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In Nelson there is a nationally and internationally successful family-owned food manufacturer that, even after 40 years, is still passionate about the region and fired up about its export future. 

As business stories go, this one has all the trademarks of a best-selling Kiwi classic.

It is family-owned; deeply ingrained in the local community; it is innovative and forward-thinking, and most importantly, it has been incredibly successful.

Tasman Bay Food Group owes its success to the Nelson Tasman region’s fertile soils.

Brian Hirst was one of the first to grow grapes there in the 1970s. He utilised the arable north-facing hillsides of Ruby Bay (near Mapua) to grow not just grapes, but boysenberries and other fruit to create premium fruit juice for New Zealand’s food service sector.

Today 53 local people work at the purpose-built Brightwater facility. Tasman Bay Food Group (TBFG) continues to rely on regional produce. The company presses apples year round and, in season, other fruit such as pears, boysenberries and feijoas. Its Juicies products enjoy the highest sales per capita in Nelson Tasman, and it exports product through Port Nelson to markets worldwide.

Brian is still on the TBFG board and in close contact with growers and packhouses.

Daughter Marina Hirst Tristram is now managing director, and younger daughter, Ainslie Pomeroy, looks after contract customers.

For Marina, taking on the management of the company was a logical career progression.

Even at high school she learnt a lot about the industry through working at a local supermarket and on the Juicies production line.

After studying physical education and commerce at Otago University she ended up in London on her OE helping the Kiwi Frucor team launch the V Energy drink in England. She later worked for the Aussie wine company responsible for the Lindemans, Rosemount and Penfolds brands, inheriting a deep understanding of the challenges and opportunities of developing new markets, particularly at an operational level.

“I’ll never forget the unanticipated horror of finding out numerous containers of wine had popped their corks due to the heat of trans-shipping in Singapore,” Marina recalls. “That taught me some very good lessons about risk, and insurance!”

Post-university there was more training via a PM’s Business Scholarship and Global Executive MBA through The University of Sydney.

“This course was delivered in France, England, India, the US and Australia and, alongside a study trip to Japan, increased my appetite for focusing on developing export markets for Tasman Bay, specifically bringing our Juicies to the world,” she says.

Building a brand in offshore markets is incredibly hard, Marina adds. “Every day there are challenges to overcome. As an example we have almost $200k worth of unused Korean packaging in our warehouse due to a lost sales deal.

“Packaging is one area where exporting is difficult, with different labelling requirements, legislative changes, and languages in each market.”

TBFG’s progress has been highlighted by many standout moments – such as receiving the first product acceptance letters from New Zealand’s two major supermarket chains, and Juicies representing New Zealand at the Sial d’Or Food Expo in France in 1992 and winning ‘best beverage’.

Today, almost 11 million Juicies are sold worldwide. In another five years that figure is expected to be 26 million.

A new long-term export strategy has resulted in Juicies Tubes not just winning awards here and in South Korea, but also gaining share in nine new markets. Game-changing Coconut Juicies have just been added to the mix – product development never sleeps, says Marina.

All up, the company produces up to 250,000 individually-wrapped products daily – a combination of juice, dairy and baked products.

It’s about family…

TBFG is totally a family business – right down to Marina’s two boys and their cousin, who are often around before and after school. “My ten-year-old has been drawing improved machine designs for us since he was about five!” she says.

Marina, a chartered member of the Institute of Directors, believes good governance is key to a successful family business and strives to achieve best practice in order to set and achieve their strategy. Five years ago the company introduced lean manufacturing processes – which has significantly helped improve internal communication.

“Every member of our team plays a big part in the success of Tasman Bay,” says Marina. “We have daily team meetings that help ensure everyone knows the plan for the day, how successful we were yesterday, and about any problems we need to overcome.”

…and moving forward

In 2018 the goal is to improve distribution in South Korea, Japan and Taiwan – and sell five million Juicies into each market. Building the Zesti brand of bakery products in the New Zealand and Aussie markets is also a priority, as is improving efficiency through increased production automation.

Continuing to utilise local fruit and produce through value-added innovation and partnerships is a must, explains Brian, along with offering co-manufacturing for companies “serious about food”, and developing additional healthier food options.

“There is also an increasing demand for manufacturers to decrease packaging or offer packaging with genuine recyclability,” he explains. “We are looking for new packaging concepts and developing new ideas to minimise waste across our product range – not only within our business, but also encouraging our suppliers to do the same.”

And it’s about memories

Four decades in business has produced many fond, and not-so-fond, memories.

One of the toughest times came in the mid-90s when Tasman Bay was still involved in the consumer two and three litre juice category and a faulty imported orange juice concentrate impacted heavily on consumer confidence and sales. A couple of years later TBFG exited that side of the business to focus purely on value-added products.

Brian, who began working aged 15 delivering car parts on a bicycle, admits to having to pinch himself to believe that after 40-plus years, Tasman Bay is “still successful, profitable and growing”.

He’s proud of himself and all the people who’ve been along for the ride.

“Having had some fabulous people working for the company over the years, and especially having my daughters involved, is a real highlight.”

For Marina, perhaps the biggest highlight has been the move to the fit-for-purpose site at Brightwater, “which meant it was easier to expect and maintain the highest quality output”.

“We are a great bunch of people here and I think the mix of personalities, backgrounds, and experience really adds to the organisation. We love having interns work here as part of their training. We also work with some fantastic suppliers and customers.

“We’re a team focused on improvement and innovation. Of course with that comes change, so to work here you need to embrace change and be prepared to keep learning.”

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

Photo: Food bar production in the Tasman Bay bakery.

Glenn Baker

Professional writer/editor with 35-plus years experience - including radio copywriting, various television writing/production roles, and writing for business magazines. I have also co-owned a wholesale food distribution business.

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