Published in Jul/Aug BayBuzz magazine
There’s nothing like the whole world shutting down to refocus us on the benefits of buying and supporting local. BayBuzz talked to three Hawke’s Bay businesses who moved swiftly to turn a crisis into a positive, and found strength in community spirit along the way.
From small beginnings selling jars of natural deodorant at the Piecemakers Pop-up and Hereworth Christmas markets, Mel Lewis soon realised she had to take her business to the next level if she was going to compete with a growing number of competitors in the personal care space.
The new business was over a year in the planning. “My customers had told me the products they wanted to be using, but I didn’t have the technical skills to create them.” Through the Hawke’s Bay Business Hub, she applied for, and won, a Callaghan Innovation R&D grant at the start of 2019. That financial support enabled her to work with a leading product formulator to bring her ideas to fruition.
Ultrella Natural Deodorant is the first deodorant in NZ and Australia (“and the whole world, as far as we know”) to be able to reduce sweating naturally. The hero ingredient is a natural Botox alternative called IBR-Snowflake®, a plant extract made from Summer Snowflake bulbs. This ingredient has been clinically proven to reduce sweating by 36% … up until now you’ve had to use an antiperspirant to get results like this.
Ultrella was launched the Friday before lockdown. “It was a completely surreal day,” says Mel. “I very nearly didn’t go ahead, but then I kept thinking, ‘If I don’t do it now, when will I do it? There’s never a perfect time to launch a business, so I just leapt in and went for it.”
Prior to lockdown, she had been in negotiations with four major NZ retailers, but those conversations halted immediately. In this instance, being small worked in her favour, quickly pivoting to focus entirely on online sales. Fortunately, Ultrella already had an online store, built by Aimee Stewart’s team at Connect Plus.
“When it looked like we were going into lockdown, I made a dash up to our warehouse in Napier, and loaded up my car with as many boxes of products as I could fit in so we could dispatch from home if required. It was such a lucky move.”
There were a couple of nervous weeks as Mel waited to find out if Ultrella was included on the MBIE’s register for Essential Goods. Once that was established, Ultrella was good to go.
“Having the population at home, spending a lot of time online, actually worked in our favour during those first few weeks. It gave us a chance to connect with potential customers and educate people about our ethos and our products.”
The groundswell of ‘buy New Zealand’ made sentiment on social media, and in particular the now 500,000 strong New Zealand Made Products Facebook page, provided a huge kick-start for Ultrella. The response to one unsponsored post on that Facebook page was “mental”, says Mel, “I had over 1,000 comments and questions to respond to. It took me days to go back to everyone. I posted on the Saturday night. By Sunday lunchtime it was obvious we were going to run out of courier supplies.
It was really stressful trying to get more down from Auckland. The support from other local businesses was incredible.” Mel put out a call for help and Steve Christie from Blackroll NZ, Tom Ormond from Hawthorne Coffee, Nathan from Blackbird Goods and Shaz and Garon from Ecokiosk were among the businesses who stepped in and offered to lend her bags and labels until more arrived.
Networking and problem-solving are all in a day’s work for this savvy entrepreneur.
Mel is grateful to be living and working in Hawke’s Bay. “There is a great deal of support and a ‘We’ve got your back’ sentiment amongst small businesses at the moment, and I really hope it’s here to stay. I love that in NZ you can have a query about something, send a CEO a LinkedIn message to ask how they deal with it, then they’ll make the time to have a chat with you the next day. Having worked in Ireland, the UK and Australia on my OE, I’ve never experienced that anywhere else.”
Reid Produce Co.
Over the last 26 years the Reid family business has evolved from a small local producer to one of the region’s largest fruit and vegetable processors.
Glen Reid stepped in as general manager in 2003, after the sudden passing of founder Alan Reid. Glen’s sister, Fiona Gunn – company accountant, and brother Michael Reid – sales and procurement manager, have also joined the business. The Hastings-based company (rebranded as Reid Produce Co. last year), employ up to 50 staff, with many long-serving employees.
Classed as an essential service, they continued operating throughout Level 4, but restrictions created a lot of inefficiencies. Staff were split into teams operating in three separate areas of the business. Each team had different start, break and finish times. Distancing measures reduced productivity, and some key staff were not available to work whilst following Covid protocols. On top of that, they lost a large portion of their turnover when service to the hospitality industry was halted and some export contracts cancelled.
The company’s modus operandi is to constantly strive to find new, innovative ways to meet diverse customer requirements, as well as adapting to the constraints of produce seasonality. So, when lockdown hit, they quickly formulated a plan to redeploy staff.
Delivering fresh produce boxes to residential addresses was their first foray into a customer-facing business model. Consumers were online and looking for home delivery options as an alternative to the stress of queuing to get into the supermarket or sitting up until midnight with their finger hovering over the keyboard to get an i-Shop timeslot.
The generous, well-priced boxes offer a wide variety of fresh produce and were enthusiastically received. Getting a retail offering off the ground at short notice wasn’t easy however. Fiona points out, “Everyone says ‘you did so well selling all those boxes’, but it takes time to get it right and understand the pit-falls along the way.”
The boxes “tick a lot of boxes” for the family business, who want to showcase healthy, nutritious food at a great price. “It shows what can be achieved, and also eliminates food waste,” says Fiona.
The siblings understand that a lot of people prefer to choose their own produce, but by covering the basics and including a few “different” fruits or veges, they strike a good balance to please most. The boxes appealed to a cross-section of the community during the time of crisis, but longer term they are really targeting those in the community who simply appreciate affordable fresh food.
It was heartening to see that there were some incredibly kind-hearted community groups purchasing boxes to get fresh food to families in need during lockdown. Reid Produce Co. see their role during the time of displaced supply chains as “connecting growers with people who need fresh food most.” This need is likely here to stay and the company will continue to offer the service locally and across the North Island for as long as there is reasonable demand.
The siblings are upbeat about prospects for the future. “Due to Hawke’s Bay’s focus on primary industry production, the provision of food products and the desirability of the Hawke’s Bay as a place to live, we feel there is a bright future here.”
Connect & Conquer
When the directors of marketing outfit Connect & Conquer went into lockdown, like the rest of us, they didn’t know exactly what that meant.
For Carlee Atkin and Tracy Pope, the first part of 2020 had already been a time of transition as they moved from a previous iteration of their partnership to their newly-branded, re-focused offering.
“No one knew what was happening, or how long things would take to recover, so we saw an opportunity to both use our skills to help, and to build our new brand in the new, strange climate,” Carlee says.
“The lockdown was, for many people, a time they could work ON their business – with strategy and planning and all the things there is often not time for. So, we worked hard and fast to step into that space.”
And they really were fast. Within the first couple of weeks of Level 4, Connect & Conquer had published a free marketing survival guide, and were running free webinars for small businesses, teaching operators how to look for opportunities, how to get online and to stay on brand, and how to connect and communicate effectively with audiences during the tough, uncertain weeks.
Carlee states that the focus of Connect & Conquer is strategy. Their wheelhouse is working closely with small businesses to get to the heart of their business, define their unique position and offering, and suss the best specific techniques to connect with the right customers and to grow their brands.
“So that’s what we did with our own business. We’re into social media, we’re into people, we’re new and in a position to help others, so we got cracking,” says Carlee.
“People were online so much more, so our social media marketing had really effective reach, and our market was ready to hear from us.”
The uptake for the webinars was great, “They all filled up quick, so we ran more. Just 6–8 people at a time, to keep it meaningful.”
And from all the freebies and activity in the lockdown came actual new business for Connect & Conquer.
Carlee and Tracy have been flat-out on marketing strategy sessions since they hit level 2. Some of the work has come as a result of the MBIE-funded Regional Business Partners Scheme, which has offered government grants to businesses working to beat the Covid-19 slowdown, some has come via word-of-mouth, and some has come from the webinars and online tools offered in April.
“We’ve created full marketing strategies for a number of small businesses ranging from a beauty business, chocolate company, to a leadership coach and loads of others in between, as well as coaching clients through these difficult times to ensure they stay on track and on brand, all since Covid!”
“Things are feeling pretty buoyant at this stage,” Carlee says. “Just goes to show, respond quickly and invest in planning, and you can find plenty of opportunities, even in 2020. Perhaps especially in 2020!”
Lead photo: Mel Lewis. Photo credit: Florence Charvin