Comvita boss saw boom in Middle East

By David Porter

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Executive profile, Brett Hewlett, CEO of Comvita.
Executive profile, Brett Hewlett, CEO of Comvita.

The scariest experience in Brett Hewlett's career was the week he spent being escorted around factories in war-torn Baghdad just two months after the US took control in 2003, as part of a UN business mission that was trying to re-start Iraq's food supply lines.

The Comvita chief executive was then nearing the end of more than a decade of senior roles with Swiss-headquartered food packaging company TetraPak, which saw him spend five years in Saudi Arabia, then a further five years opening markets in trouble spots throughout the Middle East from a base in Beirut, Lebanon.

"Baghdad was real front-line stuff where you wore a flak jacket and had armoured patrol escorts," said Mr Hewlett, who also took part in meetings with new US-backed Iraqi ministers who had set up offices in ousted president Saddam Hussein's former palace.

By then, Mr Hewlett was managing director for TetraPak's Eastern Mediterranean operation, covering a difficult territory that included not only Iraq, but Syria, Palestine and Jordan, from Beirut.

"I was there through a lot of changes so I had to duck and dive in terms of where the market opportunities were," he said. "I had lots of excitement, but I thoroughly enjoyed it."

Mr Hewlett's involvement with TetraPak indirectly dated back to his first job after completing a food science and technology degree at Massey, when he joined stainless-steel food equipment manufacturer Alfa Laval's Hamilton office.

Brought up on a Waikato dairy farm, he had left school at the end of the sixth form and taken a succession of dairy factory jobs with the then New Zealand Co-operative Dairy Co (later Fonterra). Mentored by dairy industry icon Ross Townsend, he was encouraged to go to university, working at the dairy company as a management trainee in the holidays. But he eventually joined Alfa Laval on graduation because it was an international company.

"It meant after two years with them, I was able to walk into a job in London when I set off on my OE," said Mr Hewlett. There he found himself undertaking a succession of increasingly demanding project management assignments for Alfa Laval, setting up dairy equipment production lines.

In 1992, Alfa Laval was taken over by TetraPak, so he opted to leave and do an MBA at leading business school IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland. That paid off when TetraPak recruited him after he completed the MBA and offered him the job of commercial director in Saudi Arabia.

"It was probably the best thing I ever did," said Mr Hewlett. "It was the most mind-expanding career experience, working with a truly global group of people, and we grew the business like crazy - everything was boom time in Saudi in those days."

However by 2004, with the Middle East continuing to be unstable, Mr Hewlett said the family felt it was time to come back to New Zealand.

"Just after we returned to New Zealand in early 2005, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated with a massive car bomb right in an area we used to go to a lot as a family," he said.

Mr Hewlett spent a year getting re-acquainted with New Zealand business, doing some angel investing and consulting, before getting the chief executive role at Comvita in September 2005, which ticked a lot of boxes on his wish list.

"Comvita was entrepreneurial and local, but still doing a lot of good things internationally, and there was an opportunity to take share options," he said. "I thought it had enormous potential for growth."

John Gordon, a partner with Comvita lawyers Sharp Tudhope, who has known Mr Hewlett for many years, said that he was the perfect leader for the company at that stage of its development.

"What it needed was someone like him to carry it through to the next stage," he said. "I think he's done an outstanding job."

- Bay of Plenty Times

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