Q: You’re arguably one of our strongest advocates for New Zealand seafood – where does this passion come from?
A: I don’t come from a commercial fishing family, but like almost every other kiwi, we do love to go out and land the odd fish, dig for pipis, and dive for kina over the summer holidays. Mum loves telling us stories of her Dad taking her fishing in the Marlborough Sounds and though Dad’s come to it a little later in life, he’s now all about the hooks, bait and burley. We’re incredibly fortunate in New Zealand to have the luxury of being able to fish recreationally – for fun or sustenance. And what’s not to love about New Zealand seafood? It’s one of the jewels in our country’s primary sector crown. Carefully managed, it can be in restaurants around the world within a day of it being caught – within hours if it’s in New Zealand. It lends itself perfectly to telling the story of provenance. One of the things I love most, is that you can’t fudge it with seafood – you have to get it right.
Q: You spent nearly 10 years as a food and beverage ambassador for NZTE in the USA – how has this shaped your view of our industry?
A: It gave me an appreciation of the world view of New Zealand. We are tiny in the scheme of things, but we carry great weight through our New Zealand story. It also gave me an appreciation of the magnitude of the world market, and within that, the niche New Zealand needs to occupy. Generally speaking we need to play in the limited supply, high demand and consequently high value game.
Q: It’s been 10 years since you started Yellow Brick Road with a mission to transform the domestic food service approach to NZ seafood – is it mission accomplished?
A: I actually created YBR to tackle North America – to increase the value of our seafood in-market by overlaying it with a story of provenance and responsible fishing. Six months into that plan I gave some of our fish to local chefs who professed it to be better than most fish they’d seen come through their kitchen door. While I’d been in the US for 10 years singing our gastronomic praises as being a world–class producer of food and beverages (which we are), I’m not sure I appreciated the gap that had opened up domestically. It seemed we’d morphed into a nation of skinless, boneless fillet eaters. We were comfortable with the ideas around happy pigs and free range eggs, but sustainable fishing wasn’t part of the mainstream conversation. Fast forward to today and the conversation is nowhere near finished, in fact it feels like it’s just hitting third gear. It may also be a case of two steps forward, one step back, so it’s a challenge. I’m really happy about the messages around sustainability, responsibility, and provenance we’ve been able to share through Yellow Brick Road. I like to think we agitate from the edges, and that the more conscious we all are around the issues, the better we’ll be as an industry. We’re phenomenally proud of the fishermen we work with – they’re the real story. Such good, hard working, passionate people. It’s incredibly satisfying to be able to add value to their work.
Q: What made you want to trade working for yourself at Yellow Brick Road to working for 4000 shareholders of the Wakatu Incorporation that Kono belongs to?
A: I didn’t build Yellow Brick Road in order to sell it. It wasn’t ever in the cards until the stars aligned with Kono. I’m actually one of the 4000 shareholders of Wakatu, so it’s a privilege to sit in this seat. It comes with immense responsibility to leave a legacy, but it’s an opportunity I relish. A homecoming of sorts. Every day I get to walk past a wall that’s imbued with names of the 254 Maori land owners who first settled this region. My great great grandfather is on there, so it’s him, and our other tupuna (ancestors) who give me the motivation to turn Kono into a world-class company. Wrapping the resources of Kono around Yellow Brick Road can only mean sound and sustainable growth. And on the flipside it’s hugely exciting to bring an entrepreneurial mind-set to a large organisation.
Q: How would you describe what you do to friends outside the industry?
A: I tell them we’re a Maori food and beverage business based at the top of the South Island with interests in seafood, horticulture, beverages, and food manufacturing. That we’re a family business, and that we’re going to be the best indigenous food and beverage company in the world.
Q: What’s the biggest challenge for Kono over the next 5 years?
A: The biggest challenge is managing the volatility of climate. It is our best friend and our greatest foe. We have to find a way to even out the highs and lows, which is a million dollar challenge, and one I know we’re not alone in. We need to explore new markets, new products, and at every stage of the game, innovate.
Q: What’s the biggest opportunity?
A: Making money from waste and innovating our way from volume to value. The New Zealand primary sector loves to play in the commodity space. But as a niche producer, that’s simply not tenable long term. We need to lift our game and be smart about what we do with our resources. Take a nose to scale approach to fish, as opposed to sending it around the world green. I’m not suggesting we add cost to everything we do, but we do need to add value. Explore avenues for every part of the fish. Make money from waste.
Q: Which markets do you think have the biggest upside?
A: You’d have to say China given its potential, but that’s a slow burn market. More immediately for us it’s the US.
Q: Kono is not the only hat you wear – what other organisations are you involved with?
A: I wear a few governance hats that keep me on my toes – Aotearoa Fisheries, lamb supply company Headwaters, Wellington Regional Stadium Trust, Sir Peter Blake Trust, craft brewers Yeastie Boys, and Wellington Culinary Events Trust. I also mentor young people with a flair for business through programmes like Young Enterprise, Venture Up and Lightning Lab XX. I’m pretty keen on encouraging young people to become job creators.
Q: What’s the potential for Maori business in aquaculture?
A: Like others in New Zealand, it’s phenomenal. Wild resource, while quota managed, is a finite resource. Aquaculture knows few bounds – we have world class science, pristine conditions, and an appetite for experimentation and discovery that poise us for success. Maori have a unique story in any space – it’s the one thing that differentiates us from the rest of the world. But that story must be authentic, and it has to support a stellar product for it to have value in the international markets.
Q: You are one of only five female CEOs among the country’s top 100 F&B companies – why are there so few?
A: 5/100 is poor by anyone’s standards and likely reflects the New Zealand corporate market in general. If I take an optimistic position however, it means there is enormous opportunity for growth. I’d like to see that change happen with urgency. It’s a fact that the more diverse a company is, at every level from the board down, the better they perform. And who doesn’t want that?
Q: Do you see yourself as an ambassador for women in the industry?
A: If I can inspire or motivate women to participate in the primary sector, and fishing in particular, that’s a pretty good day’s work. It’s a phenomenal industry to be a part of – I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Q: You’ve just been made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for Services to the food and hospitality industry – do you have any plans to challenge Richie McCaw for New Zealander of the Year?
A: Richie who? Haha…
Q: Finally, what would you have for your last meal?
A: Easy – a raw scallop straight out of the water. I’d go happy.