the Ōtara creek and use the wheels for our pulleys and attach them to bricks.”
Paea remembers Latu well. He says his leadership and entrepreneurial qualities were evident at a young age, but he’s still a little surprised how far he’s taken his talents.
“I’ve seen a lot of young people like him, with a lot of energy and passion, and so we just tried to offer him a positive place where we role modeled that you don’t have to go with a bad crowd. But to be honest, I was shocked to see how successful he’s become. Sometimes it’s the ones you least expect. But he’s done it – and it’s good for all of us.”
Latu’s interest in bodybuilding would also lead to his first foray in business. While working out, he caught the eye of a bouncer, who suggested Latu could do well in nightclub security. Despite being younger than the then legal drinking age of 21, he instantly felt at home in an industry that requires not only brawn but also the ability to diffuse a situation with a witty retort. His entrepreneurial skills soon kicked in and he began running his own company, managing a team of 20 who worked the doors of some of Auckland’s most prestigious bars.
“Because I was always thinking about ways to constantly improve, and because I’m a bit of a hustler, with no real education, I was constantly talking to people and hustling to meet smart people because they always rub off on you.”
One such savvy businessman was Wayne Clarke. He owned G.A.Y. bar on High St, along with a number of other bars around Auckland. Latu’s company began working at G.A.Y. and he says connecting with Clarke proved another fortuitous moment in his career.
“Wayne had a lot of big business people coming to his bar and I started talking to them and I started learning from them,” he says. “I learnt not just information, but also to feed off their energy. I learnt how business works, how the housing market worked, and I knew none of that stuff because I’d left school so early.”
By now Latu was earning thousands of dollars a week, but he admits he really didn’t know how to spend this cash wisely.
“Luckily I was never into drugs, or a big drinker, so I started looking into investing. This guy said, if you put money here, you’ll get a return, and I thought, ‘oh yeah’. Basically I trusted someone without doing due diligence and the venture failed and we all lost money and that’s why I had to fold it.”
It was around this time he also met his wife Julie. “I was a bit Dracula back then. I would sleep in the day, and work all night. But after meeting Julie, I decided it was time to settle down. I had to make a decision to give up the ‘sex, drugs and rock’n’roll’ or give up her, and I chose her.”
Latu picked up a job as a digger cleaner at an equipment hire branch in Onehunga. “I went from earring $3000 a week working at nightclubs, to earning minimum wage. That was a tough transition but I became the best digger cleaner ever.”
He not only mastered the cleaning role, but stepped into the manager’s role when his boss suffered an accident. He soon realised the branch was operating well below its potential.
“I took it from doing about $15,000 to about $100,000 a month. What I realised is that people coming in also needed help with operating the machines and advice on their projects. Just by improving our customer service people left really happy because we made sure they got everything they needed.”
By Latu’s mid-30s he was making six figures and holding a number of governance roles – including being the only non-Māori on a large iwi trust – and running several civil construction businesses. He says his success is largely down to one guiding principle: be indispensable.
“Everyone needs something and you’ve just got to find that need. In business, they need something to finish a project or they need something to make their business succeed. And if you can find that need, it doesn’t matter whether you’re brown, black, white or orange.”
Rebuilding after tragedy
Everything changed in 2016, when Latu’s brother smashed his car into a shop in Papatoetoe. The car hit a gas main and was engulfed in flames within seconds of impact.
At the time, “I was working 100 hours a week and I just loved what I did,” Latu says. “And then my brother passed. He got burnt alive in the car and I watched it on the news.
“You lose yourself a bit when something like that happens. So I went back to my roots by going back to Tonga. I realised I’d lost touch with my community, my faith and with myself. Money does that to you. I just never had time. But after he died, I sold all my assets to be able to invest in this deconstruction business to help my people in Tonga.”
Over the last four years his company TROW Group has repurposed almost 500 tonnes of building materials from five major Auckland Council projects and helped build schools and churches in his homeland.
Auckland Council’s senior waste planning advisor Mark Roberts first contracted TROW Group in 2016 to salvage and repurpose building waste from a small demolition project. Now the company is the council’s prime supplier of deconstruction and salvage services.
He says the professionalism of Latu and his team was obvious from the start. “He brings a yes attitude and he gets really excited about being innovative and trying new things.”
TROW Group is probably the largest and best equipped firm in New Zealand for such specialised deconstruction, salvage and resource recovery, Roberts says – a success that he credits to Latu’s skill at relationship building. “We learned quickly that Saia and Joe [Vagana, Latu’s business partner] have enormous contacts across south and west Auckland. It’s like they almost know everyone.”
The government-funded Pacific Business Trust (PBT) – which this month awarded Latu its entrepreneur of the year prize – recently helped TROW Group get its ISO certification, meaning the business can now secure large central government contracts with agencies like Kainga Ora.
PBT chief executive Pelenato Sakalia says Latu’s approach to business is a reflection of his personal values. “What makes TROW Group so unique is that they are such community driven people. They are one of the few businesses that I’ve come across that are always thinking ‘how can I turn this into an opportunity for my community?’,” he says.
“Supporting them was a no-brainer for us. To do what they do requires a lot of fearlessness and entrepreneurial flair. Working in the construction industry is not for the fainthearted – but to retain a heart for their community is amazing.”
TROW Group now has over 200 staff spread between Tonga and New Zealand, but Latu says endless growth has never been his aim.
“I feel no pressure to earn money as I started with no money,” he says. “What led to this was realising what our people needed and that I had to do something. My drive comes from feeling like I owe my family and I will always feel like I owe them.”
And his advice for other budding entrepreneurs? “Money shouldn’t be the main focus. Instead have faith in what you do, make sure you do good. Getting an education is important, but I also want kids to see that getting into business is also a way to help our people.
“Through business we can help families, our churches and our iwi. It’s through business we can make a real social impact.”