Packaworld CEO Peter Roberts is a man on a mission: to use innovation to make the joy of sport real to more people worldwide. With his portable sport and recreation products he’s successfully improving both individual lives and communities. By Glenn Baker.
This is one of those ‘feel good’ stories. A story of one entrepreneur’s quest to make a real difference in the world.
Peter Roberts grew up in the UK and has always had a knack for solving problems. As a telephone maintenance engineer for British Telecom (BT) he solved plenty.
BT wanted to transform him from a systems engineer into a consultant and sponsored him into a post-graduate degree in business and finance at the London Business School. His career path appeared to be set in concrete.
However, after a sister convinced him to fly out to New Zealand to check out the place, he immediately fell in love with the country and decided to make it his permanent home.
With his post-grad degree he easily qualified for residency. The year was 1999.
Peter’s skill-set and willingness to come up with solutions would be a major influence on the next phase of his life.
Several years ago, after meeting a Chinese manufacturer at the Canton Trade Fair, Peter began marketing portable sports equipment in New Zealand – gear that could solve storage, health and safety and portability issues – water-polo goals, hockey goals, football goals – all looking good, all solving a problem.
He travelled the country flogging those products – progress and sales were slow.
The big break came one day when he was in Palmerston North presenting to a group of schools. Not having much luck, he finished the meeting and walked down the corridor, where he spotted a door with the sign ‘Special Olympics NZ’.
Ever the salesman, Peter knocked and entered operations manager Mike Ryan’s office, demonstrated the goal equipment and, to his surprise, was asked if he could manufacture a portable bocce court (bocce is an ancient ball sport belonging to the boules family, closely related to British bowls and French pétanque).
Despite his ignorance on bocce, including the fact that it’s the third largest participation-based sport in the world and the fastest growing sport currently being adopted by the Special Olympics worldwide, Peter immediately said ‘yes’. He was more than up for the challenge.
At that time setting up a regional bocce competition in New Zealand involved many volunteers, two 40-foot containers and several days setting the courts up. There had to be an easier way.
"Peter became known as the ‘inflatable bocce man’; sales began to flow and the courts debuted at the 2013 Asia-Pacific Special Olympics Games in Newcastle, New South Wales, where it took just 75 minutes to set up 24 courts."
It was research time. Peter’s son knocked up some CAD drawings, which were sent to the China factory. Six weeks later Peter surprised Mike Ryan with his first inflatable bocce court.
After they christened it with a game of bocce (won by Peter), Mike confessed that Peter was onto a winner.
Subsequently, through Mike, the door was opened to the Australian Special Olympics organisers.
Peter became known as the ‘inflatable bocce man’; sales began to flow and the courts debuted at the 2013 Asia-Pacific Special Olympics Games in Newcastle, New South Wales, where it took just 75 minutes to set up 24 courts – a job that would have previously taken three days using the old wooden courts.
At the conclusion of the Special Olympics the courts were donated to the local community – leaving a legacy.
‘Bocce man’ gets real
Trademark protection was acquired for the ‘Packa’ brand. Peter launched Packaworld and got busy searching for like-minded partners – such as blind institutes, the Special Olympics, retirement villages and offshore bocce distributors.
Around 18 months ago Peter engaged a brand specialist to work on an international brand platform for Packaworld – rather than just focus specifically on products.
“A brand has to have a purpose,” Peter explains. “You’ve got to be fighting for something. In our case we’re fighting for people’s right to come together, to compete, to play in real conditions. We’re fighting against exclusivity. People should not be shut out of participating in sports due to lack of money or access to decent sporting facilities.”
From research they determined the core value proposition of the brand, which is to make the joy of sport more real to more people. To achieve this, it’s a matter of putting proper sporting equipment ‘real fast and real easy’ in places where that sport – be it football, rugby or bocce – wouldn’t have been played before. On cruise ships, for example.
To explain the process of making the joy of sport more real to more people, Peter uses the analogy of his experience as a kid playing social football in Liverpool.
“As soon as you added a proper football goal [to the playing area] all of a sudden things got serious and you were playing a real game of football. The game instantly became more fun and more real.”
The cruise lines were quickly sold on the idea – Packaworld’s portable, inflatable bocce courts are now on more than 40 ships – Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Princess Cruises and P&O Australia.
Peter’s marketing modus operandi is to avoid the “big gun” sports equipment distributors and work independently with what he calls “splinter markets’ – such as the New Zealand Blind Foundation and Special Olympics.
Real sports socialism
Today Peter’s an advocate for ‘real sports socialism’ – bringing the social aspect of sport to the fore. “Bringing games to places they’ve never been brought to before, and doing it in a way that embraces a bit of fun or, as I like to call it, ‘nuttiness’.
“It’s all about relentless innovation,” he says. He developed portable junior rugby posts because he saw it as an opportunity for New Zealand rugby to address and arrest the decline of grass roots rugby. He has now developed a full-size version, with inflatable uprights and aluminium crossbars (with carbon inserts), that addresses the challenge of growing rugby in countries without established rugby facilities. .
Scoring between the inflatable Packaposts is way more exciting than scoring between a couple of cones, he explains. Packaposts were used in the match between the Blind Lions and New Zealand Blind Rugby (the curtain-raiser for the British and Irish Lions tour finale at Eden Park) and helped by Peter’s initiative, blind rugby is now set to take off worldwide with a version of the game that resembles the real thing.
There’s also a big opportunity for sales in the US market, where there’s recently been a significant uptake in rugby.
Other ‘Packa’ products have been added to the range – some successful, such as safe, portable ‘Packasign’ advertising hoardings and goalball nets (another popular sport in the paralympics), others not so successful – yet.
When people come to him with yet another product in mind, the key question Peter asks them is ‘what’s the problem that needs solving?’
“Is it portable, is it storable? You’ve got to qualify the idea before going ahead.”
For now Peter’s happy to continue building global communities and, in the process, his distribution business. He even still fits in time for some ‘change management’ consulting for IT projects.
Building on existing relationships, there are even bigger, international, marketing plans underway or in the making for the Packaworld brand too.
To quote a well-known idiom – ‘you can’t keep a good man down’.
Photo: Peter Roberts (left) with Special Olympics International chairman Dr Timothy Shriver.
Glenn Baker is editor of NZBusiness.