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Ceiling-breaker signals exit

Saturday 17 December 2022 | Written by Derek Fox | Published in Features, Local, National

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Ceiling-breaker signals exit
CEO Vaine Nooana-Arioka - SUPPLIED/22121613

I don’t think young Vaine Nooana spent time as a child dreaming about one day running her country’s bank. But as the eldest of a family of five, she did have a sense that her parents had expectations of her and, that in time she needed to live up to them, writes Derek Fox.

And that is exactly what happened. Since her balmy early school days in Hastings, New Zealand, Vaine has grown up, got the required qualifications, married (she’s now Vaine Nooana Arioka) and has spent the last 25 years in the banking sector. Twenty of them have been in management roles, and since 2008 she’s been the chief executive/managing director of the Bank of the Cook Islands.

Vaine has fond memories of growing up in sunny Hawkes Bay. Although she was actually born in Rarotonga, like many others, her parents decided to move to New Zealand for better opportunities. Unlike other families though, they bypassed the bright lights of south Auckland, and headed instead to Hastings, where her mum already had family, and where there is a substantial Cook Islands population to this day.

Her dad was a builder, and in what is one of the fruit bowls of New Zealand, she remembers the family supplementing their income and saving for a deposit on their first home, by picking fruit. She didn’t mind picking kiwifruit, but wasn’t so keen on all the back-testing bending over required to pick asparagus.

At school, one of her favourite subjects didn’t immediately suggest a future in banking. She just loved woodwork, creating things with her hands.

After primary and intermediate schooling in New Zealand, the family returned to the Cook Islands and Vaine enrolled at Tereora College. While she enjoyed her time away, she enjoyed coming back to Rarotonga even more. Her parents settled back into Cook Islands life, her father became an Orometua, and her mum for many years was ‘Mama Rangi’ at Te Aponga Uira (TAU). They have since retired to their beloved home island of Mitiaro.

But back to that career as a banker.

By the 1990s Vaine’s parents desire that she become a professional - like an accountant for example, and her sense of responsibility and obligation, began to bear fruit. In 1996 she graduated with a Bachelor of Business (Accounting) degree from Central Queensland University. At the time she was working as the Accountant at the  Cook Islands Development Bank. Back then the Cook Islands government had a fledgling banking system, with a Development Bank making loans to develop the country, and a savings bank, which in reality was an arm of the Ministry of Finance. Later they would merge to become the Bank of the Cook Islands. (BCI)

Vaine grew along with the bank. First as Finance Manager of the development bank in 1997, and then as Manager Business Development of the newly-formed BCI in 2001. Along the way she also gained more professional qualifications, a Masters in International Economics and Finance from the University of Queensland.

For six years from 2002 to 2008 Vaine spent time away from BCI, practically next door at the ANZ bank. Where she continued to grow her experience and hone her skills, as Chief Operating Officer, Manager Special Projects, and Relationship Manager Tourism.  

In 2008 she was appointed to her present role and since then she’s overseen the many changes and developments BCI has undergone. She calculates it’s trebled in size since 2008. Its systems, like all banking, have changed, making it possible for clients to smoothly conduct business from anywhere, especially in the Pa Enua. She has praise for the staff and the board of directors who’ve made the journey with her and believes the bank enjoys strong customer confidence. Not one to stop learning, she’s done courses including a Graduate Certificate Business in Project Management from Auckland University of Technology, and a Certificate in Leadership and Diversity for Innovation Program from Womens World Banking and Wharton School University of Pennsylvania.

So it may come as a surprise to some that Vaine is announcing that she will not be renewing her contract when it expires in November next year. However, she says, it’s the right and responsible thing to do.

“It takes time to recruit someone to a position like head of a country’s bank. I want to get the word out early to let people see that there is this opportunity. And I would really encourage potential women candidates to put their hands up. I would consider it a great legacy to pass the role on to a suitable woman, particularly if she was a Cook Islander too.”

Vaine’s long term plan is to one day retire to Mitiaro like her parents have, but it’s way too soon for that. So what’s her next move?

“I’d like to find some regional role. A regional project like say, digital trade and e-commerce. I’d like to encourage regional entrepreneurship, and things like good governance. In terms of our own country, I think there’s scope to tap into the potential for investment from Cook Island people living overseas, many of whom are successful business people in their own right.”

So retirement to Mitiaro might be a little way off yet.