You trip over smart, successful people every day in Hawke’s Bay. It’s like we breed them here. You’ll probably know the names – Drury, Wallace, Nimon, Bostock, Buck, Whyte and White. 

But what about the names you’ve never heard? The businessmen and women who flock to the region or return home from somewhere fantastic and far away, ripe with ideas? 

Or those who never left, but dreamed up a scheme, a service, a product or a project that took off? They might be injecting millions into our regional economy, or helping put New Zealand on the world map, all from a tin shed, home office or dusty industrial estate. 

As a public relations consultant and writer, I have the amazing privilege of interacting with Hawke’s Bay’s sharpest minds and most creative souls on a weekly basis. Some are clients, others inspiration. 

Sven Baker falls into the latter camp. Beginning his career as a graphic designer, he spent most of his life – over 30 years – as one of four partners at preeminent brand and marketing agency Designworks. 

The role took him across the world, earning him a host of accolades, including the coveted Best Awards Black Pin for design achievement in 2012. But towards the end of his tenure, before selling to global communications agency WPP, it also sparked in him a yearning to invest in others’ journeys, and he began getting involved in start-ups (including his current project, Good Farmers NZ goodfarmers.nz and a few remarkable failures, which we’ll come to later). 

“A pathway of accidents” is how Sven, a chatty bloke who loves old cars and new businesses, rather humbly describes his career to date. 

Like so many of our most interesting folk, he’s new to Hawke’s Bay, having moved here with wife Lara and their tribe of boys three years ago. They purchased the stunning Glen Aros Estate in Raukawa, where Sven spent his time pootling around the country roads in his 1956 General Motors Company truck, taming the mad garden, and hatching fresh plans. 

Enter Good Farmers 

Just don’t call him an entrepreneur. “I have a problem with that term,” he begins, “because if an entrepreneur is what you set out to be, you’re probably going to fail. People tend to see it as glamorous work. But there’s nothing glamorous about it.” 

So, how would Sven Baker – definitely-not-an-entrepreneur – define himself? 

He takes a beat, and a sip of coffee. “At my heart,” he says, “I like creating new things. Possibly because I’m naturally impatient. I’m bored easily. Having said that, the thing about any enterprise is that you can’t afford to get bored. You have to persevere.” 

Driven, he says “by an intoxicating combination of adrenalin and fear,” Sven established Good Farmers in mid 2021 with $100,000 in capital and a good many more hours’ worth in labour. The concept is simple – take the best small food producers in New Zealand, cosset them under Sven’s umbrella of premium branding assets, marketing expertise and exposure, and deliver a Good Farmers proposition of New Zealand’s most delicious meat, muesli, honey, eggs, coffee – and more – to retailers around the country. 

There are, he says, criteria to join the collective – not every Mom and Pop producer can automatically become a Good Farmer. 

First, they need to pass the taste test (this is something that tends to happen in his own kitchen, with Lara and sons Ike, Joe, Abe and Ezra each throwing in their two cents). Importantly, each supplier must also demonstrate a firm commitment to measurables like sustainability, regenerative agriculture, land care management and workplace ethics to access the community. 

But, he acknowledges, it’s a focus on constant improvement he’s really looking for. 

“It’s called Good Farmers, not Perfect Farmers, because we’re realistic – we want our community to be on the pathway to good, and better. It’s also recognition that despite what you read in the newspapers, which is that all farmers are environmental criminals, the majority care very much about their land, their produce and their stock and are actually incredibly frustrated with a perception that is, in many cases, unjustified.” 

The dollar investment from producers to access Sven’s Good Farmers collective is a commercially guarded secret. “But it’s not a franchise,” he points out, “rather, a community platform including assets in exchange for a small proportion of revenue. That revenue goes towards a shared fund that helps build and grow the platform.” 

It also pays for things like the trademark, a public relations and social influencer campaign that rolled out at launch, and trade show attendance. 

Sven acknowledges his format is unproven. “But it’s an interesting model because it’s really about building a strong community rather than one successful business. And, right now, it’s not very capital intensive. However to move to the next level, which is being mass market, promoted via mass media, with a marketing budget and eventually export, there’s work to do.” 

Ah, marketing. It’s the bane of many a young business – viewed as spendy, difficult to quantify, complex, and overwhelming. It seems that having a Good Farmer logo slapped on the front of your single origin chocolate bars would come as a welcome relief to a start-up struggling to make noise in a crowded market. “Sure” Sven says, nodding in agreement. “Most are very small producers who just don’t have that marketing sophistication in terms of their scale or resources.” 

Is it liberating to hand that side of their business over to a known expert? He thinks, in some cases, it might be. Sven references Lindsay Farm, a passionate local organic A2 milk producer that hit the headlines after becoming embroiled in a battle with MPI over its farmgate sales of unpasteurised product. “When you’re faced with a fight to the death like that, you’re either likely to go out of business, or you need to think of a different strategy. In this case, that meant coming on board with Good Farmers and installing a pasteurised processing solution.” 

It’s too soon to say whether the leap has saved the business … however it might have. Or, it might be an unmitigated disaster, he ventures. He’s had a couple of those, too. 

Four years ago, Sven founded a company called Zero C, which sought to provide a zero carbon B2B transport option. “We worked with corporates and businesses, predominantly in the main centres, offering transport services which could count against a company’s carbon reduction targets.” 

Users could book transport via an Uber-like app that was fully integrated with their online calendar. “It would intuitively know if you were going to the airport, for example. It was a really cool model, and it had smarts. And we were just getting going, with around a dozen cars in the fleet, and a number of full-time employees, when Covid hit.” 

With companies closing their office doors and locking down, bookings dried up overnight. “It was a prime example of an extreme impact. And it was heartbreaking – devastating – as well as financially damaging, and I’m still wounded by it. Because the concept was brilliant, and I was truly passionate about it.” 

Sven Baker

Luckily, Sven and family were already here in Hawke’s Bay, and Sven had other matters to distract him, including designing stables on the property for the family’s ponies. Hawke’s Bay also provided an exciting environment for fostering his Good Farmers brainwave and establishing initial partnerships. So far, the coffee, meat, eggs, dairy, relishes and many more ranges are primarily Hawke’s Bay producers entering a new phase of business progression. “You start where you are, right?” offers Sven. “But the aim is to have producers from across New Zealand.” 

And there are many other benefits to being here. “In other cities, it can be like swimming in a lake of alligators. Here, it’s a gentler pace, and much more informal in terms of how you develop a conversation.” 

For instance, none of Sven’s partners so far have signed licensing agreements. “We’re giving the relationships six months, and then if things work out, we’ll formalise the partnership. Forcing producers into a legally binding document on day one just wouldn’t work in a place like Hawke’s Bay.” 

Of course, it also helps to be surrounded by the tight knit Raukawa community and his supportive family, although Sven says he remains “selective” about what he shares with those closest to him. “You don’t want to bring them down when you’re having a tough time. Having said that, I’m not sure my family’s all that interested in what I do,” he adds, laughing. 

“Instead, I like a bit of chainsaw therapy to counter frustration. If I just need to chill, I get on the ride-on.” 

His main priority these days, he says, is only working on that which brings him pleasure and satisfaction. “I’m approaching the latter part of my career now,” he says, “and although I’m a long way from the corporate world I left behind, and the battering and bruising that came with it, my main priority these days is to have fun. 

“I just want to work with people who are passionate, and create something good.” 

Photos: Florence Charvin

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