The Ladbrooks, Wattie's peach growers for three generations

In 1934, during the Great Depression, James Wattie, then manager of Hawke’s Bay Fruit Growers, started a fruit-processing business. It would later become an icon, with a lifelong presence in the pantries, fridges and freezers of almost every New Zealand home, holding a special place in Kiwi culinary culture. 

Eighty-seven years later, from those early beginnings on the fertile Heretaunga plains, Wattie’s has grown to include manufacturing plants in Hastings, Canterbury, Dunedin and Auckland and is now part of global food giant Kraft Heinz, a US$26 billion revenue company with nearly 40,000 employees around the world.

In New Zealand, Wattie’s along with Cerebos Greggs and Cerebos Skellerup make up HJ Heinz, a group with $767 million revenue, $41 million profit before tax and around $900 million in total assets for the year ended December 2020. 

Neil Heffer, a genial English import and father of four, has held the managing director’s role at Wattie’s New Zealand for three years. He spoke with BayBuzz during Auckland’s Delta Level 4 lockdown.

Force for good

The business was founded on the principles of sustainability and innovation, not wanting to see food wasted, and providing food for people. 

Wattie’s is focused on delivering on the legacy of company founder Sir James Wattie, Heffer says.

Neil Heffer

“We don’t want to just be a big corporate. We recognise what the Wattie’s brand means to people and we want to celebrate that, not try and diminish it.”

A lot of thought has gone into making the business and its brand positioning more modern and relevant to Kiwi consumers. Wattie’s new “feed the love” brand campaign captures moments between friends and family, celebrating the small, but meaningful things Kiwis do every day to feed the love. Naturally, Wattie’s products are front and centre.

Heffer is acutely conscious of the responsibility that come with a brand like Wattie’s. 

“It’s an absolute privilege to be custodians of such a fantastic brand. We see a lot of power in James Wattie’s founding purpose, and are trying to reimagine a modern day version of the business, which is as a force for good. 

“We want to have great relationships with our growers, we want to create amazing careers … our products (most of which are made in New Zealand) have great provenance, and there’s a great sustainability story. 

“We have a job to do as a company to help consumers understand how good our products are. They are grown in New Zealand, have low food miles, are sustainably produced to high degree of professionalism, in sustainable packaging, are remarkably good value for money and nutritious.” 

Essential services during Covid

As an essential provider, the company operates during Level 4 lockdowns, with protocols that Heffer describes as even more health and safety focused than government guidelines. Factory staff have to wear masks and PPE during long shifts, are temperature tested daily, work within bubbles, and take staggered breaks.

Heffer concedes that the various lockdowns have been hard on people, in both production and office-based roles.

“The thing that is most urgent about running a business in New Zealand at the moment is making sure that you do the right thing and look after people. You have to put profit to one side because the cost of not doing that is extraordinarily high. We are constantly re-evaluating if we are getting it right and making sure that we are doing the right thing.”

Meeting consumer demand has put pressure on factories. The first two weeks of August’s Level 4 lockdown saw demand triple across a number of categories that Heffer describes as “panic buying”. The business managed to meet demand by holding more safety stock, planning flexibly and adjusting its supply chain. As for getting product on shelves, Wattie’s has a large team of merchandisers, and the company incentivised those who could, to work at night to replenish shelves, reducing the risk to their households. 

There’s no escaping the fact that essential FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) businesses have done well throughout Covid. Food businesses like Wattie’s have benefitted from extra volume, but it’s not something that Heffer takes pleasure in. “It is tough on our people and we’d be happy to do without it.”

Local relationships 

Fruit and vegetable growers have been essential to Wattie’s from the very beginning. The company has more than 2,000 grower relationships nationwide and around 300 in Hawke’s Bay. Local growers produce a range of fruit and vegetables for the company, including peaches, pears, plums, boysenberries, beetroot, corn, and tomatoes.

Heffer observes that grower relationships are the one constant in the Wattie’s business. Some relationships, like that with Tukituki Gold Queen peach grower Joseph Burbury are now third generation. Burbury’s orchard produces 6% of Wattie’s Golden Queen peaches each season, as well as other peach varieties, apricots, and cherries and pears.

Being located close to where the fruit is grown is an added bonus, says Heffer. “It’s not a given that food processors will be close by. Wattie’s Hastings plants are no more than 20 minutes from growers and that ensures that crops arrive in peak condition and 

processed at their best.”

In Hastings, crops can be processed within hours of harvest and the two crops with the shortest timelines (of between two and four hours) are tomatoes and corn. Wattie’s King Street canning facility is the Southern Hemisphere’s largest, producing 172 million cans annually. Stacking the cans end to end would reach all the way to London. 

With four sites and a distribution centre, Heffer says it is a huge campus of production facilities, each with its own micro economy.

Such massive production and distribution facilities rely on a small army of workers, and at peak season, nearly 1,000 locals are employed.

Labour shortage

Like many other regions, Hawke’s Bay is facing a labour shortage. Closed borders means no backpackers and a significantly reduced number of RSE workers. Growers are under pressure and crops at risk of not being harvested. Wattie’s is potentially affected by the labour shortages, with flow on effects to consumers.

It’s a lose/lose/lose situation. “Wattie’s miss out, but so do shoppers and the RSE workers who would otherwise be earning and sending money back to their families. 

“We’re doing what we can to support the industry, as well as talking to local MPs like Stuart Nash as well as other ministries such as MBIE about the challenges,” he says.

Hastings Mayor Sandra Hazlehurst says Heinz Wattie’s is synonymous with Hastings’ long history as a production powerhouse.

“They have helped put us on the map as one of the best food producing regions in the world.

“We’re really proud of our history with this company whose food is a staple for many New Zealand households and is also a major exporter of canned goods around the globe.

“Wattie’s has remained committed to Hastings since it was founded in 1934 by Sir James Wattie. Sir James was a pioneer in food production and today is a vital employer of hundreds of people in our community,” she says.

Community partnerships

Wattie’s has a number of community partnerships, the most notable being with Plunket. That relationship was formalised in 1990, with the launch of Wattie’s-Plunket baby foods, but has its origins in the late 1950s, when Wattie’s launched a range of baby food. 

Other partnerships are with City Mission, Salvation Army, New Zealand Food Network and Nourished for Nil. Heffer notes that “the demand for food through the Covid situation is unfortunately higher than it’s ever been.” So far in 2021, Wattie’s has donated more than 3,600 tonnes of food to good causes.

Here in Hawke’s Bay, Nourished for Nil founder Christina McBeth says that Wattie’s has been a massive support since 2017.

“Wattie’s first donation was 80 pallets of pasta sauce that had been wrongly labelled. Since then they have been very generous, donating cancelled export orders, ageing stock and close to use-by-date product. We don’t question what they give us.”

Nourished for Nil has branches in Hastings, Napier, Flaxmere and Camberley. Pre-lockdown it was helping 450 people daily, rising by a third during lockdown to 600 per day.

McBeth says the relationship with Wattie’s has grown. “As we’ve gotten bigger, we can handle what they give us. We have the infrastructure to 

manage a lot of product, and I think that means that they’re more likely to give to us again.

“We also have developed relationships with local management who love what we are doing and how we are helping the community,” concludes McBeth.

Innovating to the world

Wattie’s has aspirations of being a “test kitchen” for the Kraft Heinz group, says Heffer. 

“The vast majority of Wattie’s innovation and new products reaching shelves in New Zealand supermarkets are developed locally, and there’s potential for these to be shared with the world. 

“Because of the number of categories we’re in, we’re in a really great place to innovate well. Kraft Heinz’s major markets are the UK, Canada and the US and New Zealand is a more progressive version (of these markets). It’s a brilliant place to innovate because our shoppers are quite progressive in their trends. 

“We have a relatively vertically integrated operation in terms of the relationships with our growers, and we can be quite nimble. We can try things here that we can potentially launch overseas.”

Heffer cites Plant Proteinz, a soup product developed locally and launched last year, that reflects two growing food trends: plant-based and high protein diets. The new range is already in Aussie supermarkets and could go further. Likewise Heinz (Seriously) Good Mayonnaise and Aioli is a global brand that started in New Zealand. 

Of (Seriously) Good, Heffer says: “It’s a stunning product that is now a massive brand in the UK and a really big brand in other markets.”

As to what keeps him awake at night, Heffer says that making sure the business keeps people safe during Covid is a big consideration. 

“Every time there is a new lockdown we think that we’ve done it before, but there are nuances to it. It puts businesses under immense pressure to revalidate all of our health and safety and all other protocols, to make sure we are looking after people. We haven’t faced Delta before. We have a really good plan, but that is the thing that is most arresting about my role at the moment.”

One of Kraft Heinz’s global values is doing the right thing, and Heffer says it has never been harder in such an ambiguous situation as Covid. 

“We have this outside influence that can completely disrupt what you’ve going to do for the next two months. Keeping people safe is not as straight forward as it usually is.”

As to the future of the company, Heffer is upbeat.

“We really see New Zealand as a great market for the business. We have a clear role to play. We try to deliver things for people locally, but we are ambitious for New Zealand with our business. That means that the future of the business is really exciting. 

Heffer says that Wattie’s international owners care a lot about New Zealand and take it seriously. 

“We can get investment, we can also use those global connections to export New Zealand to the world, and that’s how we see the ambition for our New Zealand business coming to fruition.”

As Wattie’s edges towards to its centenary, it’s time to reflect on a brand that’s been a constant in Kiwi homes for nigh on ninety years. While it remains constant it also constantly changes to ensure that it reflects modern New Zealand. Through food, Wattie’s is showing us who we are. Surely that’s a legacy worth preserving? 

Wattie’s Facts

Heinz Wattie’s in New Zealand

Founded in 1934

• Manufacturing in Hawke’s Bay, Christchurch, Dunedin, Auckland

• Key brands: Wattie’s, Heinz, Chef, Craigs, Oak

• 2,000 grower relationships nationally, 300 in Hawke’s Bay

• Hawke’s Bay cropping includes peaches, pears, plums, boysenberry, beetroot, corn, tomatoes

• Nearly 1,000 employees during peak season

4 sites in Hawke’s Bay:

• King Street canning operation producing 172 million cans annually.

• Frederick Street producing a wide range of frozen vegetables.

• Tomoana edible producing frozen meals, dressings, jams and pouch soups.

• Tomoana petfood producing Chef, Champ, Bruno, Winna.

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