They're the unsung heroes of New Zealand's economy. The foreign currency they earn helps keep the rest of us in the style we're accustomed to. But some of the more innovative exporters are little-known beyond their own industry.

Pet-food producer ZiwiPeak is a story of ingenuity, excellence and export. The company takes waste products from the meat industry and transforms it into high-quality pet food that is fed to some of America's most pampered pooches.

ZiwiPeak founders Peter and Kimberly Mitchell had a previous business involved in selling commoditised ingredients - aka "the nasty stuff", said director Nigel Woodd. However, it was hard to build a brand on commoditised ingredients.

"Peter had a long history in the meat industry and they saw an opportunity to develop a completely new 100 per cent pure-meat product," says Woodd.

"We worked with the slaughter-houses to look at a system to recover that waste meat." ZiwiPeak then designed an air-drying system so that the product could be exported. Wet meat, which is popular with higher-end pet owners, has a limited shelf life and challenging distribution model.

ZiwiPeak, based in Tauranga, exports to 15 countries, although its largest export market is North America, where customers such as actor Bruce Willis have helped popularise the product.

"Our fundamental wealth as a nation rests on the ability of our businesses to get out into the world's markets to chase up and create opportunities to sell their products and services," says New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE) chief economist Gareth Chaplin. "Our economic future lies with those businesses, like ZiwiPeak and others that are prepared to differentiate to be competitive."

ZiwiPeak's success is based on the fact that it is a pure product that meets pets' nutritional needs far more than traditional meat and biscuit products that contain fillers and ground-up slaughterhouse waste.

For many Kiwi exporters, the local market is of little consequence because of too few buyers. The main bucks they bank are made overseas.

ZiwiPeak was founded with the intention of exporting and 98 per cent of what it produces goes overseas.

Not all exporters start out targeting overseas markets. Wanganui-based Pacific Helmets was born out of the carless days and import controls of the 1970s. Because Kiwis were banned from driving their cars one day a week, motorcycle sales went up, said Pacific Helmets director David Bennett. In a classic Catch 22 situation, the import of helmets was restricted - offering a business opportunity for helmet production onshore.

Pacific Helmets became an exporter by a series of events that started with securing a contract in 1990 to make helmets for the New Zealand Fire Service. That led it to look overseas, where the potential market was almost limitless. Australia, alone, says Bennett, has 500,000 people who have "some degree of equipment to fight fires". In Europe and the US, the number runs into the millions.

"We manufacture 60,000 to 70,000 helmets each year and we are barely scratching the surface of being a major manufacture." The company no longer makes motorcycle helmets.

One of the reasons it is able to compete with Chinese and other producers and their cheaper labour is that safety is paramount in the emergency-services helmet market and Asian products don't meet international certification requirements, says Bennett.

Dunedin-based Thought Planters exports training to the arboriculture and horticulture industries. A chance meeting with Malaysian and Hong Kong-based professionals in those green industries led the company to export its services.

Thought Planters' business-development manager Richard Wanhill saw an opportunity and "took a punt", flying to Singapore to investigate export potential with NZTE's help. Some business contacts raised an eyebrow at the venture. But Wanhill says: "We are small and innovative and are keen to push boundaries."

The company has trained more than 200 Asia-based arborists.