Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Success: Mussel man keeps on pushing

Peter Vitasovich has moved from growing shellfish, to creating branded products

Peter Vitasovich Peter Vitasovich got his start in business selling seafood from a caravan. Photo / Richard Robinson.
Peter Vitasovich Peter Vitasovich got his start in business selling seafood from a caravan. Photo / Richard Robinson.

With his Croatian heritage, Peter Vitasovich says he was destined to be either a winemaker or a fisherman.

After spending his childhood working after school and at weekends for family in both industries, it was the lure of the sea that won in the end.

At 15 Vitasovich chucked in school and began his education in fish trading at the Auckland fish market, selling seafood to the public from a caravan parked on Great North Rd in West Auckland.

Looking back on it more than three decades later, the 50-year-old Vitasovich says the tight-knit community at the market was hard to break into as a shy youngster with just a small fish shop to supply.

"Of course I was a little kid down at the fish market," Vitasovich says.

"I couldn't get any fish in those days so that's when I purchased a little truck and started driving to communities like Coromandel, Thames and Whangarei."

Within a year or two he was buying up more fish off the boats than could be sold out of his caravan, so he was back at the market selling the surplus.

The business grew into a couple more retail outlets, then an export processing factory down at the wharf, before building a mussel and fish processing plant in Manukau.

By his late 20s Vitasovich became involved in his first mussel farm, buying a going concern off Great Barrier Island, which good friends on the island managed for him.

Again he says getting into mussels came down to his Croatian roots.

"By nature we love growing things so I had a passion for the mussel industry."

It saw him divest the fishing business in the mid-90s and focus on mussels.

It's a capital intensive business requiring big investment in water space and infrastructure to establish and run the farms.

Today his mussel business, Greenshell New Zealand, farms mainly around the Coromandel Peninsula, with operations in the Firth of Thames, Coromandel, Port Charles and Kennedy Bay.

The mussel spat come from Kaitaia and the trademarked Greenshell mussels grown by New Zealand mussel farmers are unique to local waters. Greenshell New Zealand grows around 10,000 tonnes of mussels each year, with 95 per cent of it going to Australia, North America and Asia.

But like farming on the land, farming the sea garden brings its challenges.

"Over the years we've had some good times and some real bad times," he says. "Bad times have been from pure environmental growing seasons which any primary producer will get.

"Even some bad investments, but I think the GFC [global financial crisis] was probably one of the biggest hurdles that we've faced and that's probably when I decided to change what we were doing and go from a mussel farming company to a food company.

"I recognised that I didn't just want to be a farmer and we were growing a fantastic product, we were growing it in a sustainable manner and it's bloody good to eat and it's good for you.

"So for me, with the GFC, I wanted to change from just being a normal supplier to the food service.

"We wanted to create a brand and create a convenient gourmet product with mussels. We wanted to lift the bar." Vitasovich says it has been a huge investment in time and money to convert the company.

More than two years of research and development has resulted in packaging to sell live mussels in a retail-ready modified atmosphere pack with a 10-day shelf life, and an easy-steam range in chef-designed sauces sold under the Ikana brand.

A purpose-built factory operates in Tauranga creating the Ikana chilled and frozen products.

Ikana mussels have been in the market for around four months, nationwide in Australia through Woolworths and in supermarkets in New Zealand.

As well as getting traction in retail stores, Vitasovich says, Ikana is being picked up by restaurants, including The Depot and The Grill.

More products are planned and Vitasovich says the goal is to be a large food company by 2020. It's a bright start to the year for Vitasovich after a 2012 he'd probably rather forget.

A joint venture in a Tauranga-based mussel processing plant, opened in 2009, ended in the company, North Island Mussel Processors, being placed into receivership late last year.

Vitasovich says despite a lot of effort the venture didn't work and the parties involved were unable to decide on a way forward.

A settlement was agreed which saw fishing giants Sanford and Sealord take over the operation.

Vitasovich says he is grateful for the support from his staff who have stuck by him during the tough times.

"When you believe in something and you've got a vision and a plan and your plan doesn't go according to plan you've just got to get it back on the track and drive it."

- NZ Herald

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Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Helen Twose is a freelance business journalist who writes regularly about KiwiSaver and entrepreneurial companies. She has written for the Business Herald since 2006, covering the telecommunications sector, but has more recently focused on personal finance and profiling successful businesses.

Read more by Helen Twose

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