The Business Herald’s markets and banking reporter.

Captain and the crayfish: Former All Black Taine Randell chases big money in China

These days, former All Black Taine Randell's focus is on fishing, and the lucrative China market where NZ lobster fetch $300 apiece. Christopher Adams reports
Working for his own iwi has been more satisfying than the fast-paced world of commodities trading in London, says Taine Randell. Photo / Warren Buckland
Working for his own iwi has been more satisfying than the fast-paced world of commodities trading in London, says Taine Randell. Photo / Warren Buckland

What does an ex-All Black captain do when he's done and dusted with the game?

Richie McCaw wants to fly choppers. Sean Fitzpatrick ended up being a motivational speaker, among other things.

For Taine Randell, it was the bright lights of London and the rough and tumble world of commodity trading that drew him after his 2006 retirement from rugby.

"[Trading] was very much cut and run -- you make your dosh and you get out before you lose it," he tells The Business from his native Hawkes Bay, where relocated his family in 2008.

Since returning home, Randell has been involved in more down-to-earth business activities.

He is a director of the Kahungunu Asset Holding Company, which manages the business interests of Ngati Kahungunu, New Zealand's third largest iwi.

Those assets include a stake in the Fiordland Lobster Company, the country's largest exporter of live crayfish, marketed under its KiwiLobster brand.

The investment has given Randell a place on the board of the Te Anau-based firm, which sells its lobster primarily in China.

The former loose forward likes to spin a yarn and he has a great one about a visit to a Beijing restaurant, during a trade mission, that opened his eyes to the value Chinese consumers ascribe to New Zealand crayfish.

During a presentation on the unique physical attributes of this country's rock lobsters, he made the faux pas of pulling a live specimen out of a fish tank.

"You should have seen the chefs and the owners bloody crap themselves," Randell says. "Obviously, you're not supposed to pick up these things -- they're so valuable." With a "plated price" of about $250 a kg, an average-sized New Zealand crayfish sells for about $300 in upmarket Shanghai restaurants, according to Fiordland Lobster Company chief executive Alan Buckner.

The price received by local fishermen fluctuates, spiking for key events such as the recent Chinese New Year.

Buckner says the company has been paying an average price of $95/kg for lobster in the current season.

Kiwi lobster are sought after in Asia's biggest economy.
Kiwi lobster are sought after in Asia's biggest economy.

It's a significant export industry, accounting for about $300 million of the $500 million worth of New Zealand seafood exported to China annually, he adds.

With firm flesh and rich flavour, Kiwi lobster are sought after in Asia's biggest economy.

Adding to the allure is their red coloration and spiky, dragon-like shell, which makes them lucky in the eyes of Chinese diners.

Ngati Kahungunu inked its partnership with the Fiordland Lobster Company almost a decade ago.

The deal saw the east coast iwi's holding company -- set up to receive assets from their 2006 fisheries settlement -- take a 5.7 per cent stake in the Southland company, one of the pioneers of live crayfish exports.

The partnership involves Ngati Kahungunu leasing its quota to Fiordland Lobster, which specialises in marketing the pricey crustaceans overseas, exporting about 1300 tonnes annually from New Zealand and Australia.

Randell says the tie-up provides benefits to the iwi by enhancing the price received for its quota.

Every kilogram of our quota is caught by our whakapapa fishermen -- that's really important.

"Every kilogram of our quota is caught by our whakapapa fishermen -- that's really important." The partnership has developed to the point where a state of the art, $6 million lobster processing depot -- fully funded by Ngati Kahungunu -- will be opened in East Tamaki on April 15.

Buckner says it will be the largest facility of its kind in New Zealand, with capacity for 27 tonnes of live lobster.

"The key reason for opening it was to improve our supply chain efficiency in the North Island," he says. "All of our product gets exported, primarily to China but also a little bit to Japan, and the new depot has great proximity to Auckland Airport and ensures that we give the lobsters the best chance of arriving in perfect condition in China."

The company, founded in the late 1980s, sources roughly 70 per cent of its fish in the South Island, with the rest caught north of Cook Strait, including in Ngati Kahungunu's waters that stretch from around Mahia, near Gisborne, to the southern Wairarapa coast.

The lobster make an epic journey from the seafloor to the plates of upmarket eateries in China's megacities.

Those caught in Fiordland are first helicoptered over the mountains to Te Anau, before being trucked to Christchurch, packed for export, then air freighted to market.

Graphic / NZ Herald
Graphic / NZ Herald

The lobster, which can survive out of water for up to 48 hours in the right conditions, are flown to Asia in polystyrene boxes filled with wood shavings and an ice pack, which aims to keep the temperature inside around 8C.

Five to seven days can pass between the crayfish being caught and them arriving in the market.

However, Buckner says the lobster spend much of that time in holding facilities that replicate the conditions at sea.

"We put the lobsters immediately back into a pristine environment," he says.

Randell calls New Zealand lobster "the Dom Perignon of seafood" and says live exports, and Chinese demand, have been game-changers for the fishery.

"The crayfish industry used to be more based towards the US and Japanese markets with just frozen tails," he says. "The rise of the Chinese market, and the ability for New Zealanders and Australians to live export, has basically revolutionised the market."

The rise of the Chinese market, and the ability for New Zealanders and Australians to live export, has basically revolutionised the market.
Taine Randell

But China's so-called economic miracle, which spawned the rise of its lobster-eating middle class, has lately been on shaky ground.

According to official figures, growth in the country's gross domestic product slowed to 6.9 per cent last year, the lowest rate in a quarter-century.

The Chinese Government is embarking on a major rebalancing away from the investment-led growth of the past to domestic consumption-driven economic expansion.

Not everyone is convinced Beijing will pull it off, however, prompting fears of a "hard landing" for China's economy, which could put the brakes on consumer demand for imported luxuries like crayfish.

Given its almost total reliance on the Chinese market, the local lobster industry may be in for a white knuckle ride as the transition plays out.

"We're very concerned every day about it," Randell says of the economic outlook in China. "We're very exposed." But for now, he says, Chinese demand for New Zealand and Australian lobster is far outstripping supply, which bodes well for the future.

Randell in his playing days, leading the haka in 2000.
Randell in his playing days, leading the haka in 2000.

"The whole Australasian market has enough crayfish to supply Shanghai, maybe Beijing," Randell says. "There's huge demand for our product."

Buckner, meanwhile, isn't concerned about a potential financial crisis crimping that demand.

"What we're really exporting from New Zealand is a luxury good, predominantly consumed in Shanghai, Shenzhen and Beijing," he says.

"There's been quite a bit of economic adjustment within China over the last three years and we really haven't seen any major impact on our business, and I think it's because we're so niche." Buckner says the 3000 tonnes of live New Zealand lobster sold in China annually is only a fraction of the 200,000 tonnes the country imports in total.

"We're one-and-a-half per cent of it and we're in that super premium position, with volume consumed in those affluent cities," he says. "There has been significant growth in value over the last five years -- and it has plateaued -- but we believe the market is still stable and we're not convinced there's going to be a hard landing as such in terms of economic adjustment in China."

What we're really exporting from New Zealand is a luxury good, predominantly consumed in Shanghai, Shenzhen and Beijing.

Diversifying New Zealand's live lobster exports is a major challenge because other markets aren't willing to pay the prices the Chinese are prepared to offer. "China's our most attractive market from a pricing perspective," says Buckner.

New Zealand Trade & Enterprise's director of Maori business, Tina Wilson, says lobster is a major economic opportunity for iwi, given the export pricing being achieved in China.

"They're extracting significant dollar value," she says. "The Maori economy around lobster is a phenomenal story." Other major players in the lobster fishery include iwi-owned Aotearoa Fisheries' partnership with Port Nicholson Fisheries, as well as Ngai Tahu.

"Iwi are essentially competing with ourselves into the same market [China]," Wilson says.

The Maori economy around lobster is a phenomenal story.

"You've got to raise the question -- is that smart? That's a fantastic debate to have."

In 2007 the Kahungunu Asset Holding Company received more than $31 million in cash, fishing quota and shares in Aotearoa Fisheries, which in turn owns 50 per cent of Sealord.

Its inshore fishing quota is leased to Hawkes Bay Seafoods, while Sealord catches its deep sea quota through a deal signed in 2014.

Randell told a recent hui that the fisheries settlement assets were now worth more than $100 million, according to the Hawkes Bay Today newspaper.

A dividend of roughly $2 million was paid back to the iwi last year, he tells The Business.

While that isn't a huge amount for an iwi with 61,626 members, Randell says the Ngati Kahungunu has a goal of becoming financially independent.

"Without an economic base you just can't do that."

As for himself, he says working for his own iwi has been more satisfying than the fast-paced world of commodities trading he left in London.

"It's for a bigger purpose," Randell says. "The wages are nowhere as good, but if you look at most people who get into iwi politics or iwi asset management they're not in it to make their fortune -- they're there for other reasons."

- NZ Herald

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