Brendon Lee started in the kiwifruit industry as an orchard cadet and is now the face of one of Tauranga's fastest-growing post-harvest facilities.
Starting his apprenticeship at age 18, Lee has spent 15 years rising through the ranks to become Mount Pack & Cool's general manager.
The 33-year-old now leads a team of more than 100 permanent staff and 500 seasonal staff.
Lee said rubbing shoulders with seasoned executive professionals as a young businessman was challenging but rewarding.
"To earn the respect of my peers I need to work hard, show I'm worthy of being in the same league as them."
"Once you do earn their respect they do treat you the same."
He said grabbing opportunities with both hands and not being afraid to seek out those in the industry helped him get to where he was today.
"Once you get those opportunities it's about being the hardest working person in the room, proving yourself."
Lee's introduction to horticulture began early on when his parents had a green kiwifruit orchard near the Pāpāmoa Hills.
"But as a kid, I hated it because my parents made me work in the orchard in the weekend and after school."
He took agriculture and horticulture as a student at Te Puke High School, but after deciding dairy farming wasn't for him he became an orchard cadet "starting right at the bottom".
"My first job was an orchard cadet and label operator at a packhouse during the harvest, but I worked my way up to production supervisor, to line manager, to packhouse manager, and eventually site manager."
He completed a Diploma in Horticulture via Lincoln University with his then-employer put him through night classes.
In 2012, Lee was approached to be the general manager at Apac, a role that opened him up to the wider business world.
"Going to Apac... I was exposed to every part of the business, from start to finish."
The senior leadership role prepared him for a return to the Bay in 2017 when he took over as Mpac's general manager while continuing to oversee the Apac management team.
His professional development continued, with his employers funding a Diploma in Business Management extramurally via Massey University, as well as participation in the Kellogg's Leadership and Zespri Industry Governance Development programmes.
"Career progression has kept me motivated. Every couple of years I was promoted and I had the opportunity to step up."
"Having benefited from that, if we see someone at Mpac who has the potential to move up, we like to promote from within.
"We're part of a multi-billion-dollar industry. Why shouldn't the most talented people be working in kiwifruit as well?"
Throughout his career, Lee has worked as a post-harvest site manage in Te Puke when Psa ravaged kiwifruit vines around the region.
But last year, he led Mpac and Auckland Pack and Cool (Apac) through the challenges of packing and storing their largest volume of kiwifruit during a global pandemic that forced New Zealand into lockdown and essential businesses like his to take extra precautions to ensure the health and safety of staff.
Lee called on those Psa experiences when navigating the challenges of 2020 and Covid-19 as general manager at Mpac and Apac. Having a clear communications plan was critically important, he said.
"There were rounds of redundancies in the industry and it was unnerving for staff and management. Although the Mpac group did not make any employees redundant, we didn't know if we'd have an industry in a year or two.
"Announcements from Government officials were changing almost daily so we were constantly communicating our response plan to staff and growers."
He recalled staff anxiety levels "went through the roof".
"I'd never seen anything like it before. Staff came to work, but most people wanted to go home and be with their families during level 4 which was understandable.
"Managing anxiety amongst staff was a big part of my role, but once they saw we had a plan and could get through, everyone was ok."
Lee said he felt the pressure and responsibility during Covid.
"The growers, they wanted their fruit picked as soon as possible because no one knew how long things would stay open."
But he gained satisfaction overseeing what was the two companies' biggest season to date.
Last year, Mpac and Apac handled 15 million trays of kiwifruit, growing their volume by 35 per cent in a single season.
They also delivered the industry's highest Orchard Gate Return and lowest Gold fruit loss to growers.
"I'm very proud of our team's performance. When we had more time to reflect, I realised it was a pretty amazing achievement.
"To have those results in a normal year would be pretty good, but to have them in a Covid-19 year was exceptional."