Industry pioneer, serial innovator, accountant and community leader. Since obtaining one of the country’s first commercial marine farming licences, Bruce Hearn has been an important contributor to the evolution of the industry both on and off the water. After six years as a director of Aquaculture New Zealand he was elected last year to serve as the organisation’s Chairman.
Q: You were working for the Marlborough Electric Power Board when you first started marine farming in 1973 – what made you trade in your executive career?
A: I’ve always had a passion for the sea. I grew up diving and fishing – I think it’s in my blood. When I first started with aquaculture, I was only part time on the marine farm and still worked full time with the Power Board. Almost everyone in those days had to work around other jobs to help pay for the farms. But right from the start I loved everything about the industry – the boats, the environment, the challenges, the innovations, the people, everything. I still do.
Q: What has kept you in the industry all this time?
A: I’m still as passionate about aquaculture now as I was 40 years ago. The industry and the nature of our work has evolved over time from the early days when we all worked really hard just trying to develop a farming system that worked, to today’s modern industry with a strategic business focus. A lot more of my work is planning, marketing and office based but I enjoy the constant challenges and I still love going out on a boat and working with my staff.
Q: You’ve been elected Chairman of Aquaculture New Zealand after serving as a director since the organisation was formed in 2007 – why did you take on the role?
A: AQNZ has an important role to play for the industry. It was established to provide a united voice for all farmers and processors and build a platform across policy, marketing, communications and science to liberate growth. We’ve made significant progress over the past 6 years and there is still plenty of work remaining. I took on the chairman’s role so that I could use my institutional knowledge and technical experience to help guide the AQNZ work to get the best results for the industry.
Q: What are AQNZ’s priorities moving forward?
A: One of the industry’s biggest concerns is maintaining social licence. As many of us have consents due for renewal in the next 11-12 years or are applying for new water space, our licence to operate will be tested in the not-too-distant future. It is essential that industry demonstrates that it is responsible and earns the respect of our communities. In turn AQNZ needs to work with government, media and community groups to
promote our efforts to boost public support and understanding. This will go a long way to encouraging further investment in the sector by helping create an environment that provides more certainty. The organisation is also working across key programmes in environmental, biosecurity, research and marketing spaces.
Q: It’s a little known fact that you were awarded the 1990 Commemoration Medal for services to New Zealand – what was it for?
A: The medal was awarded for community services for 9 years as chairman of the Regional Development Council and Business Development Board.
Q: You’re an accountant by training – how important are those skills in running your own business and in chairing AQNZ?
A: I still am a chartered accountant and I still think like an accountant and run my business like an accountant. It’s made me very cautious in business planning and I keep a close eye on all costs. And with AQNZ I have a strong focus on getting value for money for the levies that we all pay.
Q: You’ve developed various farming techniques that have helped evolve Greenshell mussel and flat oyster aquaculture. Is innovation an essential trait for a New Zealand marine farmer?
A: Absolutely. In the early days, people who didn’t innovate – didn’t survive. It’s a very innovative industry in general because it’s still so young and we have collectively developed a unique farming system. Even today you have to be constantly looking for ways to improve your productivity and quality and I think in 5-10 years’ time the mussel industry will be vastly different as a result of the work that’s going on in various selective breeding and hatchery programmes.
Q: How important is marketing for your business and the wider industry?
A: Marketing is the key. I’ve come to realise that you have to work from the market back. In New Zealand we can be production led but for me, the consumer is king. This has come from the hard lessons learned through over-production. We have come a long way in developing strong international markets but there is still scope to drive further demand.
Q: Your Tio Point oysters have developed a strong following in gourmet food circles – what is it about them that’s so appealing?
A: Flat oysters are the champagne of oysters and there are only a few people who farm them. We have developed world-first technology that allows us to farm them in the mid-water and that means they grow fat, meaty and are very tasty. Meat-to-shell ratios are higher than bottom cultured oysters.
Q: Does having an individual, branded product provide you with a comparative advantage?
A: Tio is the Maori name for oyster and it’s also the name of a point near the entry of the bay where our oysters are farmed, so it works very well as a brand name for our oysters. Tio Point oysters have developed a good reputation in certain circles around New Zealand but the next step is to establish the brand overseas.
Q: You’ve got an open water dive ticket. Do you still get under the water?
A: I still love to dive and get out for a feed whenever I can but I leave all the diving around the farm to my staff these days.
Q: Do you have any plans to retire?
A: I have no plans to retire any time soon. There are too many exciting things to do. I’ve tried rock lobster, paua, seaweed, paua pearls, conditioning kina etc, and oysters are a fun challenge – at times. Like I said earlier, I still love working in this industry as much today as I did when I first started.