A new breed of business
Posted on Wednesday 4 December 2019
Once upon a time, Nelson Tasman was a place where the main income earner was the primary sector: seafood, horticulture, forestry, and farming. Today, the business landscape is quite different. Those primary industries have provided baseline support for a range of clever businesses that are competing with the best in the world, and in some cases becoming leaders in their markets. With better digital connectivity, innovative tech and software companies have found their feet here. And a new breed of high-value food and beverage businesses have carved their own niche in crowded markets.
It’s characteristic of a region experiencing the fourth industrial revolution, or ‘Industry 4.0’, Nelson Regional Development Agency research and development regional business advisor Mark Maguire says.
“Just as businesses 150 years ago adapted to electricity enabling mass production, today’s businesses are embracing new and smart technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence, sensing, the internet of things, additive manufacturing such as 3D printing, and cyber security.”
Forestry, for example, has spawned DC Equipment, a world leader in developing new technologies for steep harvesting. Nelson Tasman’s strength in horticulture means the many top-end food and beverage companies operating today have a wealth of local grower, market, and produce knowledge to draw from. A long history of growing hops means Nelson Tasman has become one of New Zealand’s craft-beer capitals, while still exporting hops to the world.
Nelson Tasman has the biggest fishing port in Australasia and has become a global leader in aquaculture and deep-sea fishing, with companies like New Zealand King Salmon and Sealord choosing to base themselves here. The port and seafood industry has supported the success of many clever companies such as underwater technology company Zebra-Tech, seafood-oil extraction firms SeaDragon and Pharmalink Extracts, and Coppins Para Sea Anchors, the world’s strongest sea anchors.
Nelson Port | Photo: Martin de Ruyter
The oceans-based economy is strengthened by the region being home to New Zealand’s largest independent science organisation, the Cawthron Institute, which is a global leader in aquaculture and blue economy science and research. Nelson also hosts an office for Crown Research Institute Plant & Food Research, which is the co-creator of Precision Seafood Harvesting, a revolutionary fishing net technology.
The region’s research strength has been recognised by the government through the Provincial Growth Fund supporting the establishment of Cawthron’s National Algae Centre, which is investigating algae as a food and medicine supplement including high-value bioactive compounds; and the Nelson Artificial Intelligence Institute, which is focusing first on using AI in the aquaculture sector, and eventually aims to expand into different business sectors in the future.
There’s also room for new business. Over the past decade, the areas creating the most new jobs are the professional, scientific and technical services industries, and the region also has the highest proportion of people working in this sector out of anywhere in New Zealand.
This developing technology sector is attracting a range of businesses that choose to be based in Nelson Tasman because they can, and they’re finding business good once they get there, with an energetic business community.
Maguire lived in Wellington for 15 years, and moved to Nelson Tasman five years ago. His role is to support and advise local businesses who export into multiple global markets, helping 350 local businesses a year. He describes the vibe in the city as “inspirational and supportive”.
“There’s a strong focus on premium and value-add products, having a growth mindset, and lots of businesses wanting to embrace new technologies, which in turn create new growth opportunities for their businesses,” he says. “There is also a greater awareness of investing into building internal capability, and we are seeing an increase in businesses investing into R&D activities.” In fact, compared to four years ago there has been a 350 percent increase in volume and R&D dollars invested by businesses in the past year.
He’s also observed that employers in Nelson Tasman are more encouraging of employee work-life balance, particularly when trying to attract the best employees or highly-skilled millennials.
“Nelson Tasman ticks all the boxes,” he says. “It’s a great place to live, work and play in some of the most stunning landscapes nature can serve up. These will be strong attractions over the coming decade as future workplaces compete for those highly-skilled millennials entering the workforce.”
He also points to an increased uptake and use of technology and connectivity driving the flourishing smart business sector.
“You can fly out of Nelson at 6am arrive into Sydney at 9am local time.” In fact, Nelson Airport’s brand-new terminal is the fifth busiest in New Zealand, with up to 400 domestic flights in and out of the region every week.
Nelson Airport Terminal | Photo: Storyline Pictures Nelson
Thanks to this better physical and technological connectivity, business owners and staff realise they can work from anywhere while enjoying the premium lifestyle Nelson Tasman offers. Freight and cargo tracking service CORE Transport Technologies has a global client base, including international airlines and its biggest customer, the United States Postal Service. Mobile advertising specialists Shuttlerock, virtual reality language-learning business Immerseme, and kaupapa Māori software company Plink are all finding success in their boutique technology sectors.
One business that’s enjoying recent high growth is tech company SnapIT. Brothers Chris and Andrew Rodley developed their first SnapIT camera in their garage in Nelson in 2007, wanting a way to remotely view their property in Hanmer. Today, it’s an award-winning leader in bespoke monitoring services and technology, with the brothers building a high-definition image capturing, processing, transmission, and analytics system that has caught the attention of television broadcasters, weather reporters, construction companies, airports, tourism organisations, governments, and NGOs from all over the globe.
A particular success is an onboard monitoring system for fishing vessels that captures 100 percent of activity onboard, initially sparked by losses of fish at sea. Recently, venture capital investment has allowed them to triple their staff and invest in plant and equipment as they scale up this part of the business to address the compliance needs of fisherman in New Zealand and around the world.
Chris, now CEO with Andrew the company’s GM, says far from being a drawback to their business, being in Nelson Tasman has only strengthened it.
“If anything, it’s been a benefit because it’s less competitive here, so it’s easy to attract people with a good story like we’re fortunate to have,” he says. “When you’re an international business anyway, where you’re located doesn’t matter. Nelson Tasman is a great place to be.”
He also says as many high-achieving people come to the region from overseas and bigger New Zealand cities to chase Nelson Tasman’s lifestyle, there is “a tonne of talent” in the city that is underutilised.
“We are doing some cutting-edge stuff in artificial intelligence and have found real talent – during our recent expansion we were able to employ 15 people with the right skills in two weeks,” he says. “A lot came from the city, and of those that didn’t, it was an instant ‘Yes’ when we asked if they’d move here. The attraction to Nelson Tasman is huge, especially when you’re living in Auckland where the cost of living is high and you spend so much time in your car.”
Perhaps most well-known are those Nelson Tasman food and beverage businesses that are succeeding in incredibly crowded markets. No-one would have thought the world needed new brands of peanut butter, potato chips, juice, ice-cream, milk, beer, cider, wine, freeze-dried tramping food, or chocolate until companies such as Pic’s Peanut Butter, Chia Sisters, Absolute Wilderness, Hogarth’s Chocolate, Appleby Farms and Proper Crisps came along.
Pic Serving Pic's Peanut Butter
In a tradition first started by McCashin’s, which began brewing craft beer brand Mac’s in Stoke in the 1980s when the market was dominated by Big Beer, these Nelson Tasman businesses have tackled the boutique end of their markets and found national and international success. They’ve done it thanks to a focus on quality, strong branding drawing on a powerful regional identity – and simply by making delicious products.
Absolute Wilderness is a freeze-dried outdoor meal business founded by entrepreneur Andrew Macdonald and his food scientist father Grant. It is now enjoyed by some of the world’s best athletes – and Nelson Tasman is the perfect testing ground, Macdonald says.
The idea for his company began when he was standing on a mountaintop and thought “I could really go a Thai curry right now.”
“Our food is eaten by the world’s best adventure racers and the top mountaineers,” he says. “Those types of people want premium meals and quality ingredients to fuel their success.”
Macdonald himself spends every spare minute on mini or lengthy missions into the landscapes surrounding Nelson city. He grew up in the region and is a keen foodie, familiar with all of its delicious, high-quality local products.
“Because Nelson Tasman is an active playground you have all these incredible people living and working here, so it punches way about its weight in terms of the calibre of people,” he says. “You have the world’s best adventure racers, scientists, artists – the talent pool is much deeper than you think it would be for a provincial centre.”
He says while cities like Auckland might have that same talent pool, the smallness of Nelson Tasman creates new business opportunities. Macdonald finds the “togetherness” of the industry, as opposed to cutthroat competition, hugely beneficial for his company. He uses local products in his meals wherever he can.
“It’s one degree of separation here and so much easier to be connected,” he says. “I think all the businesses in that innovative food space know each other, and they did before they started too. Knowing each other makes things happen.” For example, Pic’s Peanut Butter is extending its factory space to help start-up local food businesses scale up from home kitchens, an endeavour also supported by the Provincial Growth Fund. The Food Factory will include four kitchens that can be hired for up to several months.
Andy Macdonald with Absolute Wilderness co-founders Nathan Faave and Grant Macdonald | Photo: Tim Cuff
And while the oceans economy and value-added food and beverage industries are growing strongly, there is also a mature professional services sector helping these diverse companies thrive. You can’t build a solid business without accounting, legal, IT, engineering, and construction. Some of those servicing Nelson Tasman are national companies with regional offices, such as Datacom, Beca, and Duncan Cotterill. Others are local providers, often with long histories in the region.
C&F Legal commercial lawyer Rick Farr says doing business in Nelson Tasman is no different to doing it anywhere else – except it’s easier because of its size, connectivity, and freedom of movement.
“Businesses in Nelson Tasman can and do make things happen much faster than the larger cities both in New Zealand and elsewhere,” he says. “Because of better technology, the tyranny of distance is no longer a factor in whether your business will excel or not.”
Maguire agrees with the power of connection. He says Nelson Tasman has a classic “dotted-line relationship”, meaning you can connect or get in touch with anyone easily.
“We have a very interconnected ecosystem so businesses can access support very easily,” he says. “Nelson Tasman really is a place where all the best bits of New Zealand are distilled into a single destination.”
To discover more about living and working in Nelson Tasman click here.