Celebrating 50 years of ExportNZ: Bay of Plenty exporter – Comvita

With headquarters in Paengaroa, Bay of Plenty, Comvita is a world-leading Kiwi exporter working in harmony with nature to provide Manuka honey products globally. Beginning in 1974, Comvita’s co-founders Claude Stratford and Alan Bougen sought to imagine a product that simultaneously improved people’s livelihoods and supplemented New Zealand’s natural ecosystem. Bees, and the honey they produce, was a product integral to our ecosystem and a source of food and medicine. However, it was only until Manuka honey’s health benefits were scientifically discovered, that the iconic Kiwi honey would become the face of Comvita. Under the mantra “Let Food be Thy Medicine”, Comvita now produces and distributes Manuka honey from their 20,000 beehives in New Zealand to their consumers around the world. From start-up to international success, Comvita has offices operating across the UK and Europe with subsidiaries established in Australia and Hong Kong.

As part of ExportNZ’s 50th Anniversary, Comvita’s Chief Business Development Officer, Adrian Barr, joined us for an interview to explore the business’s staggering worldwide success. In this edition, we discuss Comvita’s exporter journey, their emergence from COVID-19, their inspirational corporate social responsibility and their implementation of Kaitiakitanga. If you’re looking for an exporter that strives to do good for everyone, look no further than Comvita.

If you’d like to learn more about Comvita, click here to visit their website.

“Anywhere Manuka honey is consumed, Comvita is there.” – Comvita’s Liquid Gold Exporter Success:

Historically, honey has been widely used among different cultures for its nutritional and medical applications since as far back as 2100 B.C. When Comvita was first founded, the co-founders always saw exporting their honey products as a lucrative opportunity in markets with cultural affinity with the commodity. Especially with New Zealand’s limited market scale and low consumption of honey, overseas demand for honey firmly justified the decision for Comvita to begin exporting. Barr tells us that this early period was primarily characterised by Comvita’s co-founders constantly flying abroad and building relationships with propolis and honey business owners to exchange industry information.

Over time, Comvita began building a recognisable brand in America, China, and Australia that was renowned for their high-quality honey products. Once Manuka honey’s benefits were discovered and widely circulated, Comvita leveraged these early relationships to expand their superior and highly demanded product. However, Barr explains that no market has been the same with honey’s various socio-cultural applications. For example, “When looking at greater China, we started our journey with a venture that turned into a partnership and was later 100% acquired by us in the market. We’ve adapted based on China’s market demand over a nearly 50-year journey in the making by 2024-2025.” Barr recognises that exporting cannot be an overnight success, it takes time to build a global brand profile that is recognised beyond simply selling commodities.

In the last decade, Barr tells us that Comvita has spent an abundance of time and resources to understand the consumer and their needs in different markets. By understanding consumer needs and behaviours, Comvita has understood the strategies they need to implement to meet these needs and encourage positive spending behaviours. Comvita has learnt that consumers view their brand as supporting authentic, healthy lifestyles, with their pure, healthy, and clean Manuka honey products. New Zealand’s national reputation as a clean green and sustainable country has also supplemented this environmentally friendly brand reputation. Under this strong brand identity, it is clear why Comvita has experienced profitable growth across a multitude of international markets.

When asking Barr what he attributes to Comvita’s success over the past decades, Barr states that; “It’s our people. Comvita’s people are passionate right across the board from production to in-market distributors and retailers. This passion drives purpose-driven success and has been fundamental to building a common brand across a variety of different markets.”

Re-Building a Resilient Global Supply Chain – Comvita Against COVID-19:

COVID-19 was the most disruptive event to trade in Comvita’s time with seismic changes to the operational capability of global supply chains and consumer buying behaviours. Specifically, Barr mentions the drastically accelerated consumer transition from traditional retail shopping to online shopping occurring at a global scale. Fortunately for Comvita, their online store offerings and supporting omni-channel distribution structure allowed the business to rapidly capitalise on this change in consumer buying behaviours. Consequently, Comvita’s online sales grew dramatically with 10 years of expected sales achieved in only three months. Today, 30 per cent of Comvita’s honey products are sold via online sources with overwhelmingly positive customer reviews.

Comvita used COVID-19 and its disruptions to global supply chains as an opportunity to build resilience in their own supply chain. In order to do so, Barr details the importance of understanding the nature of COVID-19 as an economic force. This understanding allowed Comvita to perceive that the economic effects of COVID-19 were not experienced universally. Specifically, when some markets were going through economic shocks, other markets were starting to rebound. As a result, Comvita leveraged their expansive and diversified global supply chains to sustain stable portfolio growth by using rebounding markets to absorb downturns in unstable markets. Barr tells us that this strategic development has fostered a resilient supply chain that is prepared for future uncertainty and volatility in the global market.

Comvita’s Inspirational Corporate Social Responsibility under the Worldview of Kaitiakitanga:

Comvita’s leading sustainability initiatives and goals truly embody a 21st Century Kiwi Exporter seeking to foster a sustainable environment that enhances humanity’s living standards. Following the preceding social mission established by Comvita’s co-founders, Comvita’s core social mission is to create a world where bees, nature, and people can thrive together in harmony. Barr identifies that preserving the business’s founding principles is a positive legacy for current and future employees to build upon over the next 50 years. To understand the scope of this mission, Comvita has adopted the core Māori value and worldview of Kaitiakitanga that ensures the guardianship, protection, and preservation of the environment.

Barr explains that “New Zealand has limited resources. It is our operations as a New Zealand exporter to concentrate our focus on where we can add the most value to our limited resources to increase returns. However, it is our responsibility as a New Zealand exporter to understand this scarcity and ensure we are not only protecting the environment but adding value to it too. We aim to lift the living standards of all Kiwis in this country through manufacturing our products sustainably in a way that delivers further positive outcomes beyond our product. Consumers want sustainable products around the world, and we want them to trust us as producers that prioritise environmental protection in our work wherever possible.”

Under this framework, Comvita’s goals are to:

  • Become carbon neutral by 2025
  • Become carbon negative (i.e., offsetting emissions) by 2030
  • Plant their own Manuka Forest exceeding 10 million trees
  • Save 10 million bees every year
  • Continue investing in global community partnerships that sustainably benefit life

How is Comvita achieving this mission?

Since adopting these goals, Comvita’s product packaging has become completely recyclable and BPA free, following the goal of 100 per cent of their total packaging becoming recyclable, reusable, or compostable by 2025. This has eliminated the use of 2.0 tonnes of plastic from the business in 2021 alone. Additionally, 27 per cent of the power generated at Comvita’s Paengaroa headquarters is sourced from clean and renewable solar energy. Major investments into carbon reduction initiatives and renewable energy sources should see 100 per cent of their generated power carbon-free before 2030.

Ecosystem regeneration starts with putting nature first, so Comvita have pledged to plant one tree in any of New Zealand’s most fragile environments for every pot of honey sold. To date, this initiative has planted 10 million new trees throughout the country with many more being planted regularly. These planted Manuka trees have removed an estimated 9,146 tCO2e (and counting) carbon emissions from the atmosphere since the beginning of the reforestation program.

Comvita have recognised that both the wild and managed bee populations are dwindling globally because of climate change, chemical pesticides, habitat loss from human development, and invasive plant species and disease/parasites. In the Winter of 2018 alone, US beekeepers lost 40 per cent of their hives from these threats to pollinators. As key components of our natural ecosystem are responsible for nearly 75 per cent of our global food supply, the alarming loss of bees threatens all life on earth. Accordingly, Comvita have partnered with independent beekeepers across the US who perform safe bee removals and relocations across the country. Barr tells us that one per cent of Comvita’s total annual EBITDA is invested into supplementing these global community partnerships and partner charities.

One of the most widespread and costly impacts to local agricultural communities across Africa are elephants foraging and destroying crops. In recognising this problem, Comvita have successfully implemented initiatives in Africa to help local communities produce honey as both a deterrent to elephants who fear bees and a source of food and medicine. This provides a source of income, work and education to these communities and protects their livelihoods from environmental threats. Barr says the feedback Comvita has received has been wonderful and continues to empower them to be industry leaders in driving positive environmental, social, and cultural change.

It’s clear from these actions that Comvita aren’t just talking the talk, they are walking it too.

Wisdom for Current and Future Exporters:

In another 50 years’ time, ExportNZ will be turning 100 years old! This milestone for us will mark a century of helping Kiwi exporters operate and expand their businesses across the world.

We asked Adrian Barr what words of advice he had for us with his vast experience in a successful exporter brand. In his words, “Aotearoa is, and always will be, an exporting nation regardless of industry. You need to understand customer and consumer needs and how that product will make a difference for them. You need to experience markets to understand who you’re selling to. Spend time in those communities and apply that knowledge to grow your exporting capability and brand. It’s just about doing exporting more efficiently and rapidly.”

Special acknowledgement: James O’Riley (a bright young 2nd year Otago University student studying Management, History, Politics) interviewed exporters over the last few months.    James has written some excellent pieces for us. This is the first in a series celebrating 50 years of ExportNZ.

7 Nov, 2022

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