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 Orchardist - - Con­tents - By Anne Hardie

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.

Kono's chief ex­ec­u­tive Rachel Taulelei.

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