When it comes to eating icecream, the people of Invercargill are New Zealand champions, licking their way through more per capita than their northern compatriots.

It's fitting, then, that the head of icecream maker Tip Top, which is celebrating 80 years of production, hails from the southern city.

And Kim Ballinger, 45, who took over as director at Fonterra-owned Tip Top more than a year ago, doesn't hesitate in saying this role is her favourite in more than 20 years in the dairy industry.

"It is an awesome brand," she says.

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"We've had an amazing 80 years and we've got an amazing time ahead of us in terms of what we want to do and what our strategy is going forward and that's really exciting."

A highlight for Ballinger has been the launch of Tip Top in China mid-way through the year.

The brand might be decades old, but it's taking the Tip Top name to the Chinese market in the most modern of ways: a combination of social media, e-commerce and high-spec chilly bins delivered to the doorstep.

Ballinger says various options for getting into the market were considered, before by-passing the traditional approach, which usually involves extensive research into the route to market, in-market channels and consumer preferences.

"In this particular case we could actually flip that on its head and enter the market and learn live," she says.

"E-commerce gives you the ability to do that without having to have an infrastructure and distribution network."

Using a third party with a large consumer database meant the message quickly went out to potential customers.

While Chinese e-commerce site TMall provides a useful flagship online presence, 80 per cent of sales come through a micro messaging app, WeChat.

Comments on WeChat reveal that many of the people talking about and buying Tip Top icecream have already tried it as tourists in New Zealand, she says.

The push into China is focused on online shoppers within easy reach of the company's distribution points in Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing, offering some of New Zealand's favourite flavours - vanilla, chocolate, hokey pokey, cookies and cream, Neapolitan and strawberry - in 2L tubs.

We've had an amazing 80 years and we've got an amazing time ahead of us in terms of what we want to do and what our strategy is going forward and that's really exciting.

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Already, there are plans to send up larger sized containers for food service, and the possibility of opening an icecream parlour.

"We think this is a really good way to build some physical touchpoints for Tip Top, which will then also encourage more purchasing online too," says Ballinger.

Again, the plan will be to build fast, test and adjust.

"Hopefully not failing too fast," adds Ballinger.

"We want to be successful and we will be successful in China, but there is a number of different ways to get there so we're just going to learn a bit and feel our way and use these new models."

Heading into overseas markets is nothing new to Ballinger.

She was fairly fresh on the dairy industry training programme when she took a secondment to Guadalajara in Mexico in the mid-90s.

Six months filling in at the local innovation centre was to prove a game changer, she says. "That really gave me a huge leg up because I learnt the language, I got to be out with customers and consumers in a market that was way bigger than New Zealand.

If people ask me today: what is your functional expertise? I'd probably say sales, even if it is not where I began.

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"I learnt a lot of lessons about cultural difference and not expecting everything to work like it does in New Zealand." It was also where she discovered she wanted to go into sales. "I just love sales.

"If people ask me today: what is your functional expertise? I'd probably say sales, even if it is not where I began."

Ballinger, who says she was a shy kid, had her eye on a career in the dairy industry even as a school leaver, studying chemical technology at university before the trainee role took her out onto dairy factory floors.

"I had this idea that, a bit like a used car salesman, you've got to talk a lot to be good at sales. But what I learnt in the trade was asking the right questions, knowing your customer's business well, knowing where you can bring value and listening were way more important that talking to someone."

Mexico wasn't her only overseas experience.

Ballinger has added stints in the United States, China and Brazil - a country she rates as her favourite to live and work in - to her CV.

She encourages all young people, particularly women, to take any opportunities to experience life in another country.

"I think I'm a better leader from having working in many cultures.

"I think you understand and see the diversity and the different perspectives and the value of those that can be brought to the table."

She says the struggle other New Zealand companies have in dealing with markets like China often comes down to a lack of understanding, or an inability to see what the customer's world looks like.

"I think we come at it the way we know as opposed to putting yourself in the shoes of consumers and customers in those markets."

Right now, though, Ballinger is gearing up for the summer icecream rush.
"It's a privilege and a big responsibility, my current job."