New apple variety to tempt investors back

By David Porter

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Phil Alison, managing director of the Havelock North Fruit Company Ltd (HNFC) has positioned new variety Rockit apples as a convenience food and a snack item.
Phil Alison, managing director of the Havelock North Fruit Company Ltd (HNFC) has positioned new variety Rockit apples as a convenience food and a snack item.

Investors in Havelock North Fruit Company, which is responsible for marketing the Rockit apple variety, are enjoying better-than-expected returns from its export success.

Which means they are likely to come back for a second bite, say directors of the company, who are seeking additional funding.

"One of the keys is that the Rockit apple is positioned as a convenience food and a snack item," said Phil Alison, managing director of the Havelock North Fruit Company Ltd (HNFC), which has an exclusive global licence to exploit the new variety.

"And that's quite a significant point of difference - we're not in the produce category - we're marketing Rockit as a healthy, smart snack."

Mr Alison, who had grown apples for three decades, immediately saw the potential of the new variety, which was developed in Hawke's Bay by New Zealand food scientists and is controlled under a licence held by Prevar, a joint venture between Plant and Food Research New Zealand and New Zealand and Australian apple growers.

The apple is distinguished by its small size - it is not much bigger than a golf ball - uniformly red colour, and crisp taste, he said.

"I thought it was the best eating apple I'd ever tasted," he said. "And secondly, I could immediately see the opportunity it provided to offer a differentiated product."

The Rockit is marketed in a branded clear plastic tube containing five apples, aimed at the high end convenience food market. The packaging helps the Rockit stand out on supermarket shelves, compared with large trays of similar looking standard-sized apples, he said. The apples are now being sold in the US, Canada, Italy, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the UK - where it has secured shelf space in Marks & Spencer - with markets being opened up as new production comes on stream.

Mr Alison went through a selection process to win the rights from Prevar to the global licence and in the end "was the only company left standing," he said. That was partly because would-be competitors did not appreciate the potential of the variety's small size. Mr Alison began growing the apple, and two-and-a-half years ago set up HNFC to market and distribute it. He also came up with the name Rockit, and the concept of selling the apples in clear plastic tubes.

Rockit's export success saw HNFC back presenting this week to the Tauranga audience that gave the company its start-up capital. Members of the Enterprise Angels group of local high net worth investors bought a 50 per cent stake in the company for an undisclosed amount when it was originally pitched to them two-and-a-half years ago.

Aside from an investment from the Government's Seed Capital Investment Fund, it is the Tauranga investors who have since funded the company.

Steve Saunders, who heads the Plus Group of agrotech companies, and is a director of HNFC, was one of the original shareholders.

"I got it straight away. I just loved the concept of the snack food positioning rather than having a standard big apple in a fruit bin, along with 50 other varieties. Rockit was thinking outside the square, repositioning the total apple offering." APN News & Media

- HAWKES BAY TODAY

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