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Steve Saunders is an angel investor; the driving force behind the commercialisation of Rockit apples; founder of Plus Group; co-founder of the Newnham Innovation Park in Te Puna, Bay of Plenty; and is, not surprisingy, passionate about business.

Q1: Where did the idea for Newnham Innovation Park come from, and what is your ultimate vision for it?
STEVE: The innovation park concept was a cornerstone of my original strategic plan when I set up the Plus Group of companies ten years ago, and after visiting the Waikato Innovation Park. It was absolutely logical from both a business and geographic perspective that the Plus Group and other like-minded entrepreneurial businesses would require a unique environment; able to leverage and share common synergistic commercial goals and other affiliated interests. Innovation requires stimulation and this environment encourages and supports that process. This is further supported by underpinning innovation concepts with the physical resource, functionality to facilitate commercialisation and solid investor returns.
It is difficult to envisage an ultimate conclusive vision. Practical necessity and an evolving understanding of technology and innovation have continuously modified plans during the last few years, resulting in the latest stage of the park’s ongoing development. It is an unfolding development driven by changing commercial realities and emerging tech and innovation opportunities!
However, the park’s success has met an obvious business need within the Bay of Plenty, and that fact, together with the requirements of our own expanding group of businesses, will necessitate further planned progressive expansions of the park and its facilities.
The objective is to expand the technical and innovative mix to include a range of potentially synergistic commercial tenants. The park’s existing tenants have already pushed their own growth to levels necessitating expansion of facilities and building more office and operational space. Ultimately I would like to see this facility recognised locally and within the relevant international community as a hub of commercially profitable technical and innovative horticultural excellence – a centralised commercial innovation game changer supporting New Zealand universities and exports, and a facility able to support, train and employ young innovators. In short,
a technological and innovation culture driver.

Q2: You’ve been described as a serial entrepreneur and angel investor – what have been your most satisfying achievements on that front over your business career? What are the standouts?
STEVE: That is very complimentary, thank you. In all honesty business achievements, while obviously satisfying, providing co-investors with good returns and putting bread on my own table, are generally a function of the team I draw around me in the business or for a particular project. What is hugely more gratifying is the recognition and support of my colleagues and peers.

Q3: Which investments provided you with the most valuable lessons and what were those lessons?
STEVE: I invest in identifying the correct people, their core competencies, and their application into my business ventures. I invest in their belief, ability, enthusiasm, commitment and vision. I invest in their empowerment and enjoyment of the presented challenge. In that process I have learnt that firm but
fair leadership, articulating a clear business pathway and communicating that to the team, empowering them to achieve the planned objectives and respecting the potential of difference is what drives entrepreneurial achievement. Lastly, I have learnt to believe in the power of communication and the criticality of empowered organisational culture.
Q4: With your own Plus Group, looking back, what have been the biggest milestones and lessons?
STEVE: We have experienced the usual strictures of a rapidly growing and cash hungry enterprise – tight cashflow from time to time and deciding which opportunity to pursue and how to resource it. We have had to deal with, and often simply disregarded, the usual doubters. We have also had to position the affected part of the group to survive the impact of Psa-V, and then exploit for industry benefit the opportunity that situation presented. Psa’s impact on the Kiwifruit industry, and consequently on part of our business, has been significant. However another of our original strategic planning pillars was our commitment to diversification as a risk mitigator and opportunity driver.
So our investment and risk spread is across both geographic and enterprise prospects.
The lesson is simple – do not put all your eggs in one basket in one place. One of my key focuses is to maintain and drive my role as the group’s culture champion.

Q5: How excited are you about the current export prospects in the Bay of Plenty – and indeed NZ Inc?
STEVE: Hugely. Our tech and innovation focus is basically export focused and our investment into diversified tech opportunities is fundamentally around export of the New Zealand brand internationally. We are enormously proud of what local Bay of Plenty exporters, large and small, have achieved. The ability to use the New Zealand brand, together with the support of organisations such as Export Bay of Plenty, Callaghan Innovation, Priority One and NZTE,
will improve and assist local exporters in maximising offshore penetration and opportunity.

Q6: What are you looking forward to the most about your trip to the US Angel Investors Conference?
STEVE: Expanding my horizons through interaction with other skilled entrepreneurs from different countries and enterprises. We never stop learning, so grasp the opportunity.
And of course, hopefully making some solid associations for further business opportunity!

Q7: What do you look for in a potential business investment, and what advice can you give business owners who
are preparing their businesses for future investment?
STEVE: Uniqueness and market access; cash and other necessary resourcing; competitive forces within the same basic market; who is the targeted market?; who are the potential exit partners?; the owners/inventors skin in the game; how well developed and planned the product/opportunity is; and scalability within a
given timeframe.
For those looking for future investment – show continuity of business process and management through financial results and PROPER business planning.

Q8: Do you have a pet project at the moment? What’s currently getting you out of bed in the morning?
STEVE: Truthfully, I have a range of pet projects, from internationalising Rockit Apples to our world leading robotic harvesting technology and carbon sequestration work – to name a few! These, together with the Plus Group and my extensive interests in the kiwifruit industry, all make for a busy day!

Q9: Why is the Bay of Plenty such an ideal place to start up a business and get involved in exporting?
STEVE: Geographically the Bay of Plenty is superbly located and has the advantage of excellent infrastructure and the Port of Tauranga. Costs in the area are manageable, and of course, the climate and lifestyle attracts a wide range of skilled and talented individuals and a strong labour pool. We also have solid support from the various local and community authorities. Additionally, it is the kiwifruit hub of New Zealand and this drives a host of affiliated export products such as the pollen and technologies we manufacture and export worldwide from our Pollen
Plus business.

Q10: What are your business goals for the next two to five years?
STEVE: To keep growing my businesses and business interests to greater levels of profitability and staff security – perhaps with an eye on an IPO for some!


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