Building a good business: The Pacific Stonemason
He's worked on some of Auckland's finest homes, but Lemeki Tagi is most proud of the job he completed in the South Island port town of Lyttleton.
That's because the four-metre high retaining wall he and his team constructed there stood firm during the devastating Canterbury earthquakes. “I knew then I’d done everything right, that my work was good,” he says.
Lemeki is a stonemason who has his own business All Stone & Rock Ltd. He builds chimneys, walls, water features, pillars and paths; almost anything that can be built in stone. He’s based in Onehunga where he lives with his wife Sisilia and where the youngest of his seven children has just completed secondary school and is about to start university.
“I never planned to live in New Zealand,” Lemeki says, “but when I came here for the first time to visit my wife’s family, I loved it. The air was clean, the food was good, the people friendly and the place was peaceful.”
Lemeki grew up in Tonga, the second youngest of eight children. The family was poor and he’d do whatever work he could to put food on the table. “I remember I was 14 and I got my first job collecting coconuts – $5 for a week’s work. And I’ve basically been working ever since.”
It was while he was at high school on the island of Vava’u, head prefect in his final year, that Lemeki had the opportunity to go to American Samoa. He knew his father had family there and tracked them down. A few years later, in 1982, he was living there. “I did any work I could find. I worked on the fishing boats, stacking big fish off the mother ships. I’d go home at night stinking of fish. I had a lawn mowing business and I worked in security. I saved enough money to bring other family members to American Samoa for a better life and we all ended up living there including my parents.” But while the rest of the family eventually moved to the US mainland, Lemeki and Sisilia made Auckland their home. That was in 1996 and in 2000 they secured permanent residence.
Be honest, loyal, reliable, humble and hardworking. And work smart
“I was determined when I came to New Zealand not to rely on the government for hand-outs; that my success would come from my sweat,” Lemeki says.
Early on, he did labouring jobs and again, found work lawn mowing. But it was when he won a job with a stonemason that he spotted an opportunity.
“I was doing the lifting and carrying and mixing the cement, but I’d watch my boss very carefully, what he did and how he did it, and then I’d go home at night, read and study to learn even more.” Lemeki says he also learnt about looking after clients and keeping good records which proved valuable when, with Sisilia, he decided to start up his own business. He’s a good door-knocker, he’s not afraid to ring people up to ask for work or a referral, “and I started to get work, it slowly picked up, mostly by word of mouth,” he says.
He now has four permanent staff and brings in casuals if he needs to. His sons have also worked with him, and he hopes that once they complete their tertiary studies and their overseas missions for the church, they will bring their skills into the business.
Lemeki has a few simple rules for successful business. “Be honest, loyal, reliable, humble and hardworking. And work smart. Practise good time management, learn how to budget, and know what you want to achieve.”
Lemeki and Sisilia worked with a lawyer to set up the business, and while Sisilia takes care of the day-to-day paperwork, they also use an accountant to ensure everything is in order at year-end. “That’s the biggest challenge, money management,” Lemeki says, but he seems to be managing it well. He’s bought a house, gets to take holidays back in Tonga, and all of his children have been to visit family in California. He is also planning to invest in some new and better machinery for the business, to increase efficiency.
It’s quite an art, fitting all the stones together, rather like a puzzle. It’s also physically demanding and labour intensive. The satisfaction comes at the end, seeing a job well-done and knowing he’s leaving his customers happy.