Success: Second try at sweet market

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Comvita's new skincare range honours ambitions of 101-year-old founder.

The goal is for skincare products to contribute a quarter of sales revenue, says Comvita's Leigh Kate. Photo / Alan Gibson
The goal is for skincare products to contribute a quarter of sales revenue, says Comvita's Leigh Kate. Photo / Alan Gibson

When Comvita founder Claude Stratford - aged 101 and still going strong - first formulated natural products in the basement of his Bay of Plenty home, he started with beauty potions.

Back in 1974, when the company went to market, the creams were dropped in favour of honey-based health products as the Comvita flag-bearer.

Today the world's largest manufacturer of manuka honey exports to 14 countries and boasts annual revenue of $82 million. As such, it would normally be too large and well-established to be a candidate for this column, which tends to focus on newer success stories.

After all, Stratford surely qualifies as New Zealand small-business royalty, receiving the Queen's Service Medal in 1999 and being a 2005 Ernst & Young entrepreneur of the year finalist at the grand old age of 95.

But, in a pleasing twist of fate, Comvita has come full circle and created a range of beauty products that it believes will both honour its founder's early work and significantly increase its bottom line.

Comvita launched a range of 25 skincare products at the end of last year, which it has recently expanded to 34 products. The company has also finalised a $1.7 million funding deal with the Ministry of Science and Innovation so it can further investigate manuka honey's anti-ageing properties and the skin-whitening effects of olive-leaf extract.

Given that Stratford is an enthusiastic advocate for his company's wares, it's reasonable to ask whether the man who celebrated his 101st birthday last month uses Comvita's beauty products himself.

"I don't know if he uses the facial ones, but he enjoys using the soap," says Leigh Kite, general manager of personal care.

The new beauty care range is actually Comvita's second attempt to establish a presence in an industry estimated to generate US$200 billion ($263 billion) annually, Kite says. The company tested the market in 2008 with a small number of products, but withdrew because of packaging issues and the realisation that a small range was not going to cut it.

"To have credibility in the skincare business you have to be seen to have a range of products that suits all [skin types]," Kite says. Women, she says, do not believe that only one or two products can meet their skincare needs and won't take a brand seriously when it offers only a few choices.

The packaging has been redesigned and products added. In less than a year, the new skincare range has accounted for 5 per cent of total Comvita sales.

"It's been a huge task: 34 products to market in nine months," says Kite. "Our goal is to grow that part of our business to 25 per cent [of overall sales]."

Aiding that ambition will be certification from the International Natural Products Association, a process representing a significant outlay as the company had to prove that every ingredient in every Comvita product was truly natural, safe to use and environmentally sustainable.

Not all the products are certified yet, which, says Kite, demonstrates the exacting nature of the process.

But she says certification is a great investment as it future-proofs the company's credentials, given the accelerating public demand for natural and environmentally friendly products.

The fact that there is strong demand for skin-whitening products such as "Olive White" surprises these New Zealand male ears. But Kite explains that dark Asian skin has traditionally marked people out as working-class labourers.

A fairer complexion once signified wealth and education and is now a byword for beauty, "and that's standard across most Asian communities".

Olive White is the result of Comvita's first new proprietary research, outside of manuka (which has multiple applications), and it is sourced from the company's own olive plantation in Queensland.

Comvita claims the extract "brightens" the skin because of the olive leaf's "12 naturally occurring polyphenolic antioxidants". The cream also contains extract of daisy flower, peas, licorice and undecylenoyl phenylalanine - "I know it doesn't sound natural, but I can assure you it is," Kite says.

The manuka anti-ageing cream is based on Comvita's laboratory research showing that active "phenolic" compounds in the honey inhibit a group of enzymes called matrix metalloproteinases, which cause the degradation of collagen.

Comvita's Olive White products also contain the manuka honey blend and Kite predicts the combination will prove popular with Asian customers, citing research that shows "double-digit" growth in global demand for natural products.

- NZ Herald

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