Tony Howey is a founder of ViBeri, an organic New Zealand blackcurrant producer and food brand. The company is based in South Canterbury and has 12 staff.

Can you tell me a bit about your business?

We've been growing a range of crops and vegetables for 30 years. It's a business that's traditionally been focused on producing bulk raw material, usually for large international food companies, where not only have we been price takers but we've also had no real connection with the end consumer.

Ten years ago we bought a property that was growing blackcurrants, and we soon realised that the future of this crop was in marketing its healthy properties. There's increasing recognition that blackcurrants are a superfood - particularly New Zealand blackcurrants, which have been internationally recognised as having higher levels of anthocyanins, or antioxidants, than blackcurrants from some other parts of the world. The other thing we noticed was a growing concern in different global markets around various food contamination scares.

When we looked at these trends we saw an opportunity to convert our blackcurrant operation to organic and develop our own retail offering so we'd have a direct relationship with our end customers. So we formed a new family-owned company and brand, ViBeri New Zealand, in January last year and ever since then we've been on the journey of being 100 percent focused on organic production and marketing.


What was involved in going organic and developing the business in this direction?

We've needed to learn a lot of new things - everything from researching, trialling and adapting agronomy methods to developing new retail products and developing a sales and marketing platform to take the products to market.

It's taken us three years to convert our production itself to organic. We started with a small block so we could get an understanding of how we could progress the conversion, because there's no one else doing this on such a large scale in New Zealand; this year all our production will be fully certified organic.

The certification costs and audit requirements are really onerous, but the real cost has been around the reduced yields you get without the price premium for the three years we've spent converting. There's also the increased cashflow you need to fund inventory build up so you can introduce products into the market with confidence that you'll meet your sales projections.

What kind of growth are you seeing in the business, and more generally in the market for organic products such as your own?

Berries in general are experiencing good market growth in New Zealand as people are becoming more and more aware of healthy food options - this is the good news story. The bad news story is that as this growth has happened companies supplying berries have increasingly gone offshore to source cheap product.

This makes marketing a 100 percent New Zealand product challenging because most organic berries in the market are also imported. We feel we do have a strong point of difference here that's helping us, though, and our brand has had a 300 percent increase in retail sales, year on year. We need this growth to continue though because our production of certified organic fruit has increased more than our retail sales.

Are you looking to export?


Our initial focus is to provide our range to the New Zealand market. But given we're a niche food company in a small country we've always intended on taking our products to specialised organic and natural food markets offshore and this week we received our first international order, which we are really excited about.

All our products are gluten free, vegan, non-GMO, and preservative and additive free so they fit well in the organic and natural foods sector, which is growing really strongly internationally. With the exception of the frozen products, these products also have a high value-to-weight ratio meaning they're ideal for export.

What strategies have worked well for you in terms of getting your product into the hands of your target customers and getting your organic message across?

Our main marketing strategy is to be customer focused and to be true to our brand, which is around integrity, health and pure organic food. We're putting a lot of energy into having as direct a relationship as possible with our end customers, so we'll be exhibiting at 15 food and organic expos this year in New Zealand where we can talk about our products, let customers taste them and tell our story.

We've also expanded our sales and marketing budget to make sure we get our message out nationwide and we've employed a company with marketing expertise to plan and execute our promotion.

What's a key piece of advice you'd have for other business owners wanting to reach consumers in the organic market?

It's important for suppliers to be able to deliver consistency of supply and consistent product quality, which can be challenging with organics. I think to be an organic supplier a business needs better planning, more investment and a lot more passion than it takes to be a traditional supplier - but there's something special about producing a healthy, pure food for consumers that seems to make it all worthwhile.

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