Success: Food business built on kiwifruit

By Yoke Har Lee

Nekta transforms fruit into everything from drinks, to a fat replacement for baking.

Adriana Tong is excited by Nektabake's prospects. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Adriana Tong is excited by Nektabake's prospects. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Over the past decade, Adriana Tong has dealt with some hairy issues presented by kiwifruit - her company's raw material.

The hard yards have paid off. The latest coup for her company, Nekta Nutrition, is Nektabake, developed as a fat-replacement in baking. The new ingredient has generated a lot of excitement and inquiries from overseas, says Tong.

Fat replacement is something of a Holy Grail in the baking world and Tong is excited by the prospects Nektabake offers.

One early adopter is Phil Pollett of Napier's Goodtime Foods, who has been using the ingredient to trim the fat content of his pies, which have won the Heart Foundation's tick. His pies, made using Nektabake, have a 5 per cent fat content and he is working towards a pie with only 3 per cent fat.

"We are looking at how to use the ingredient more extensively and cost effectively," Pollett says. But while he has been a keen innovator, says Tong, there is a segment of the market asking, "Why do I need to fix things?"

Besides Nektabake, Nekta has a range of "functional food" products. Its kiwifruit-based beverages are widely sold. It also makes NektaCreme, a fat-free and dairy-free frozen fruit dessert; NektaPlus, a non-dairy nutritionally fortified beverage; and NektaIce, a semi-frozen ice drink mix.

In the late 1980s Tong had a successful career in investment banking. During the crash of 1987, companies dropped like flies. "I decided to back more interesting technologies emerging out of New Zealand."

She dreamt of a phoenix rising from the ashes of the 1987 crash. "Boy was I wrong." The chances of getting a stock market investment right are good, she says. But with buying into a company, "you are 1 per cent of your way there" even with the best technology.

Tong says a monumental amount of work was needed to get the business to its current stage. When the company started selling beverages, its first market was Malaysia, where the initial reception was good. But the market soured, partly because of pricing.

While about 60 per cent of Nekta's products are exported to Asia, Tong says New Zealand struggles with being competitive in export markets.

After the Malaysia setback, Nekta concentrated on getting its business systems in place, which Tong says is fundamental to any company's long-term success. "We have since built a lot of expertise in downstream processing of the kiwifruit, not just selling. People are starting to understand the functional benefits.

"The business systems we put in place have helped us in our marketplace. Knowing the stakeholders on the ground is key to whether you succeed or not in the export market."

Like many local entrepreneurs, she has learnt useful lessons about selling technology-based products.

With Nektabake, it isn't just about the ingredient but how it is being applied. "We have to know what Nektabake can satisfy. For the retailer, is it about presenting a much cleaner label? We all know about the squeeze test for breads - for the consumer. For the baker it is about better yields, visual aspects, also the eating quality."

Technology companies always seem like a good idea. "The fact is, only one in 75 of these ideas work. No one is short of good ideas." Execution and pathways to markets will determine who succeeds, says Tong.

More co-operation among New Zealand companies would also be helpful, she says.

"In New Zealand, we are quite protective over our technology. Everyone wants to do his own thing. Putting the competitive aspect aside, Kiwi companies have to work together [on exports]. Your resources are always going to be very tight."

Tong laughs at concept of overnight success. "Overnight success has taken us 10 years." She says the company is well-positioned for the next phase of growth over the next three to five years.

What can go wrong for Nekta? Tong says the biggest risk is non-acceptance by customers. "The key is good knowledge of the industry."

Providing real value to customers - not just selling the ingredient - will keep them coming back, she says.

The company has always been cautious financially. "We don't leverage, hence our staying power is a lot better than most. But then again, I have seen some of the best companies not make the race if the product is not adopted."

Singapore-born Tong came to study in New Zealand in the 1970s and never left after she completed her studies.

Her husband is an ardent home baker and the resident armchair critic, who has tried Nektabake and been happy with the results.

Her investment banking background has trained her to ride out the swings of economic cycles. "In a bull market, people concentrate on selling as fast as they can. In a bear market, customers are more careful.

"That's why we are diligent in building downstream loyalty. Our philosophy is a bit old fashioned but it suits us well."

- NZ Herald

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