Kiwi horticulture is big business. In the year ending June 2019 horticulture exports reached a total value of $6.2 billion and accounted for more than 10% of New Zealand’s total merchandise export income. 1 That’s a lot of exporters moving a lot of product. Freshco, founded in 1989, is one of those exporters. Specialising in apples, squash, cherries and asparagus, they were in the middle of their squash season early this year when everything started to change. COVID-19 hit. For Director John Mangan, the first issues started to appear in logistics.
“China reacted immediately. Vietnam, a large market for us, completely closed up. That’s a problem when you’re in the perishable produce game. We were trying to get produce off boats, trying to get boats to berth in New Zealand.
“We had an incident where a crew member of one of the ships porting in Nelson got on in Brisbane, and the vessel was denied entry as a result. We were running around trying to get the containers off the wharf and into markets. All you could do was take every day as it comes.”
As similar exporters know, this sort of work can be high octane at the best of times. Mangan and his team are used to solving problems. He says everyone immediately got to work adjusting to the realities of the situation.
“Our staff had to stay in separate bubbles, had to create little communities and clusters of their own. We built Perspex screens and cardboard barriers in the packing shed. One young man, trying to make a career as a pack house worker, had to step up and suddenly take control of a unit. Stories like that happened every day. We’ve been incredibly lucky and fortunate, but they have managed to do very well.
“Staff will solve problems if you engage them, and they didn’t need us to sound the order from our offices. Bring all levels into it, because we all need to figure out the best way to get 20 people isolated in a shed, still able to work and go home healthy and safe. The team came together and adapted. What the team got out of it was a sense of accomplishment.”
These stories will be a familiar one to many businesses over the past year, as we all learn to live with COVID-19 and adapt our operations accordingly. Thankfully, our distance from the rest of the world has already prepared many to successfully navigate these uncharted waters.
“Most export businesses from New Zealand are very professional, because you must be,” says Mangan. “You’re so far away and it’s so expensive getting your product anywhere that a mistake can have very severe consequences. If you get an order from a supermarket chain, you deliver it and get the quality right.
“You’ve got to plan; you need the funding and you’ve got to have the logistics to support it. We have a strong reputation on a practical level. I think we are very lucky in New Zealand to have good, clean food that people want to eat every day.”
Amanda Liddle from ExportNZ says that businesses in the Hawke’s Bay region have shown resilience over the last year.
“The challenges and stress have been enormous, but with that comes opportunity. The opportunity to learn, to adapt and innovate. We’ve seen businesses in the region whose ability to be agile, has meant they’ve come through this year stronger than ever,” says Liddle.
She said that this month they are recognising the strength of these local businesses at their annual event on the 20th November.
“We want to share the knowledge and experience of export champions and people who have successfully adapted, turning crisis into opportunity. Our speakers will share insights on what is coming, and how Kiwi exporters can prepare and stay ahead of the game.”
If you’re interested in exporting and keen to hear more from companies like Freshco be sure to come along to ‘From Crisis to Opportunity – Taking Hawke’s Bay to the World’, hosted by ExportNZ, Hawke’s Bay and ASB. Learn more here.