Skip to main content
The view from Stewart Matthews’ St Helier’s apartment out towards Rangitoto on a brisk, but sunny, winter’s day is a sight to behold. It’s a far cry from the hot, energy-sapping days and nights he spent peddling glassware and building products four decades ago in Saudi Arabia – a region then vastly different to the one seen on today’s television screens. 
As we sit down in front of that panorama, Stewart produces a thick file of yellowed newspaper clippings and other memorabilia to share for this story. As he begins speaking the clock quickly winds back to a different era in this nation’s development – a time of wide ties, long sideburns, innocence and naivety, government subsidies and protectionism. There’s no point searching LinkedIn forStewart’s career details. His site simply says ‘Retired and enjoying time to pursue personal interests and family’. Long before the Internet and smartphones, Stewart had a long, chequered and successful business career. 
After university studies, it began with quantity surveying; his father was keen for him to work in the building industry. However, his first sales opportunity came up later with Europa Oil, which, in the late ‘60s was pioneering farm fuel deliveries. That led on to a managerial position with roofing and aluminium window manufacturer L. J.
Fisher, which was subsequently taken over by Alex Harvey Industries, for whom Stewart was appointed group export manager. AHI (today Carter Holt Harvey) was a massive company in the 70s, with divisions covering plastics, metal containers, paper packaging, bottles/ glassware, aluminium joinery, roofing, and much more. The time was ripe for developing exports to the Middle East. With the oil boom the Arabs had increasing wealth. New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Rob Muldoon, had introduced an incentive whereby all export-related expenses were 150 percent tax deductible, to encourage exporters to head offshore in pursuit of sales. It was to prove irresistible.
The Export Institute, forerunner to today’s ExportNZ, was formed in 1976 under the inaugural directorship of Ross Southcombe. He put together a “great bunch of hard-case guys”, as Stewart describes them, which included himself, the late Jim Fletcher of Fletchers, Mark Sainsbury from UEB carpets, Alan Topham from Crown Lynn 
pottery, Dave Donaldson of Donaldson Engineering and Alby Thorby of Masport Industries. “My time with the Institute was without doubt the highlight of my career,” admits Stewart. 
He was part of the very first trade mission to the Arabian Gulf, and led the second mission there – as well as one to South America in 1980. This was basic stuff – no prior indepth market research in those times. The expression ‘market validation’ was virtually unheard of, and the trade commissioner in Bahrain was often 
called upon for assistance. On that first mission Stewart recalls all the members were decked out in dark suits, and fashionably-wide green ties emblazoned with the name of each company and product. “With AHI’s product range, my tie looked more like a newspaper,” he says.
With no hotel air conditioning, just ceiling fans to stir the hot air, the group was ill-prepared for the harsh Arabian environment. Hardly the place for dark suits and ties.
Stewart recalls poor roads, the basic accommodation where they shared rooms – but the biggest surprise was how smart the Arab businessmen were. “They were traders from way back after all, and many were expats from various countries running some very large businesses.”
He still remembers an incident in Bahrain while walking to see a potential buyer. With his Crown crystal glassware samples carefully wrapped in newspaper in a suitcase, he fell “arse over kite over a street beggar” whilst searching for a street sign. “The glassware came tumbling out of the suitcase, but fortunately nothing was broken, which showed just how tough it was! “When I finally got to see the buyer, covered in dust-laden sweat, he gave me a $4,000 order purely out of sympathy!” 
Another port of call on that first trip was to Zamil Aluminium – it would be the start of a long-standing friendship with Sulaiman Al-Zamil and the Al-Zamil family to this very day. “We took an instant liking to each other, Stewart remembers. The Al-Zamil Corporation, a large conglomerate, was run by eight Zamil brothers – “all good blokes. I was a guest on a number of occasions at their big Riyadh compound and they treated me like a king.” Over the next seven years Stewart would spend the best part of three months each year in the Middle East, catching up with the Al-Zamils, and he hosted family members a number of times at his holiday home on the Coromandel. 
Stewart shows me a newspaper report of a $750,000 contract he secured with Al-Zamil in November 1980 – a lot of money back then. AHI also helped their Middle East
partner set up an aluminium window manufacturing operation. Kiwis trusted Stewart recalls how well the somewhat “shy and unassuming” approach of Kiwis went down in the Middle East. “I thought we New Zealanders related well with the Arabs; we were well accepted.” Trust played a big part in transactions and Stewart says all
ordering was done by word of mouth – there were few written orders or binding Letters of Credit. “I’d get back and the boss would ask ‘where’s the order?’, ‘where’s the
letter of credit?’ I’d say, you’ll just have to believe me – I trust them and they trust me.”
Looking back at how they operated,
and how they had to stretch their resources across Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, Stewart’s advice for exporters today is to initially concentrate on one area. He also discovered that it’s often more effective to forge relationships with local business people and pay them to research the markets. He acknowledges that Kiwi exporters
are significantly more ‘world wise’ today than his ‘band of brothers’ back in the 70s, and have a much better understanding of their limitations. “I went away representing products which were not suitable for the market and had no show of selling. The glassware, for example, was poor quality by European standards,” he admits.
Culture shock and chance encounters On that first Middle Eastern trip, Stewart remembers arriving at Al Khobar, on the eastern seaboard of Saudi on a Friday. “Saturday was a religious holiday, so not much happening. Then on Sunday we went for a short walk from the hotel to the town square, only to discover that a couple accused of adultery had been stoned to death there by the local populace the day before. There was blood everywhere.” Needless to say it was a sobering experience for the Kiwis.
Stewart has a great illustration of how a last minute change of travel plans can lead to unexpected export sales opportunities. On a subsequent trip, while in Riyadh, he succumbed to a nasty stomach complaint. “I managed to get to Jeddah, but by then I was a cot case,” he recalls, “and it was dreadfully hot – 48 degrees. “So I took a taxi to the airport and asked to get on the first flight out, which happened to be to Athens at 6am the next morning.”
After attempting a few hours sleep back at the hotel, and a pathetic, cockroach-infested shower, he managed to catch that plane, which to his delight, had excellent air conditioning. The gentleman sitting next to him was a Greek businessman named Alan Estefan. He had heard about the steel roof-tiles Stewart’s company was
Stewart had Decrabond brochures on him. Estefan was building thousands of chalets north of Jeddah to provide accommodation for the Hajj Islamic religious festival. He needed lightweight roofing and Stewart suddenly found himself well enough to expound the benefits of his product. As a result, six months later a $2 million order came through! Recalling that story still brings a chuckle.
There have been plenty of humorous moments. Like the time Stewart was looking to sell glassware to a major department store in Doha, Qatar. To simplify matters, and improve on the suitcase and newspaper look, he invited the “beautiful blonde German” wife of the store owner, who was also the buyer, to his hotel room to view the samples. “Mark Sainsbury and I were sharing a room, so we got up early to set up the glassware on the coffee table,” explains Stewart. “I went down to meet the woman in the lobby and by the time we got back up to the room, Mark had gone. But sticking out of  the various items of glassware was a toothbrush, toothpaste, a pair of underpants, pyjamas and various other paraphernalia! This was Mark’s idea of a joke!”
Stewart shudders to this day just thinking about her reaction to what she considered an insult. “Of course, Sainsbury and I still laugh about that one too.”

Dishing up export possibilities

Exporter Today Editorial TeamExporter Today Editorial TeamApril 16, 2012

What’s mine is not yours

Exporter Today Editorial TeamExporter Today Editorial TeamApril 16, 2012

25 countries… and counting

Exporter Today Editorial TeamExporter Today Editorial TeamApril 16, 2012