Simon Phillips

Commerce and Maori Business specialist, Champion of Rugby League and true present day Maori warrior

- Story by Tony Cutting

Simon is one of those people who make you smile every time you meet with them.  He is a natural when it comes to relationship building.  Simon’s current career path is multifaceted and includes roles as the acting Director for Regions for NZ Maori Tourism, sitting on the board for NZ Rugby League and a trustee for Parihaka Papakainga Trust.

This husband of a passionate Aussie (Leesa) and father of two growing boys has had a very interesting journey to date.

Kick starting life in Taranaki
Born in Hamilton, Simons Mum (Pakeha) and Dad (Maori) moved to Hawera when he was 6 months old. His parents were entrepreneurs always involved in businesses, whether that would be retail, hospitality or farming and Simon credits much of his business interest to those memories of family business interests in the early days.

He attended Ramanui primary school, followed by Hawera Intermediate and then a shift to Opunake meant attending Opunake High.  In his early years he was the sort of kid that would stick up for himself which meant he did not back down when there was trouble, he was a tough kid and proud warrior when he had to be.  Initially he did not get on with the “Surfing crowd” or “local Maori kids” and he’s first to admit it was more him than them – we both laugh after I ask what other crowds were there to get on with in Opunake?

Life changing decisions
Simon’s father was a major influence in his life and throughout his childhood Simon made some decisions that, upon reflection, weren’t ideal.  One particular decision, when Simon was 11, was to change their relationship for, what seemed like, forever.  

His Dad was very disappointed in Simon, and the previously strong, very close relationship took a massive hit – one that would take Simon nearly 18 months of working hard on the family farm to finally get back his fathers respect.  “This was possibly the toughest 18 months of my life”.

Wesley College
From an early age Simon the warrior was a strong rugby player so when an opportunity came up for him to board at Wesley College, it was too good not to take. “I remember the day I left for Wesley well, I can still recall the tears in Dad’s eyes”.

Wesley was a shock for Simon who moved there in his fifth form year, he had never even met a Pacific Islander before and here he was at a College where over 33% of the students were Pasifika.  There was a large number of kids now his age and older who were as strong and often bigger.  There was also a pecking order, which started when the teachers were not around, Prefects ruled the school, he learnt quickly that he would need to change some of his old (not so good) habits after having a run in with a 7th former during lunch.  Albeit he was in the First XV squad the pecking order still applied.

However, Chris Grinter Deputy Principal and the first XV coach would become a strong mentor and supporter of this tough guy. Chris instilled belief into Simon and taught him he could achieve anything he wanted. 

This Wing/Fullback who could kick goals knew what he wanted - to become a professional sportsman.

Rugby then Rugby League
After College, Simon returned home with a burning desire to become a professional Rugby or Rugby league player.  He played for Eltham Rugby Club for two seasons but admits he got frustrated with the 10 man style they played. He believed his confrontational style of game would be best suited to League.

He took opportunities to play in Wales for two years before returning home. He was now 19 and after reading through loads of Rugby League opportunities in “Rugby League Week” he ventured to the Gold Coast (Aussie) where he started to learn more about the politics over there, like having to wait for seasoned veterans to retire before getting even looked at for top teams.

In 1994 he returned home and while working at the local freezing works he played for the Taranaki Rockets in the nation rugby league competition the ‘Lion Red Cup’. Another major change for him during this time was the introduction of gym work and pushing weights.  He grew from a 90KG fullback while on the Gold Coast to a 102KG bigger, stronger, but slower unit – moving into second row from the backs at this time.

Sydney and the NRL calling...
In 1995 he decided to give the NRL a shot and moved to Sydney to trial for the Bulldogs.  He learnt’ more about training and how to balance building muscle with building speed.  After three months prep work he was ready for the trials.  His first trial went very well but a damaged Achilles’ tendon put paid to him playing in the next trial and for the next few months. During this period the Adelaide Rams also lost their NRL licence and suddenly he also had to compete against a lot of seasoned professionals moving back to Sydney.  

The upshot being he ended up playing in the second tier Sydney competition for the Coogee Wombats.  They went on to win the competition that year with Simon kicking the winning goal in the final to take the score to 17-16.

France / UK Rugby and League
A French scout approached Simon and soon he was winging his way to St Esteve (Now part of the Catalan Dragons franchise) where he continued to enjoy success, winning the French first division final.

In the French off season he played rugby in the UK.  The following season an offer from Lyon Rugby League (a club with Taranaki contacts, which appealed to him) went sour with negotiations with St Esteve falling over due to transfer fees. Simon found himself back playing League in the UK for Hull Kingston Rovers and Rugby for Hull in the off season.

After 2 and half years with no breaks Simon decided it was time to get educated and start thinking about the rest of his life.  With both the blessing and disappointment of his coach he jumped on a jet and headed to Wellington. (This is where his parents now lived).

Victoria University – BCom and ‘The Hunters’
After some debate with his family, a cousin finally convinced him to go to Victoria University and take up a Commerce degree.  He started in 1998 and with great satisfaction finished in 2001 – with a Bachelor of Commerce & Administration (Majoring in Marketing)

During his study time he worked at the Victoria University gym as a trainer.

After some extensive research Simon and some league mates discovered that there were over 40 first grade Rugby league players playing mixed levels of rugby for the Old Boys / University Rugby Club and decided to establish the ‘Hunters Rugby league” club, building Victoria Universities ability to offer Rugby league to students coming in from outside the region while also establishing what is now one of Wellington’s most formidable Rugby league clubs.  

Simon is currently the Chairman Victoria University Hunters Rugby League Club.

A New Career
Simon left university into what he thought would be his ultimate job, he was appointed Executive Officer of Wellington Rugby League, but describes this 12 month contract as a rude awakening to what life is really like when you are working within an organisation that has much to do with little resources.

Following on from this contract he took up an opportunity with Lego (NZ) as an account manager and started to further develop his marketing and sales skills. 

A passion for sport still burnt inside him so he decided to complete a Broadcast Journalism course through the New Zealand Radio Training School.  This led to an opportunity to work for Firm FM Radio, working on sports roundup across all the major sporting codes.

Mrs Phillips fell pregnant and they decided they would move to Brisbane so they would be closer to Leesa’s family.

Working in Australia
The family stayed in Aussie for 5 years with Simon initially working as a Marketing Director for a post production company.  He then moved on to a role that he really excelled in as a Regional Account Manager for Oyster Bay Wines on the Gold Coast.

Simon had hit his sales groove and helped the business grow exponentially being part of a team that grew this business from a few hundred cases of wine per month to #1 provider of Sauvignon Blanc in the Australian market. His own efforts and ability to build strong, personal relationships by putting in long hours and hard work had helped to smash sales targets in his region in a short space of time.

However, Leesa knew Simon longed for a life back home in New Zealand and in 2008 they moved back to Wellington with their two sons.  He describes Wellington as “the greatest city on the planet” and he qualifies this statement with ”I have lived in a few”.

Wellington – and tapping into networks
“Wellington is a city which runs on networks” Simon returned and quickly picked up a four month contract in the Maori team of the Department of Corrections.

Incumbent Te Tai Tonga MP, Rino Tirikatene, then CEO of FoMA (Federation of Maori Authorities) suggested Simon come across and join the Maori Economic Development team and suddenly he found himself working in a space that really had some meaning for him.  Simon really enjoyed his time with FoMA and stated he still has a lot of respect for both the organisation and the people he worked for.  

In 2012 Simon’s itchy feet got the better of him and he found himself accepting an offer from NIWA, however still working to help Maori Economic Development through this organisation. 

Recently Simon accepted an offer with NZ Maori Tourism in a role as acting Director, Regions and is now looking to use his skills and experience to help Maori Tourism across New Zealand.

We ended our interview reflecting on the great history making win the Kiwi’s had over Australia in the weekend at the ‘Cake Tin’.  As we parted I pondered the thought – with people like Simon and clubs like ‘The Hunters’ (filled with highly educated League players with PHD’s and Masters qualifications) supporting the game, the future of the sport close to his heart was in very good hands, along with those businesses lucky enough to grab his attention.