Looking after long-standing clients has paid off for a west coast seafood supplier.
Keith Mawson knows his leatherjackets from his rigs or his spiny dogfish. But it wasn't always so when he started in the seafood business more than 20 years ago.
Mawson, who owns New Plymouth-based Egmont Seafoods, had some rude awakenings, learning how to manage a seafood business without any experience.
Back in 1986, he thought he'd like to be master of his own destiny, so he took a half share in Egmont. Five months later, his 50 per cent partner went into receivership. It was also the year the National Government of the day introduced the Quota Management System for fisheries.
To keep the company going, Mawson bought the other half share from the receivers, then set about learning the ropes.
Today Egmont is a significant business, with turnover in the millions of dollars. Mawson's company handles about 1000 tonnes of fish a year and Egmont is the only fish export packhouse on the west coast between Wellington and Auckland.
About 50 per cent of its production goes overseas, to Australia, Thailand, the US and Europe. Mawson is also looking into exporting to China, and is taking a long-term approach, knowing the relationship-centric Chinese market cannot be tackled overnight.
"If we get into China, we have to look at the species and how to harvest. Then we have to decide how far we want to go into value-adding."
He has been exporting rig (a type of shark) to Australia for many years, and has cornered a comfortable niche selling to Aussie fish and chip shops owed by Greek and Italian operators. "In the early 1990s I met a guy from Melbourne in Auckland. We soon began selling frozen products to him. That business just grew as we felt comfortable [with each other]."
He works hard at his relationships. "Our biggest advantage is we have some good long-standing clients - some of whom we have been with for over 20 years. I know they will pay me, if not on time, I am sure they will do once we work out a schedule."
The clients you know are better than untested ones, he believes. "It is better to work with people you know. Jumping from one customer to the next to maximise profits - you will become unstuck. I am a big believer in working your relationships. It is about all parties in the chain getting benefits."
As part of maintaining those relationships, he makes sure the best products don't always go to the highest bidder at auction but are reserved for long-term customers.
Keeping his product fresh is also key. In the past, fishermen have tended to stay away longer, trying to bring in large hauls before returning to land, but there is now a greater awareness of the need to deliver fresh, quality products.
Mawson's biggest conundrum, however, involves supply, rather than demand.
He has some entitlements but depends on existing arrangements with those who own quota, or tenders for quota when needed.
What irks him is how the annual catch entitlements (Ace) are administered, pushing up the cost of fish for New Zealand consumers. "All that does is to drive fishermen out of the waters. We need to change that."
The fishermen are the worst dealt with in the equation, he says. A fisherman who lands a catch but does not have a catch entitlement has to pay the Crown $8 per kg (for snapper) while he gets only the landed price of $6 per kg from the wholesale buyer, costing him $2 to land snapper. And those with a catch entitlement receive between 50c to $1 per kg, dependent on the lease price of the Ace.
"That's the most frustrating part of the business - dealing with the Aces - they are becoming more and more expensive."
He recently reverted to retailing - something which he dropped in 1989 because he felt it was detracting from the company's focus on wholesaling.
"Opening up the retail business has added a different dimension to the business. It has gone better than expected."
Mawson says it is rewarding to hear his retail customers say they can now afford to eat fish twice a week instead of fortnightly as his prices are cheaper.
He says the company is consolidating and deciding how to best spend its resources - whether to focus on expanding its exports, or expanding its retailing.
True to his trade, Mawson eats fish about four times per week - fried with just the slightest amount of seasoning.