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Hayley and John Fraser-Mackenzie’s corporate experience and desire to succeed is helping them transform a small business into a serious export enterprise.

In late 2019, 13 years after emigrating from the UK with their young family, Hayley and John Fraser-Mackenzie were given the opportunity to buy Pacific Harvest, a small business battling to make headway in the emerging seaweed health food industry.

It was a brave decision, but the couple had both the desire to succeed and the necessary credentials to make a difference.

John’s background covers finance leadership roles with corporates across Europe and New Zealand. Hayley brought more than 27 years of global experience spanning corporates, SMEs, not-for-profits and start-ups. Her most recent role before taking on Pacific Harvest was with NZTE, helping support high growth food and beverage exporters.

“This [experience] helped me to really understand the opportunities for plant-based products, as well as New Zealand provenance on an international scale,” she says.

You could say the couple were well-qualified for what lay ahead, but little did they realise the scale or nature of the challenge.

Pacific Harvest met all three criteria Hayley and John had for a business – it’s in an industry that has a light footprint on the planet, is good for people’s health and demonstrates excellent growth potential.

“We’ve increasingly understood that food is medicine and we believe there is no more nutrient-dense, plant-based food than seaweed,” says Hayley. “When we bought the business, we had no appreciation for the range of seaweeds on offer and the incredible range of umami flavours[1](link is external) each species offers. Each seaweed is unique, in the same way that kale and broccoli, whilst both green veggies, have very different tastes and textures. Seaweeds are the same.

“Seaweed is also still a fairly niche category in food aisles, and there is potential to grow both New Zealand’s reputation in this area and our offering, as New Zealand has such pristine oceans and amazing bio-diversity.”

For Hayley and John the biggest challenge initially was how to freshen up an almost 18-year-old business. “The core offering was strong, but business systems were all Excel-based and information was scattered throughout multiple spreadsheets,” recalls Hayley. “We also recruited a brand new team, so it felt like a very different business within the first year of ownership.”

Accessing ethically harvested food grade New Zealand seaweeds in what is still an immature industry is proving to be an ongoing challenge – one the couple had not anticipated.

“There are a number of challenges to navigate with respect to supply too,” says John. “But there is some light at the end of the tunnel as we all become increasingly aware of the incredible range of applications seaweeds offer.”


Business improvements

In a little more than two years, Hayley and John and their small, enthusiastic team have transformed the business. This has involved implementing new cloud-based accounting and inventory systems and instigating a direct procurement model.

“The business had previously imported seaweeds which are not accessible in New Zealand through an agent,” explains Hayley. “However, the new procurement model meant that as Covid hit and costs increased, we’ve been able to hold pricing steady.”

A new website and branding has seen wholesale and retail customer numbers grow. Recyclable packaging has been introduced, along with new seaweed-based products – both Seaweed Salt and The Power of Three were finalists in the 2021 NZ Food Awards.

Pacific Harvest now has two Australian-based distributors, and a part-time Sydney-based consultant.

“Having her market knowledge was instrumental in the success of our first 15 months in Australia,” admits John.

The strong relationships that now exist with both suppliers and customers give Hayley and John great satisfaction – it’s helped them navigate the uncertainty of the pandemic, along with the ability to work remotely.


Export growth

In 2022 the focus is on export growth in the right channels, “with the right partners and where the values fit is right”.

Taiwan has already received its first shipment, with more to follow. Online sales continue to expand. And although cashflow has to be managed carefully, Hayley and John are pleased with their progress.

NZTE has also provided incredible support, says Hayley, particularly in-market.

“We encourage anyone who is not already working with them to sign up as soon as possible.  Our biggest export challenge has been dealing with local customs regulations in foreign countries, not to mention ongoing Covid-related supply chain disruptions and increased shipping costs.

“Creativity and collaboration will be key to growing exports further and we are building a network of new partnerships with health and wellness influencers in Australia and New Zealand.”


Testing times

Covid has caused people to become more aware of their health, and more proactive on protecting and building immunity. Seaweeds are appreciated for, not just iodine, but all the other minerals, trace elements and vitamins they offer. All this has contributed to the growth in online sales.

Covid lockdowns have also significantly increased Pacific Harvest’s costs, disrupted the delivery of raw materials and finished products and made inventory management a challenge.

Hayley and John’s internal operations have been impacted by the necessary split shift work patterns too.

“We’ve been working from home and co-opting our whole family into ‘bubble shifts’ to get orders prepared and dispatched,” says Hayley. “Often working weekends to accommodate this.”

Nevertheless Hayley and John are optimistic. Their ambition is to offer a wide range of New Zealand harvested seaweeds to the world, but there is a still much work to do from a regulatory and production infrastructure perspective across the whole value chain, they say.

“Cawthron Institute, and others, are doing some interesting research that will hopefully inform urgent policy and regulatory updates,” says John.

“There are also some interesting new models emerging and we look forward to opportunities to collaborate with like-minded partners to bring the best of Aotearoa’s amazing sea vegetables to new markets.” 


Hayley and John’s business tips

  • Use robust systems and processes which enable growth.
  • Build a dedicated, flexible, competent team compatible with a small business that has growth ambitions.
  • Be up-front on payments. “Some months I’ve called a supplier to say our payment will be a little late. Without exception, everyone has been accommodating and very appreciative of the call to clear this with them. This courtesy builds trust and I value honesty too when our customers are late with payments.” – Hayley.
  • NZTE is a great resource – sign up today if you haven’t already.
  • Understand your customers deeply. Focus on geography, channels and products as it is easy to get distracted.
  • Build customer relationships – whether you are selling online direct or through an intermediary.


Main photo: Hayley and John Fraser-Mackenzie.

Story by Glenn Baker. First published in the May 2022 Quarterly edition of NZBusiness.

[1](link is external) Umami is one of the five key taste profiles which also includes sweet, bitter, sour, and salt. 


Glenn Baker

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


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