[As published in May/June BayBuzz magazine.]
They joke that their travel bill makes Air New Zealand “very wealthy”, but for two professionals specialising in helping New Zealand businesses take their products or services State-side, a life split between LA and Hawke’s Bay is all part of the deal.
There’s a scene in just about every Hollywood movie or HBO TV series ever made where a bewildered employee who has just been fired from their job takes a box to their desk and carefully packs their coffee mug, their potted plant, “a framed photo of themselves and their kids at the baseball game,” observes Stu Webster. “And then they just leave, never to return to that workplace ever again.”
It’s a trope any viewer of American entertainment is familiar with, but in the US, where Stu and his partner in life and work, Kat Hellyer, spend roughly half their year, it happens every minute of every day.
Unlike in New Zealand, where the road to dismissing an employee is paved with meetings, mediation, and a consultation period, Kiwi companies who have established themselves in the United States have a very different process to follow. Although they can terminate “at will”, it’s Stu and Kat’s job to ensure that they don’t fall foul of the law while moving their staff member on. “Often the employment issues will be similar, but the way you deal with them can be a bit of a maze,” begins Stu. “The red tape can be overwhelming to wade through, the insurance premiums are enormous, and there’s the risk of getting sued. Educating New Zealand boards of directors on how to terminate a US-based employee is really illuminating for them.”
Stu and Kat are professionals who, by their own admission, refuse to colour inside the lines. Their companies – one, a legal practice and the other, a boutique cross-jurisdictional business consultancy – “connect the dots” between New Zealand and the (highly regulated) US.
The pair met 15 years ago when Stu was a partner at Sainsbury, Logan and Williams, and Kat – who is Hawke’s Bay born and raised – was in town to see family.
Having spent most of her adult life overseas (she attended law school in Hawaii, and has lived all over the States since then), Kat had built a reputation for problem-solving within the agribotics sector. Stu was looking for a lifestyle change and California was calling. “I’d started out at a small rural law firm, I’d been made partner at the age of 29, and I was at an age where I wanted other opportunities. Our worlds collided and suddenly there was a suggestion that I could go to the United States, and that sounded really interesting to me.”
So much so, that Stu embarked on several years of study to take the gruelling bar exam in California, allowing him to practice there, as well as here in New Zealand. “I believe I’m one of only a handful of New Zealand lawyers who is licenced across both,” he says. And it’s an enormous advantage Kat says, having someone who knows the intricacies of legislation in both jurisdictions. “Because sometimes, when you’re exporting, the solution to your problem will lie in New Zealand law and other times, Californian.”
Stu Webster, Attorney at Law, operates out of the pair’s Bel Air house or Napier Hill home on purely legal issues, “acting for entrepreneurs on both sides of the Pacific,” he says, while their sister business, Pinecone, helps New Zealand businesses wanting to either establish themselves or further expand into the United States. Why California? “It’s the gateway to the US, with a direct flight to Auckland, and it’s the state most Kiwis start with when they choose to export.
“We’re able to tick off immigration requirements, incorporation, distribution agreements, debt recovery, employment agreements – a wide range of assistance. I think our skills are fairly unique in that there are certainly immigration specialists in New Zealand, with large teams of people doing just one thing at a time, and there are specialists in the US too. But very few offer a service straddling the two countries.”
And so far, it’s been popular. Using a website, and word of mouth recommendations as their only marketing tools, they’ve been flat out since launching eight years ago.
Hawke’s Bay businesses make up roughly two thirds of their clientele – household names like First Light Wagyu and Progressive Meats . The other third is mainly Auckland-based businesses such as Blunt Umbrellas. In First Light’s case, Stu and Kat were instrumental in helping seed a US-based sales and marketing team and apply for the necessary US work visas.
Kiwis’ number eight wire mentality is critical to building a successful business and being “US-ready,” says Kat, but it has its drawbacks too. “New Zealand businesses often feel like they can DIY their move to the United States. It’s just not as easy as it sounds and the paperwork is baffling to many Kiwis. One US visa application we helped with recently was over 800 pages long. When it came time to renew, that was another 650.”
Ah, paperwork. Kat says a huge hurdle for Kiwis setting up in California is understanding that despite its population of 40 million, its reputation as the home of technology (Silicon Valley) and the leaps and bounds made in the finance sector over the past 20 years, you’ll still need to pay your rent by cheque. “Our banking system here is well ahead of anything in the States,” she says. “In general, the bureaucracy Kiwis face doing most things in California is a real eye opener.”
And for New Zealanders dipping their toe in the shark-infested waters of the United States, there’s another fishhook – trade expos. “Distributors will descend on those shows looking for naïve Kiwis to prey on,” Stu warns. “Someone will approach a Kiwi on a stand and promise the world – for instance, a distribution agreement getting the product into every supermarket in every corner of the US. And the contract will arrive and it’s a retainer of x-amount a month, plus 10% of turnover, and it’s for a three year or a five-year term. I’ve acted for people desperate to get out of these arrangements because often, nothing happens. You’re paying a retainer and there’s no accountability and no action, and this distributor who you believed was flavour of the month is using your payments to service their overheads, and that’s about it.”
Kat and Stu also advise on matters such as what sort of marketing budget is realistic for an assault on the US, how to manage production when you’re selling into 50 states (not just the two small islands you’re used to), supply chain logistics, and compliance.
Overarchingly, there is one massive advantage every New Zealander has when they make their move – and that’s the accent. “Who loves Kiwis in LA?” asks Kat. “Everyone does.” It’s just that the accent won’t help you understand signing your distribution agreement with Walmart, or help you get your driver’s licence, or your US visa. And you can’t ring a big US law firm charging $10,000 as a signing fee and ask, ‘Help – how do I do this?’
“That’s where we step in, and we’ve had some really lovely moments with Hawke’s Bay businesses moving people over, where we’ll get a phone call from someone walking out the door of the US Consulate crying with excitement that they’ve had their visa approved. You feel overjoyed for them!”
Stu also cautions that Kiwis need to be prepared for the “scary letters” they might get once established in the US. “Americans indulge in litigation like it’s a sport or a hobby. So it’s not uncommon to get a notice to say, ‘If you don’t stop using our name or pinching our intellectual property, we’re going to sue you for a gazillion dollars.’ And that, generally, is enough to give an average Kiwi cardiac failure.
Most of the time, though, it amounts to nothing. So we’re very good, I think, at offering some reassurance – at saying, ‘Let’s just take a look at what’s actually alleged here and whether we have any obligations.’”
Both Stu and Kat, who say they love the community feeling of Hawke’s Bay, are equally passionate about the City of Angels, and believe the dual lifestyle is the perfect mix for them and their businesses. “But more that that,” says Stu, “we’re just delighted and grateful to be doing such interesting work, helping really great Kiwi businesses, and lots of ingenious Hawke’s Bay businesses among them, export their produce and products to the US.”