Celebrating 50 years of ExportNZ: Waikato exporter – TOMRA Fresh Food

TOMRA Fresh Food is a leading New Zealand exporter that has developed technologically world-class advancements in the fruit sorting industry. Born out of a merger between BBC Technologies and Compac Sorting Equipment in 2000, TOMRA Fresh Food has expanded in over 34 countries spanning North and South America, Europe and Africa. As Kiwi exporters, their customer-centric approach and continuous product development in their Food Science Program has contributed to their compounding success. Particularly with blueberries (although not exclusive to), TOMRA Fresh Food has developed state-of-the-art AI colour sorting and grading technology, infeed front of line loading systems, filling and packing technology, and a plethora of other food industry solutions. For more information about TOMRA Fresh Food’s services, check out their website here.

As part of ExportNZ’s 50th Anniversary, we were joined by TOMRA Fresh Food’s CEO, Geoff Furniss, for an interview to delve into their unique exporter story.

TOMRA Fresh Food’s Exporter Journey:

Since the business was in a very niche industry and the New Zealand market was inherently too small, TOMRA Fresh Food began exporting from day one in 2000. Initially, TOMRA’s core product, the blueberry colour sorter, was exported at a discount throughout North America through industry expert clients. As a small company from New Zealand at the time, coming to the United States was unusual and relatively unheard of compared with today. However, the strong and affirming relationships built between these clients and TOMRA were fundamental to growing an early share in the North American market. Furniss explains that TOMRA found its early export success by changing their business strategy from research and development to developing a customer-centric export model. In doing so, the business prioritised the industry and customers they knew well to ensure their existing products were the best available in the market. After this critical strategy adjustment with the support of a strong team, TOMRA experienced huge growth and profitability that expanded into over 38 countries transnationally.

Furniss also emphasises the importance of leadership for building a strong workplace, stating that “Working with the incredible team around me is humbling. My objective in leadership is to support by direction and allow our world-class staff to do what they do best.” When asked what the biggest difference was between selling in New Zealand and in another country, Furniss said “Almost everything is fundamentally different from culture to financial practices. Most importantly, the key is to know who we are selling to and what our product is uniquely providing for them.” Today, 95 per cent of all TOMRA’s business is conducted through export overseas.

Adapting Against the GFC, 2010 NZD Exchange Rate Fluctuations, and COVID-19:

Operating since 2000 has provided plenty of time for TOMRA to experience a multitude of economic shocks on both a global and domestic scale. Furniss explains that the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 was challenging for the business to operate through, with large amounts of revenue on hold from clients deferring on capital equipment payments for up to 12 months. This understandably put the squeeze on the operational capability of TOMRA without regular cashflow. In 2010, the NZD increased to an extreme high against the USD which again put immense pressure on TOMRA with most of their clientele came from North America. However, TOMRA emerged from both economic shocks with stronger and more flexible local infrastructure and contingency strategies that have ensured the continuity of the business in times of crisis. When COVID-19 unexpectedly struck the world economy in 2020, TOMRA’s business had reached industry maturity and they were effectively prepared for the subsequent supply chain and international travel issues. If anything, COVID-19 was an opportunity for TOMRA to consider the potentially infinite opportunities of integrating advanced technology into their production process. As a result, TOMRA has emerged from COVID-19 with stronger relationships, contingency strategies, and of course, profit margins. Resilience, Furniss states, is the core characteristic every exporter should possess to achieve similar success from economic shocks.

When asked what makes him nervous about exporting in 2022, Furniss explains that the variable nature of global trade relations and its potential impacts on free trade are always a very real concern. Another concern in our increasingly globalized world is the threat of emerging industry competitors in manufacturing. For these reasons, Furniss believes it’s crucial that TOMRA continues innovating proactively to continue breaking down barriers blocking future development.

The future for TOMRA Fresh Food:

Furniss aspires for TOMRA to continue expanding their cutting-edge technology portfolio and integrated high value solutions into new markets. Europe is an exciting market that presents itself as a lucrative future opportunity for expansion. Additionally, Furniss sees TOMRA building its market share into different areas of the food chain by becoming more interconnected with the needs of their industries customers. Prioritising the development of healthy consumption is paramount to achieve this goal. In Furniss’ words, “If we have the same solutions by 2032, we aren’t doing our job properly.” In this regard, innovation for TOMRA in our increasingly competitive and globalized world is essential. With this mindset it is abundantly clear that TOMRA’s future is indeed bright.

In another 50 years’ time, ExportNZ will have their 100th anniversary which will mark a century of us helping New Zealand exporters. In our concluding question, we asked Furniss what words of wisdom he had for future generations of Kiwi globe trotters. In his own words, Be brave and bold – get into it.

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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