[As published in July/August BayBuzz magazine.]
Fly spray was probably the very last thing on Marcus Berry’s mind when he arrived in the UK to attend a family wedding. But, after a well-timed tip-off, he returned to Hawke’s Bay with a solid business idea, and a very large piece of kit.
Laid back doesn’t even begin to describe Marcus Berry.
The equanimous founder of Pacific Aerosol in Whakatu keeps a cool head and a low profile – just the way he likes it. Motivated less by market share and courting media than he is to responsive customer service and supporting his team’s lifestyle choices, he’s built a successful business that, while niche, has probably touched every Kiwi home in some way.
At the company HQ, borer bombs sit on a shelving unit alongside lubricants, degreasing solutions and hand sanitiser. Pacific Aerosol produces them all, and it’s entirely likely one of their products is in your cupboard, garden shed or office, right now.
Just don’t expect to see a big shiny Pacific Aerosol logo on your can of fly spray. They’re contract manufacturers – under the radar, and happy to be. Even participating in an article with BayBuzz is well out of Marcus’s comfort zone, he confides. “I don’t like talking about myself. I mean, I’ve been to some of those business mentor lunches and bits and pieces, but they weren’t for me.”
This type of candour is typical of Marcus, who says he never really intended to start an aerosol business. But his dad’s company, Chemz, which wholesales automotive and electrical spray products, as well as spray paints and primers and an array of cleaning and sanitising formulations, was having a problem getting its cans filled. “While at the wedding, we were discussing this with my English father-in-law, and he started browsing through auction sites. He found an aerosol line for sale that was being decommissioned by a pharmaceuticals company moving its operation to Poland. We went to have a look, and it fit the bill.”
Armed with a chemistry degree and enough experience in pulp and paper manufacturing – where he’d spent the lion’s share of his career – to understand how filling cans with propane might work, Marcus placed a bid. It was not a competitive process. “There weren’t any other offers, so it was ours,” he says, adding “We paid next to nothing for it.”
A few weeks later, a couple of tonnes of metal turned up in a container at Napier Port, then sat in storage for over a year while Marcus worked out his next steps.
The business – one of only four aerosol filling companies in the country – was established first at rented space in Awatoto, before the Berrys purchased a site in Hastings, building a fit-for-purpose factory. Chemz was, naturally, Marcus’s first customer (accounting for a quarter of business to this day), but it wasn’t long before word spread – Pacific Aerosol was the new kid on the block, filling small runs (or larger ones) of cans at a competitive price. If your product needed propellant, this was the business to help.
Paul Hindmarsh came on board five years ago as Chief Operating Officer. He laughs when asked what the client attraction strategy is. “Do we have one?” he quips, eyeing his boss. “We don’t put a great deal of effort into the website, or write detailed strategic plans. We don’t have a sales function, but somehow people find us, and by the time they do, they’re a long way through the buying process and ready to act.”
The aerosols of 2023 are a far cry from the fluorocarbons of the 1980s – the ones that led to a complete ban on this type of propellant in an effort to save the ozone. The LPG-based propellants of today are deemed safe, with the aerosol sector an ever-growing one as convenience products become increasingly mainstream. Pacific Aerosol uses pressure, and a variety of different propellants to create its spray or trigger items for customers. It stores about 2,000 different ingredients onsite, producing 400-500 individual products.
That piece of kit from England is the same one that fills cans to this day, although Marcus admits it’s at a more leisurely pace than some of his competitors. “They’re filling 200 cans a minute – we do 20,” he laughs. “And we run Monday to Friday, 8am until 5pm, depending on the weather, because if the sun is shining and the wind is low, I want to get out fishing.”
Although delivered with a wink, there’s a kernel of truth in the statement. Marcus and Paul allow their staff to choose their own shifts – albeit by consensus, as a core team is required to run the plant. Marcus says the women and men overseeing his factory usually decide to start at dawn and finish by 2pm during summer, so they can get the barbecue fired up or hit the surf. It works well, and it’s all those aforementioned business lunches that are to thank for the initiative.
Marcus says it was meeting other entrepreneurs that made him see more clearly something he’d always suspected about business. “That you can set your own company up however you like – that you get to choose how it works,” he explains. “There are far too many people in this world complaining about having to work 70 hours a week to meet demand at their business. Why not set it up so that your demand is lower, and you work 40 hours a week? So you leave at five o’clock and don’t have to answer emails when you get home? That’s how I view life, and how it intersects with business.”
Marcus is also proudly local. Although some of the cans are imported from overseas, depending on type, many are manufactured just around the corner at a can-rolling plant in Hastings. His clients are mostly New Zealand based too (he won’t name names for commercially sensitive reasons, but you’ll likely find a few of them at your nearest Bunnings). That doesn’t prevent them working with the occasional out of towner, though.
“We get the odd order from Kenya, or Canada, and we’re hoping to get over to Trinidad and Tobago soon,” says Marcus. “There’s a guy out there wanting some natural insecticide and for all intents and purposes he seems genuine.”
Good fishing there too, one suspects.
They’ve had approaches from the big guys – the ones making popular brands of spray deodorant. “But they were talking hundreds of thousands of cans, and it’s not what we do. We’d have had to start up a separate line just for that, and then we’d have worried that we wouldn’t be able to meet the needs of our regular local customers. Being small means we’re nimble and we can turn orders around pretty quickly.”
Tech certainly makes some parts of the business run more smoothly and Marcus has added additional automation over the years, but says it’s a lot of faff for little reward when it comes to aerosols, mainly due to safety and compliance. “Greater automation would work if we were doing just one thing – like this skinny can here …” (he hoists a can off his desk by way of demonstration) “for hours on end. But because you have to change the parameters like height and diameter when automating a line, it wouldn’t work so well for a business like ours, running six different products across a day.”
Yes, automation might free up capacity, “but capacity isn’t a constraint for us at the moment. We’re a small team, so if one person is off sick, we are definitely impacted, but generally we do ok.”
Marcus isn’t one to puff his chest and reel off a long list of achievements, but concedes he does have some proud moments. “It’s the little things for me,” he says. “It’s our unblemished safety record when we’re working in a chemical environment every day. It’s satisfying when we know we’ve delivered good service, that we pay everyone a decent wage, that we’re keeping manufacturing here in New Zealand rather than sending it offshore. And that we’re all working towards a common goal of making aerosol manufacturing better, safer and more profitable.”
Adds Paul, “Marcus often tells the staff that Pacific Aerosol exists as a tool for all of us to get what we want out of our lives. He’s very generous with his time, and the way he treats us – I know all our staff would agree with that sentiment. Each one of us benefits from the growth of the business.”
That growth has come steadily since Marcus unpacked that English aerosol line in 2008. Despite the challenges of the GFC, and latterly, Covid 19, he says revenue is up 1000% since those early days, and there’s still plenty of scope. Pacific Aerosol’s future growth is almost a given.
Who would have thought he’d have a wedding, and his eagle-eyed father-in-law, to thank for his success?
“Yeah, it was pretty much a spur of the moment decision,” reflects Marcus, “but it’s worked out alright.”
Fiona Fraser is the director of Contentment PR & Communications. Nominate a savvy entrepreneur to feature in an upcoming column by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org