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Raglan-based businessman Bill Neal ditched the construction industry a number of years ago to put everything into his kettle popcorn business. Today Sweet As Popcorn’s going global.

Originally from San Diego, it was the West-Coast surf that first attracted Bill Neal to Raglan in October 2002. However, a back injury quickly put an end to his career as a construction contractor, well before New Zealand’s infrastructure boom, so he had no choice but to try something else.

That something else was something completely different – kettle-made popcorn.

Bill had toyed with the idea for a while, but says it wasn’t until his son Ryan, then just 12 months old, chose ‘popcorn’ as his first word that he realised it was his destiny.

Kettle popcorn is made using a giant cauldron-style kettle. Once popped, the corn is caramelised with just the right amount of sugar (30 percent less than Americans like) and a little salt.

Bill’s kettle popcorn proved irresistible.

After launching in 2010, the milestones quickly followed for Sweet As Popcorn – first sold at the Frankton market in Hamilton, then promoted to supermarket shelves.

A dedicated popcorn lab was set-up to develop new flavours and, after putting his house up as collateral, a $400,000 popcorn maker was imported from Chicago.

Demand quickly meant that he would have to ditch the one-man show in his Raglan garage and move to a fully automated production facility in the Waikato Innovation Park, which currently turns out around 100,000 bags of popcorn every week.

Bill remembers his initial expectation was to make $1000 a week. “I’m lucky that all my projections of best-case scenario worked in a scheduled time-frame,” he says.

Today Sweet As is the number one popcorn product at New World. The business has reached its intermediate goal of securing a national market. The product is also exported to five other countries and they are experiencing an influx of distributors for international grocery stores.

The plan is to establish even more of an international market in the second half of 2018.

The key to any market success is persistence, says Bill. “If you have a good product that ‘everybody likes’ then you must keep charging forward, knocking on buyers’ doors, putting product in their hands, and mouths, and then following up!

“If you get a ‘No’, be sure to tell them you’ll be back to get a ‘Yes’. And when you do go back, be prepared to give a good deal.

“Play the long game so you can show your clients that your company has integrity. Everyone wants to work with honest people.”

Getting new product accepted has been perhaps the biggest challenge of all for Bill and his team.

“Buyers can be very reluctant to try new things when there is no sales data to work off,” he explains, adding that he likes to be very hands-on with all the buyers.

The key to success, aside from following up, is quality of product plus competitive pricing, he adds. “And economy of scale.”

New products

When it comes to researching new popcorn products, Bill describes it as “extremely tricky”.

“There are many factors involved and sometimes your own opinion doesn’t count.

“For example, we’re working with a new beetroot chip. It’s very healthy but I don’t like beetroot, and so I have to rely on other peoples’ opinions,” he says.

“I find the best solution for this is simply sampling and then listening to the test subjects and applying what you are hearing. So, we have consequently put together an excellent team of samplers and promoters.”

Bill says they are trying to limit new products to just two or three this year as they are saving for a new building.

“We just hit the market with our new microwave Sweet & Salty flavour and it’s flying off the shelves.

“Thankfully, Kiwis understand the strength of buying from local companies. We’re huge on buying only from New Zealand companies too. Circulating dollars around locally is extremely important to Sweet As,” he says.

As for the export market, Bill explains that keeping popcorn fresh is extremely critical to success, and this is watched closely.

“I have such a great team that understands and applies their ideas to ensure quality daily,” he says. “It’s just great to watch them work in unison.”

Interestingly the shelf-life of Sweet As Popcorn bags is nine months. The popcorn bars have a life of six months and microwave packs 18 months.

“We have a three-ply package that provides a one-year shelf life on our popcorn bags used for exports when required,” says Bill.

Unique workplace

Sweet As Popcorn today employs around 20 people at its headquarters – not counting the many reps and merchandisers around New Zealand.

Bill is proud of his all-female office team – which was never part of the plan. “The women just naturally rose to the top [of the business] and they are very reliable,” he explains.

Bill’s management style consists of “delegating tasks and staying out of the way”. He describes himself as “determined” and “persistent”, and prefers that people just get on with the job.

“We also give people the opportunity to learn new skills within the workforce.”

Looking back, and with the benefit of hindsight, he is “unbelievably satisfied with the timing, plateaus and milestones that Sweet As Popcorn has achieved”.

“My dream business plan had it going exactly as it has,” he says. “This is one of the things that is very tough to predict.

“Projections are very good pre-planning tools; it helps us stay on plan in the direction decided,” he adds. “But there are many distractions that need to be avoided along the way.”

Story by Glenn Baker. This article was first published in the April 2018 issue of NZBusiness.

Glenn Baker

Glenn is a professional writer/editor with 50-plus years’ experience across radio, television and magazine publishing.


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