Remembering Rob Neru: An unexpected journey
It was another beautifully warm Wellington day, according to the Gregorian calendar, was the 20th of April 2016. It seemed that most of the conversations around the country centred on Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday. While at the global stage, the focus was two-days away, to the signing of the Paris Agreement at the United Nations, an agreement many say would save the world from climate change.
But that wasn’t the main topic for a large group that packed out St Theresa’s church in the Wellington suburb of Plimmerton on Thursday. It was all about Robert James Neru, and the shocking impact his sudden ‘unexpected journey’ had on them.
Rob, to his friends, was a young 46 year-old successful businessman who had just celebrated 12-months as boss for the crown entity, Pacific Business Trust (PBT). Some of Rob’s acquaintances wondered out loud, ‘why did a successful businessman decide to take up a salaried position in the public sector?’. That question is answered as the reader reads through this article.
For the many who were at St Theresa’s church, they each brought a piece of Rob’s life with them. Some of those pieces were shared out which, for the majority, helped explain the quirks, eye-brow raising decisions, passions and ways with which Rob interacted with them individually or as a group. It gave depth of realization to some, smile to faces in others but to all, the consensus that Rob was a very special person. A leader, a visionary, a fiercely loyal and loving family man, and one never imagined to go so early on this unexpected journey.
One of the insights shared by his mother, Joanne, gave a glimpse to what Rob meant to the Neru family.
Rob, she said was called “Number 1”, and she assured the audience it was not a generic or made up term.
“He was No.1 because he was my first born son,” she said. “He was also my parents first grandson after a longline of girls.
“Rob was my sisters and brothers’ first nephew, the first of many cousins to follow. That is why he was called ‘No.1’ or ‘Big Rob’. He was our family’s hero, the head of my family, my rock.”
She paused before revealing another personal heartbreak, “Rob was my father’s namesake. He also died too young, at only 38.” Rob was 46 when he collapsed suddenly and died last Friday, 15 April.
Another ‘Rob insight’ was revealed by Peseta Sam Lotu-I’iga, the government’s minister for PBT.
He talked about Rob’s new journey: to find his Samoan roots, to connect and understand better his Samoan heritage. Peseta’s revelation was actually one of the key reasons, a strategic move, why the successful businessman took up a salaried public sector post. It wasn’t for the money or status. It was the start of a pathway to fulfill a vision aimed at a coveted personal and spiritual destination.
“Like so many of us, raised in New Zealand, Rob was searching for a connection to his Pacific heritage. Searching for a way to connect with his Samoan heritage,” Peseta believed based on meetings and conversations he had with Rob over the past 12 months.
It was November 2014 that this writer met up with Rob through a meeting organized by Zechariah Reuelu. We got together to explore a prospective platform for Pacific people in New Zealand.
At our first meeting, we were overly excited that we talked over each other. We were so in-sync that we didn’t know where the pause button was. It took a while for each of us to reach equilibrium but when we did, we found a shared vision and passion. Both were on a mission to help Pasifika peoples become economically self-reliant, thrive, skilled, sought after, contribute positively to New Zealand and their home countries; and to rediscover and celebrate their unique Pacific heritage and history.
We also had a platform that was limitless in its application, and to make it viable was where Rob would come in. It was perfect timing as Rob felt at that particular point in time, with his latest business venture, Advantage4me, felt he had achieved all the business goals he set himself. Yes, right back to the very beginning when he started his vacuum cleaning business with a bank overdraft.
His business at the time, Advantage4me, was boomingly successful and self-running that he was no longer needed to head it. He was now free and desperately wanted to find out “how can I become useful, how can I give back to ‘my’ Pacific community,” he said.
The new aspiration was more than doing it for the greater good. It was about filling the huge void he’s always felt deep in his being, the calling from his spirit to find his Samoan heritage and identity. With no more business goals to keep the void at bay, his need to find his Samoan roots gushed to the surface.
He needed to find an organic connection to the Pacific community here in New Zealand, and work his way through to Samoa by building relationships and contacts along that pathway. Bear in mind that Rob had always been involved with the Pacific community. With his interest in rugby, it was no surprise he was the longest serving executive on the Wellington Samoan Rugby Union Board. He was a stalwart supporter and friend of Namulauulu Alama Ieremia and President Ken Ah Kuoi. And on top of that, he was always on the look-out to help with Pacific events.
Rob saw the Pacific Guardians platform we were working on as that organic bridge to Samoa. It was developing well but challenges kept cropping up. Then, in February 2015, his earlier application for the CEO position at PBT came through. A phone call from Auckland said he was one of the short-listed applicants and is he still interested. Our Pacific Guardians team fully supported he take up the opportunity, as it can help both of us if he scored the job.
For those who knew Rob, they would agree he had no fear, plenty of ‘guts’ and an abundance of single-mindedness. It must also be said that the PBT board must have a lot of ‘guts’ to take Rob on as it would have meant subscribing to a complete makeover in how the organization had operated over the past 30 years.
But Rob’s ultimate aim was never blurred or blunted. PBT was the starting blocks for the journey to his Samoan heritage. That could not be better illustrated than at PBT’s 30th anniversary celebrations last year. Rob started his address in the Samoan language.
To do that required a Samoan warrior’s courage. That same fearless excitement to explore and conquer that Rob’s ancestors had some 3,000 years ago when they set sail into the Pacific Ocean and settled Polynesia’s 10million square miles of ocean without navigational equipment. One of mankind’s greatest feats achieved through natural instincts, unparalleled navigational knowledge of the stars and recognition of environmental signage on the ocean highways.
Alas, on that warm and balmy Wellington day, Rob’s journey seemed to have ended like that of Moses – able to see the promised land but not set foot in it.
But that is not the case with our Rob.
Our gift to the departed warrior is to safely take his spirit to the destination he so coveted: He set out to discover what is a Samoan? If his journey was successful in life, Rob would have found this at the destination.
I am not an individual
I am an integral part of the cosmos
I share divinity with my ancestors, the land, the seas and the skies
I am not an individual, because I share a “tofi” (an inheritance)
with my family, my village and my nation
I belong to my family and my family belongs to me
I belong to my village and my village belongs to me
I belong to my nation and my nation belongs to me
This is the essence of my sense of belonging
These are the reference points that define who I am,
and they are the reference points of other Samoans
By Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi