Zespri is to investigate growing kiwifruit in China and is poised to expand its market reach in the country with a record-breaking sales season forecast in 2016.

The company is also looking to more than treble its staff numbers in the Chinese market in the next three years.

Prime Minister John Key launched the 2016 season for Zespri in Shanghai on April 21, marking a new phase for Zespri's China Strategy.

Chief executive Lain Jager said having Mr Key launch the coming season was a great start to what was set to be a record-breaking season.

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"China is poised to become Zespri's number one market by volume this season and will account for one-fifth of all our sales. We anticipate sales of around 24 million trays in 2016, up about one-third from the 18 million trays sold last season."

Mr Jager said as part of its China Strategy, Zespri planned to expand into five representative offices in the market and increase its Chinese-based staff numbers from 25 to 90.

Zespri would also join with local partners to investigate growing kiwifruit in China as part of its 12-month global supply strategy, he said.

The company had reconfigured its Chinese business model to become "importer of record" and align with the model used in its long-established Japan and European market.

"Ultimately the change will allow us to optimise our quality delivery in market and offer an enhanced level of service to our distribution customers," he said.

Zespri was broadening its distribution and sales from Tier 1 and 2 Chinese cities, and the Eastern Seaboard, and expanding inland into other large provincial cities and more Tier 2 and 3 cities, he said.

New regional offices would be opened in Guangzhou, Xian and Chongqing this year, and Zespri's in-market staff numbers were set to treble over the next few years.

"Zespri would continue to invest strongly in marketing this year to introduce new consumers to our premium product and build returns to our grower-shareholders," he said.

Mr Jager said Zespri was excited about the potential of partnering with Chinese growers to supply the important domestic market with Zespri-branded kiwifruit in the long term.

"This will support our key strategy of 12-month supply," he said.

New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Inc chairman Doug Brown said the announcement was hugely positive for the growers as China was the largest market this year and biggest revenue earner. "Taking out the middle-man in the supply chain means there is better control of the fruit quality and potential for greater returns, which every grower will be happy about," he said.

Kiwifruit grower Neil Trebilco said: "It had to happen. I'm pleased that Zespri is expanding its market reach into the Chinese market, and I'm particularly pleased about the move to control the supply of fruit and quality which is an imperative to ensure the best returns.

"We need to make sure we control the supply chain to ensure we can minimise the risks.

"I realise it comes at a cost and doesn't come cheap, but it is paramount that we protect the quality of supply and our brand."'

Tauranga Chamber of Commerce chief executive Stan Gregec said it was great news for the Bay.

"It is a measure of Zespri's confidence in the future as well as achieving a rock-solid supply chain for everyone involved with the kiwifruit sector.

"Te Puke and the whole Western Bay will see and feel the benefits flowing through in a very real way.

"Better grower returns and more money in people's pockets will be a significant boost for our region's economy for some time to come."

The potential for growing the Chinese market even further must be enormous, Mr Gregec said.