We asked some of New Zealand’s leading business people about their bravest moment in business. In the sixth story of our series for Spark, Whitestone Cheese CEO Simon Berry.

"Bravest moment? I reckon moving from Vancouver to Oamaru!"

Simon Berry, CEO of Oamaru's Whitestone Cheese, comes from a long line of Otago farmers.

When the 1980s arrived so did the rural downturn. Noticing the tide was about to turn, Simon's father Bob made the bold decision to forego beef and sheep for cheese.

"Dad was always good at reading markets," says Simon. "'In those days, the only cheese you could find in Kiwi supermarkets was the 1kg block. So my parents would visit their neighbours in Karitane who ran a small business called Evansdale Cheese."


"Everyone raved about their green, mouldy farmhouse cheese!"

Bob and wife Sue spied a wonderful opportunity. Both keen foodies, each had often wondered why, given Europe's propensity for exquisite cheese, our own industry had never developed past infancy.

Surely New Zealand cheese could flourish like its wine counterpart.

Berry says in the early days he and his sister had a stall at a Christchurch wine and food festival. The line for their farmhouse and brie was five deep and soon they were completely sold out. "That's when we thought, dad is onto something here."

Such a response heartened Bob and Sue who turned a converted garage into a factory. 29 years later a purpose-built version employs seventy staff, has a viewing room, deli and shop.

When Simon returned from Vancouver in 2003 he was employee number ten.

"In a way my career path dove-tailed perfectly into my role today as CEO."

The career path Simon alludes to is wide-ranging, both in employment and geographical terms. He has lived and worked in Auckland, London and the U.S. His last gig, before coming home to Oamaru, was as a commodity tax analyst in Vancouver. A title which still makes him laugh.


Big smoke, back to small town - did bravery run in the family?

"I worried whether I'd make it in regional New Zealand having worked in a multinational city. And did I have the right skill set to make the business grow?"

On his first day back Simon would work alongside a dispatch assistant, production manager and his father. He was committed now. With no farm to fall back on, he had to make the business work.

"When I look back, the business has definitely mushroomed into something larger than I expected," says Berry. "It's been a steady growth. I've grown into my role and with the business."

Working with friends or family can be a hair-pulling exercise, so how have the Berrys succeeded?

Simon Berry, CEO of Oamaru's Whitestone Cheese. Photo / Supplied
Simon Berry, CEO of Oamaru's Whitestone Cheese. Photo / Supplied

"Recognize issues early. Never take on the same role. Separate tasks. A lawyer once told me conflict arises when, for example, father and son take on the same job, which can create generational conflict. 'In my day we never did it like that' sort of thing."

"But it cuts both ways - the son also needs to understand the experience and wisdom of his elder," says Berry.'

Did working for his parents ever feel like an obligation? "More like an opportunity," he smiles.

Like any business owner in recent times, Simon has had to keep up with technological advances. Being the first business in town to get Spark's fibre has meant transferring large marketing files has been a breeze. As for advances in consumer goods, adoption of the latest European packaging has improved both shelf life and presentation to the consumer.

Berry: "When you open a packet of cheese now compared to ten years ago it's in very similar condition to when it was cut and wrapped at the factory."

The Berrys are proud to say their business is the family type, not a corporate driven by margins or numbers. Their cheese is hand made in vats with attention to detail and a focus on quality.

"And if you want to speak with the owner, just pick up the phone," says Berry - although these days 'the phone' could be mobile, email, social media, the website or trusty landline. The team at the Spark Business Hub work closely with the Berry's to help make sure all their technology allows them to work the way they want.

The only remaining question is one of vital importance: how to stay trim when surrounded by cheese, cheese and more cheese.

"Every lunch time I walk the dog," he laughs. "I make a point of unplugging from the business whenever I can. This is a great part of the world. We've got lakes an hour up the road and The Southern Alps at our doorstep. Oh, and it's a four-minute drive home for lunch."

Berry is also lucky his wife is no stranger to the ups and downs of business.

"Annabelle probably gets it in the ear all the time, but having been a general manager she understands the challenges, and how to deal with them."

These days father Bob resides three hours to the west in Lake Hayes and still phones Simon for regular updates. Like how the business he sold a farm to create recently won a prestigious award at Wisconsin's 2016 World Championship Cheese Contest.

"Our Vintage Windsor Blue," beams Simon. "It's like an Olympic silver medal."

Hot cheese rolls all round.

Every business owner has a defining moment, a point where they have a make or break decision. Us kiwis love a good success story, and we want to hear all about yours. Share your brave business journey with us and you could land yourself an exclusive Spark Lab VIP experience.

Spark will look after flights to Auckland, accommodation, dinner at Seafarers and tickets for a premium Spark Lab business event with the opportunity to network with the speaker. They will also include a one-on-one business mentoring session with an Icehouse coach worth $380.

To enter, simply tell us about your brave business story and what helped you along the way. Share your story here http://spark.co.nz/sparklabvip