Walking the talk on clean and green
You have to keep raising the bar and never assume the status quo has it right, says the chief executive of Nelson-based M-aori enterprise, Kono, Rachel Taulelei, who has just been awarded a 2017 Prime Minister’s Business Scholarship.
The scholarships are intended to fund study at world-class business schools and Taulelei aims to head to Stanford University for a six-week course next year to build on earlier courses through Te Hono boot camps held there. It’s a university with a heavy consumer focus and an emphasis on being smarter with the resources available, she says, which fits with her view that you have to do more to get more from a global market.
It also fits the philosophy for the company which has become one of the top 100 New Zealand food and beverage companies since it was formed in 2012 as a business arm of Wakat-u Incorporation. Kono, which refers to the traditional flax woven food basket, now employs about 450 people and farms more than 530ha of land and sea in the Top of the South for its wine, cider, seafood, hops, fruit and natural fruit bars operation.
While Kono already has a good story to tell its consumers, with its M-aori heritage and the New Zealand clean, green story, Taulelei says everyone can always do better, and a collaborative approach is needed to make New Zealand stand apart. One of the challenges for everyone is to walk the talk when it comes to New Zealand’s clean, green image, she says.
The wellbeing of the environment and its people led to Kono’s 500-year plan for success which was written over two years with conservation staff, stakeholders and owners and now guides the business.
“The net was cast very widely and fundamentally they arrived at a path that reached out over 500 years that governed the way we behave at the moment. It’s aspirational in nature, but not so lofty that we don’t work steadfastly to come up with intergenerational outcomes. We now have a set of intergeneration outcomes that take us towards our ambition. You have to make them real and tangible and liveable for your staff and shareholders and owners.” Wakat-u Incorporation has some 4,000 shareholders who are all descendents of the original 254 M-aori landowners in the Top of the South and Taulelei is the first direct descendent to take up the chief executive role. She had some experience with the business via Wakat-u’s associate directorship scheme which gives shareholders who show business acumen the opportunity to experience governance and management of Wakat-u. It’s a two-year term, with the first year on a sector board and the second year on the head board, and is part of Wakat-u’s succession plan. For Taulelei, it provided an insight into the business that she is now guiding into the future for generations to come.
Looking after its land and water are obviously integral to its 500-year plan, and she says it’s logical that this will have benefits for the company and also its people.
“If we’re really kind to our land and water, logic tells us we will have a better-producing company. If we’re conscious with practices on vineyards, for example, that should lead to healthier soil, vines and a better wine, and you can tell a better story and have better profitability.” It comes back to constantly raising the bar and Kono is now examining various practices such as organics, biodynamics and even the traditional methods used by its M-aori ancestors who cultivated gardens and took fish and shellfish from the sea, to see how they can be incorporated into today’s business.
“I don’t think you can assume the status quo got it right. There are always alternatives.”
New Zealand companies are all telling their own stories as they market product around the world, but Taulelei would like to also see more collaboration as a country, because those individual stories all depend upon each other. She says there are great examples of companies and individuals proactively going a step further to care for the environment; everyone could do better.
“I don’t think we should stop telling the world we are a firstclass producer of food and beverages, but you’ve got to keep raising the bar and you want everyone in New Zealand to be better. There is a big conversation around social license to operate – we need to all get it correct for everyone to prosper.
“Consumers we are working with around the world are savvy and think about what they are buying and how you treat your animals and people.”
“We can’t have our primary industry companies going renegade or have a complete disaster which affects everyone. And if there is an issue, other New Zealand companies need to support them. There needs to be a process for us to support each other when it doesn’t go to plan.
“You have to do more to get more from a global market. Consumers we are working with around the world are savvy and think about what they are buying and how you treat your animals and people.”
In markets such as the United States, where Taulelei served as North American trade commissioner for New Zealand, the brand is paramount and the number one reason for buying a product, she says.
“Though in China, their first consideration is whether it is imported. The second is country of origin, and New Zealand is great in that respect because of the perception of clean, green and safe. The third consideration is the brand.”
Going forward, Taulelei aims to grow Kono through new water and land space, while recognising the availability of those resources are a constraint nationally for the primary industry.To date, the company has focused its expansion and crop diversification in the Top of the South and she thinks it is time to explore different geography and locations.
“You have to spread your risk; climatic risk is the bane of the primary industry existence. You can diversify through variety in horticulture but we haven’t diversified through geography and location and that’s something I’m interested in exploring as well.”
Acquisitions have been a major part of the company’s growth, such as Annies natural fruit bars and Yellow Brick Road which is a multi-award winning food distribution company that Taulelei founded in 2006. She created it specifically for the fishing industry to deliver seafood speedily to restaurants from people farming or fishing sustainably, and that aligned with Kono’s values when it opted to add it into its business.
Kono refers to the traditional flax food basket.