ASB and ExportNZ Stories: A little bit of comfort from Whittaker’s during COVID-19

To be New Zealand’s most-trusted brand for 9 years in a row, and New Zealand’s most-loved brand for 8 years in a row, you need to be doing a few things right.

Whittaker’s is a Kiwi icon, rightfully famous for the superior texture and taste of its chocolate. The company has come a long way from their beginnings, when J.H. Whittaker was selling to Chocolate Lovers from the back of a horse and cart in the 1890s. Today, Whittaker’s are selling to Chocolate Lovers across the globe.

They’ve reached incredible heights locally and internationally, but at its core, it’s a company like any other in our export community – New Zealand-made and family-operated.

So, what has allowed Whittaker’s to command this aura of brand love not only in New Zealand, but in Australia, Asia, and beyond? We asked their CEO, James Ardern, and co-COO, Matt Whittaker a few questions about the COVID-19 period, their drivers of success internationally, and advice for other exporters.

How has Whittaker’s fared over the COVID-19 period?

There is significant interdependence of suppliers across the food network and in this context, we are an essential business, so we continued operating throughout in conjunction with our suppliers and customers. We were pleased to be able to provide a little bit of comfort for Whittaker’s Chocolate Lovers at home during that challenging time.

At Whittaker’s, onsite work “bubbles” were created with multiple temporary locker rooms and cafeterias set up in partitioned and commandeered office spaces. Therefore, we were able to create “work bubbles” with staff “family bubbles” that resulted in fantastic teamwork and trust. From a sales perspective there were and remain challenges and opportunities alike.

The greatest challenge is a significant and immediate change in product mix. Some or our range has been negatively affected in the hospitality and travel retail areas while grocery sales during lockdown were elevated. The speed and scale of these changes has been costly and a true operational test for our team that have responded better than anyone could expect.

What lessons has the company taken away from the challenges faced so far in 2020?

It reinforced for us the need to be prepared with crisis management planning and to follow our instincts and take action early. We began preparations in earnest in February. By Alert Levels 3 and 4 we had over half our support team working from home including vulnerable staff. New operational methods were put in place and many key purchases expedited. Team flexibility, being nimble, and trust have been important. Having good IT systems in place for working from home was critical. Having a rainy-day fund on hand to ensure critical business needs can immediately be met is vital (additional materials, PPE).

Black swans do exist, be prepared for them. A key thing that has worked in our favour is the fact that we make all of our chocolate right here in NZ, at our one factory in Porirua. This gives us a lot of control in our response to a crisis, and of course New Zealand has succeeded where other countries have not in containing the situation and returning to normal more quickly than has been the case in other parts of the world.

Whittaker’s star has been rising in overseas markets. What have you done to attract international consumers to Whittaker’s in a world dominated by chocolate conglomerates like Mars, Nestle, and Mondelēz?

Chocolate lovers are incredibly passionate, and the Whittaker’s family genuinely share that passion for chocolate. It’s all about quality for us, and ultimately that sells itself. In addition, consumers around the world are interested in the stories behind brands and Whittaker’s story resonates with chocolate lovers everywhere – family owned and operated since 1896, proudly New Zealand-made, and with a relentless focus making world-class quality chocolate from beans-to-bar.

Whittaker’s tangible commitment to social responsibility is also important to Whittaker’s Chocolate Lovers. This includes Whittaker’s recent expansion of its commitment to ethical cocoa sourcing across its range, and the support Whittaker’s provides for the Samoan cocoa industry under the Whittaker’s Cocoa Improvement programme established in 2014. Of course, having celebrity fans of Whittaker’s Chocolate, like Nigella Lawson who has been a Whittaker’s brand ambassador for some time, also helps! The great thing about Whittaker’s is that it is true to itself, focusing on what it does well and doing the right thing by its suppliers and consumers, rather than focusing on the competition. It is an exciting journey to be part of.

Whittaker’s have set a great example for Kiwi food and beverage companies aiming for success. What advice would you give to other F&B exporters that are trying to make their mark?

First, have a clear understanding of your point of difference as a company and product. Once you are confident in this regard, then focus on leveraging that point of difference and be careful that you do not compromise by trying to be everything to everyone.

Second, keep it as simple as possible and focus on offering a range and format of products that are popular in NZ and can then be selectively scaled-up for the international market.

Third, you have to sell your point of difference and product range with in-market partners and ultimately the trade to believe in your story as much as you do. With travel limitations excellent partners are even more critical.

Fourth, aim to be important in each market you participate in. Good sustainable business is often a multi-year progression, short cuts are rare.

Finally, many commentators have spoken of the opportunities that could emerge for New Zealand exporters from this crisis. Do you agree with this? Where do you see the opportunities emerging for New Zealand goods and services going forward?

Yes, we do share that optimism and see opportunity in the recent adversity. Internationally, Australia and UK in particular promise incremental growth opportunities over the coming years.

We’ve recently expanded our distribution in Australia and a trans-Tasman bubble brings more potential, as does upcoming trade negotiations with the UK. New Zealand remains a small global producer, so by default we occupy a niche and premium position in global markets. Consumers are hurting financially but there is still strong demand for the premium products New Zealand can supply.

Based on our flattening of the curve, New Zealand has the potential to leverage growth, supplement security of supply compared to some regions and offer quality. Tempering this positive outlook, there are increasing logistics costs and supply challenges in and out of New Zealand and will be for some time to come; this is a real cost challenge on the world stage for those consumer brands that do not have a premium value proposition.

This story has been provided in partnership with our major sponsor, ASB. Like us, ASB are passionate about the export community and helping them succeed on the world stage.

ASB provides expert advice alongside the right financial tools and online solutions to make exporting easier. Find out how, by clicking here.

16 Jul, 2020
| News

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