There is a massive opportunity in front of us to capture premiums. Without doubt, our brand story is at an all-time high at the moment because of what we've done with Covid.

NZTE chief executive Peter Chrisp says the impact of New Zealand's Covid-19 lockdown had immediate consequences for its customers — New Zealand exporters.

"I've always worked hard. I've never worked this hard," Chrisp said at an interview at NZTE's Wellington head office.

Even prior to the coronavirus pandemic hitting New Zealand's shores, the agency was heavily involved providing support to its customers exporting to the China market.

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"China is such a big market for New Zealand with many of our customers," said Chrisp. "They needed to know what was going on and were desperate for insights. We had 65 people in China – we had to get them working from home. They were keen to contribute and lean in to support customers.

"So that was the beginning of it, and then it just unfolded, into Italy and South Korea."

When New Zealand entered the alert level four lockdown phase, one of the immediate issues Chrisp's team needed to face was how to support airfreight. With passenger traffic severely limited, there wasn't a functioning airfreight market, which many of our high-value exports — including seafood and honey — depend on.

NZTE co-ordinated around 200 charter flights to key export markets, including Shanghai, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Singapore and Australia: "We got good backing from the ministers and the Ministry of Transport. We underwrote the capacity of the plane — the last 20 per cent of the plane."

He said if a chartered plane wasn't full it wouldn't leave. The underwrite didn't have to be used very often, but it was an important mechanism to provide certainty to exporters that their goods would make it to market.

In the medium term, a new initiative with funding allocated from the May budget will focus on supply chains, building firm capability in freight and logistics and helping to build capability within export firms.

Another of the initial challenges for exporters was ensuring sufficient cashflow for business continuity. NZTE formed partnerships with Deloitte, PwC and KPMG to provide a business continuity service for around 500 of its customers.

"From that, they got a bit of a plan about how to respond immediately, how to get their cash under control and what to do with their working capital and inventory," Chrisp explained.

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He said that while many exporters might be dealing with the current environment, they are starting to ask questions about the sales funnel and how to fill it long-term.

"I've been talking to some specialist manufacturers who would normally sell mostly through attending conferences, relationships with procurement mangers, and foot traffic. They are now wondering how they reach their customers."

Many are turning to digital – which Chrisp said is one of the biggest things NZTE is engaged with at the moment. This will include scaling up e-commerce capability to provide digital commerce content, tools and advice to more exporters.

Keeping track of its current suite of clients, NZTE has developed a heat map that runs a ruler over companies and considers which companies that are thriving, surviving, or struggling.

Chrisp said this gave the agency a good feeling for where the hotspots were, and at the start of the crisis it was the export-dependant specialist manufacturing firms that he was most concerned about.

He said that though a lot of the customers of specialised manufacturing firms were considered essential overseas, they weren't here — which had made things difficult.

The heat map is now showing around 32 per cent of companies thriving, 60 per cent surviving and about 8 per cent struggling.

"The thriving companies are across categories like food, manuka honey, nutraceuticals. But even in tech you've got companies involved with education software or gaming software that are doing well," though Chrisp noted, you've also got people struggling in those categories as well. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) has developed a trade recovery strategy to address that. MFAT says the next phase of New Zealand's response is recalibrating New Zealand's trade policy for a new international environment.

The strategy, launched by trade and export growth minister David Parker, has three pillars: retooling support for exporters, reinvigorating international trade architecture, and refreshing key trade relationships.

NZTE will play a key role in this — in particular, Chrisp said it will be the custodian of the retooling pillar.

"The Government knew it couldn't just rebuild New Zealand with a domestic fiscal spend. You need an international export recovery leg — and I think you need an investment recovery leg as well."

Some of the $216 million funding boost it received through the Budget will be used to significantly increase the number of exporters that receive intensive support from NZTE. The agency says that collectively these exporters directly employ over 200,000 people. About 75 per cent of these firms are expected to be SMEs with 50 or fewer employees.

"We will have more customer managers that can deal with more New Zealand companies and services — and more boots on the ground in premium international markets," Chrisp said.

Business development managers in key offshore markets will be particularly important for exporters while international travel remains restricted. It is envisaged that this team will be able to carry out additional functions for companies in-market – including meeting customers, vetting new employees, and selecting distributors.

Another portion of the funding has been allocated to expand the International Growth Fund, which helps reconnect companies with international markets and supply chain partners, as well as explore new opportunities.

Chrisp said he is keen to uphold the sense of the opportunity in front of New Zealand — particularly in the food and beverage sector.

"We've had food and beverage manufacturers in New Zealand that responded very well during Covid.

"The opportunity to be the most keeps agri exports flowing sustainable food producer on the planet is quite a niche — quite an exciting niche."

Heat Map
NZTE's heat map is now showing around 32% of companies thriving,60% surviving and about 8% struggling.

One area that Covid-19 might help New Zealand is by spurring the acceleration of the shift from volume to value. Chrisp said food and beverage is at the sharp end of that.

"There is a massive opportunity in front of us to capture premiums. Without doubt, our brand story is at an all-time high at the moment because of what we've done with Covid. There is an opportunity to double-down on that brand story and those sustainability settings."

"The health competitor advantage — growing food and beverage out of this healthy country and the intersection of innovation with our food and beverage story and our agritech sector, there's some really great things that we can accelerate and advance around this."

But, said Chrisp, a key challenge for New Zealand will be keeping the New Zealand brand alive in international markets over the next 12 months without international travel.

NZTE is working on strengthening New Zealand's brand in priority markets by maintaining, promoting and broadening New Zealand's brand appeal, particularly while the tourism sector is recovering.

Chrisp said it will re-emphasise New Zealand's reputation for safety, trust, resilience, ingenuity, sustainability and high-value goods and services using the highly successful New Zealand Story strategy.

"When you think about who is probably likely to carry the New Zealand brand story, it is probably food and beverage and tech, because there are such good stories wrapped around those products and services.

"If our food comes out of a Covid-free country, it's good for human health and it's got a story wrapped around it about the quality of the country — that's a particularly good story that will resonate in premium markets."

Chrisp said it comes back to the underpinning values of kaitiaki — our role as guardians of people, place and planet and protecting what is precious over generations. We think that Covid has demonstrated that story.

"Our high integrity, high transparency, our very low corruption and our ingenuity — they are underpinning values that we think will resonate well on the international stage."

- Additional reporting Fran O'Sullivan