Art and Helen Blom landed in New Zealand, with just their backpacks – and a dream.
“We had a dream of owning 1000 cows and having six kids at the same school,” Art said.
They had finished agricultural studies in their native Holland and travelled to the Southland region to get hands-on dairy farming experience.
“We started working on a farm to learn the ropes. We worked our way up through the various stepping stones and eventually to farm ownership,” Art said.
“That was 17-18 years ago. Balfour, in Northern Southland, wasn’t a dairying area then, there weren’t many cows in that area and we saw an opportunity and went for it.
“We achieved 1000 cows well and truly, but only got to four kids.”
With children Nick 19, Maegen 17, Emma 16 and Art 13, the family built up their operation to run three farms before embarking on a journey that would ultimately lead them to the Marlborough Sounds and kick-start a quest to see mussels recognised as the pinnacle of New Zealand’s seafood basket.
“We were lucky enough that our dairy farm kept growing and growing and it was fun, but we’d reached our limits,” Art said.
“Our kids were growing up fast but we were working all the time. We didn’t want to miss out on this time with our kids so we decided to take a year off and travel the world together as a family.
“In order to do that, we had to improve our business skills and develop a whole new system to be able to leave the business with our staff. It took two-and-a-half years to develop the system, but it worked.
“We went to Asia, South America, Canada, Europe and Africa.
“When we came back, we decided we wanted to live further North and we wanted more family time so we went looking for business opportunities that would allow that.”
That search led them to the Hairy Mussel Co, a Havelock-based mussel producer distributing high-quality mussels to local restaurants and retail stores.
“We knew we wanted to live in the Marlborough Sounds, so we looked into forestry, vineyards and tourism, but the mussel industry interested me the most,” Art said.
“I love the dairy industry, and we still own two farms, but you’re a commodity producer. The milk gets picked up and that’s it. I was looking for a business with a value-added opportunity.
“I love mussels, they really excite us. They’re sustainable. They’re as organic as can be. They’re delicious and they’re healthy.
“Traditionally there has always been a lot of focus on exports but we saw an opportunity on the domestic market and we think we can differentiate ourselves.”
The first step was to develop a new brand, Mills Bay Mussels, to appeal to a broader market, celebrate the provenance of the produce and create a luxury feel.
“When the business was originally set up, the owners wanted to create a fun vibe and appeal to mussel fans,” said daughter Maegen who spearheaded the re-brand while juggling year 13 studies at Marlborough Girls College.
“We wanted to reach out and appeal to all Kiwi seafood lovers and put a different focus on the mussels, because they are awesome.
“They are delicious, they’re healthy, and they’re sustainably farmed in the amazing environment of the Marlborough Sounds.
“There is so much going for them and we really wanted to celebrate that, and connect consumers to where they are grown.”
The next step was to make sure their product reflected their brand story.
“Our core business is the distribution of live mussels, and quality and service is our point of difference,” Art said.
“We focus on delivering the absolute best quality mussels and providing really personal service to our customers. If there is a problem, it may not be our fault, but it’s our responsibility to fix it.”
Another key difference is in the way Art values mussels. “Mussels are as good as salmon. Probably even better than salmon,” he says proudly.
“We just have to treat them like they’re an oyster or a scallop.” And the best way to treat a luxury shellfish, is to live shuck them (see previous page).
“We have found, and our customers agree, that it is the best way to eat mussels,” Art said.
Such has been the reaction to the live shucking that Art believes it is the start of a revolution that will change the way Kiwis view mussels. To reach as many people as possible, he’s started a campaign to travel around the South Island, conducting in-store displays at Foodstuffs grocery stores.
“It’s all very ambitious and we’re just starting out, but the idea is to show as many people as possible how good they can be,” Art said.
“We’ve got a great team at Mills Bay, and it is a real team effort. Everyone from the guys who farm the mussels to those who pack them and everyone in between, loves the mussels as much as us and takes pride in their job. “We’re visiting all the stores we supply and shucking on site and giving people a taste of them grilled or barbecued.
“It’s all low key, but the taste is so good, and it’s all so exciting for me that I feel like there should be music playing, and fireworks going off and someone walking around in a mussel suit – we should make a real party out of it.”
Underpinning the plan are the same approaches Art used in the dairy industry with farming, and business planning and goal setting.
“When I came to New Zealand I got stuck into dairy. I had a big dream, I followed it through and it happened,” he said.
“I had another big dream to travel with my family for a year, and we worked and planned and it happened. “Now we have a new dream. We have a new home. We’ve found something that really excites us and we are going to make it happen – even if it’s one mussel at a time.”