Sweet success for First Fresh

Fresh orange juice is always a winner, especially if it’s locally grown and packed. From the early days in 1989, First Fresh has grown to be one of the leading citrus marketers in New Zealand.

Fresh orange juice is always a winner, especially if it’s locally grown and packed. From the early days in 1989, First Fresh has grown to be one of the leading citrus marketers in New Zealand.

GROWING FOR GROWERS: Gisborne company First Fresh continues on an upward growth curve. Managing director Ian Albers(pictured) said the coming season looks like a record one in terms of fruit tonnages produced. Pictures by Liam Clayton
IN ACTION: Navel oranges roll through the packhouse on their way to market.
IN ACTION: The First Fresh NZ Ltd packhouse in Lytton Road on any given day is a hive of activity as the company handles its wide range of fruit. Here navel oranges roll through the packhouse on their way to market.

FROM humble beginnings in 1989 Gisborne company First Fresh has grown substantially over the years to the point where it is now one of the leading marketers of citrus in New Zealand and certainly Gisborne’s largest.

The company was established by Bill Thorpe who through his already established growing and packing operations saw the opportunity to market the finished product as well.

“That’s really how the ‘tree to trolley’ mantra came about,” he said.

As First Fresh grew, other growers came on board and the product range expanded.

Today the product range spans all varieties of citrus.

The main varieties are navel oranges, mandarins, lemons, limes and grapefruit.

The company is New Zealand’s largest marketer of persimmons selling nearly 70 percent of the national crop.

Kiwifruit is the third product category.

First Fresh has a strong domestic program and exports a variety of Gold Kiwifruit called First Gold that does not come under the Zespri umbrella.

Managing director for First Fresh, Ian Albers, joined the company in 2000.

“In that time the company has grown from two marketing staff and one part time clerical person to a team of 12,” Ian said.

“This includes a full time technical and compliance team whose role it is to advise, train and assist grower-suppliers.”

Ian said the first time he ever came to Gisborne was for the job interview.

“My wife and I stayed at Bill’s house and right from then we thought — Yes, this is a place we want to be.”

Seventeen years on and the company has changed significantly.

“We used to send most of our produce through to one or two of the major produce wholesalers and New Zealand based exporters.

“They in turn sold the product to their customers in New Zealand and overseas.

“It worked but there was always a lot of uncertainty around volume and prices,” Ian said.

Sensing the need for change the company embarked on a drive to increase its direct export sales about nine years ago.

“We brought a seasoned export marketer named Stuart Mansill on board to drive this initiative.

“Stuart had in fact already worked for First Fresh when it was still in its infancy but left the company in the mid 90’s to take up roles with other produce marketing companies.”

Ian said it was hard work because they were not like other New Zealand exporters who had a basket of products to market all year round.

“We had persimmons and citrus but slowly and steadily we forged relationships with key customers in Japan, South East Asia and Australia.

“This year our export volume is just under 50 percent of our total business and we are forging new markets for Gisborne products in the likes of China and the USA.”

Ian said with New Zealand being such a small market of only 4.7 million people, First Fresh needed export markets to ensure the viability of the local market business and provide growers with the best possible returns.

“It’s very easy for oversupply issues to happen in New Zealand and that usually does not bode well.

“About three years ago we made the decision to start dealing with the supermarket chains directly.

“Given our volume and market share we needed to be in a position where we could be a direct category supplier for the crops that we handled.

“That meant another new set of rules and procedures to follow and adhere to.”

Ian said there was no safety net to getting it wrong and the company could not rely on the wholesale marketers to sort it out for them.

“All of a sudden we went from five and six days a week deliveries to seven days a week deliveries and an absolute expection around DIFOTIS — Deliver In Full On Time and In Spec.”

The company was rewarded by being named a finalist in the Countdown supplier awards in 2014.

“First Fresh has close to 100 grower suppliers, some of whom have been supplying the company almost since its started.

“Growers are our life blood — We have to deserve their supply and that is where the ‘tree to trolley’ bit comes in.”

Matt Carter heads the technical team providing advice and guidance for growers.

“We run our own crop monitoring service for growers, sending scouts out into the orchards to look for pest and disease so that growers know when to spray and what to spray for,” Matt said.

“Compliance is another area where we can offer growers a fulltime resource that is dedicated to this role.”

However the lynch pin to the ‘tree to trolley’ concept was the company’s product managers, Ian said.

“They assume responsibility for a given crop from grower to customer so are equally at home talking to the grower as they are settling on a promotion plan with a major supermarket company.

“It means nothing gets lost in translation and the marketer is acutely aware of both the supply and demand pressures.”

First Fresh packs all of its fruit at NZ Fruits Ltd in Lytton Road.

“This multicrop facility runs 12 months of the year and during the peak season (April to September) we employ more than 200 staff running two shifts.

“We are each other’s biggest customers and although we hold each other’s hand pretty tightly there is plenty of commercial friction to ensure that its remains a cost competitive facility providing a top quality service.”

First Fresh recently conducted a survey of its grower suppliers.

“A great response rate gave us some valuable insights into what our growers think and what is important to them.

“Overall, growers rate us very highly but there are some specific things we can work on to take our service to an even greater level.”

Ian said 2016 was shaping up to be a record year for them in terms of tonnes processed.

“Trading conditions have been tough domestically and in certain export markets.

“But our new partnership in China has made some big strides this year with a record level of navel oranges exported to that market.”

FROM humble beginnings in 1989 Gisborne company First Fresh has grown substantially over the years to the point where it is now one of the leading marketers of citrus in New Zealand and certainly Gisborne’s largest.

The company was established by Bill Thorpe who through his already established growing and packing operations saw the opportunity to market the finished product as well.

“That’s really how the ‘tree to trolley’ mantra came about,” he said.

As First Fresh grew, other growers came on board and the product range expanded.

Today the product range spans all varieties of citrus.

The main varieties are navel oranges, mandarins, lemons, limes and grapefruit.

The company is New Zealand’s largest marketer of persimmons selling nearly 70 percent of the national crop.

Kiwifruit is the third product category.

First Fresh has a strong domestic program and exports a variety of Gold Kiwifruit called First Gold that does not come under the Zespri umbrella.

Managing director for First Fresh, Ian Albers, joined the company in 2000.

“In that time the company has grown from two marketing staff and one part time clerical person to a team of 12,” Ian said.

“This includes a full time technical and compliance team whose role it is to advise, train and assist grower-suppliers.”

Ian said the first time he ever came to Gisborne was for the job interview.

“My wife and I stayed at Bill’s house and right from then we thought — Yes, this is a place we want to be.”

Seventeen years on and the company has changed significantly.

“We used to send most of our produce through to one or two of the major produce wholesalers and New Zealand based exporters.

“They in turn sold the product to their customers in New Zealand and overseas.

“It worked but there was always a lot of uncertainty around volume and prices,” Ian said.

Sensing the need for change the company embarked on a drive to increase its direct export sales about nine years ago.

“We brought a seasoned export marketer named Stuart Mansill on board to drive this initiative.

“Stuart had in fact already worked for First Fresh when it was still in its infancy but left the company in the mid 90’s to take up roles with other produce marketing companies.”

Ian said it was hard work because they were not like other New Zealand exporters who had a basket of products to market all year round.

“We had persimmons and citrus but slowly and steadily we forged relationships with key customers in Japan, South East Asia and Australia.

“This year our export volume is just under 50 percent of our total business and we are forging new markets for Gisborne products in the likes of China and the USA.”

Ian said with New Zealand being such a small market of only 4.7 million people, First Fresh needed export markets to ensure the viability of the local market business and provide growers with the best possible returns.

“It’s very easy for oversupply issues to happen in New Zealand and that usually does not bode well.

“About three years ago we made the decision to start dealing with the supermarket chains directly.

“Given our volume and market share we needed to be in a position where we could be a direct category supplier for the crops that we handled.

“That meant another new set of rules and procedures to follow and adhere to.”

Ian said there was no safety net to getting it wrong and the company could not rely on the wholesale marketers to sort it out for them.

“All of a sudden we went from five and six days a week deliveries to seven days a week deliveries and an absolute expection around DIFOTIS — Deliver In Full On Time and In Spec.”

The company was rewarded by being named a finalist in the Countdown supplier awards in 2014.

“First Fresh has close to 100 grower suppliers, some of whom have been supplying the company almost since its started.

“Growers are our life blood — We have to deserve their supply and that is where the ‘tree to trolley’ bit comes in.”

Matt Carter heads the technical team providing advice and guidance for growers.

“We run our own crop monitoring service for growers, sending scouts out into the orchards to look for pest and disease so that growers know when to spray and what to spray for,” Matt said.

“Compliance is another area where we can offer growers a fulltime resource that is dedicated to this role.”

However the lynch pin to the ‘tree to trolley’ concept was the company’s product managers, Ian said.

“They assume responsibility for a given crop from grower to customer so are equally at home talking to the grower as they are settling on a promotion plan with a major supermarket company.

“It means nothing gets lost in translation and the marketer is acutely aware of both the supply and demand pressures.”

First Fresh packs all of its fruit at NZ Fruits Ltd in Lytton Road.

“This multicrop facility runs 12 months of the year and during the peak season (April to September) we employ more than 200 staff running two shifts.

“We are each other’s biggest customers and although we hold each other’s hand pretty tightly there is plenty of commercial friction to ensure that its remains a cost competitive facility providing a top quality service.”

First Fresh recently conducted a survey of its grower suppliers.

“A great response rate gave us some valuable insights into what our growers think and what is important to them.

“Overall, growers rate us very highly but there are some specific things we can work on to take our service to an even greater level.”

Ian said 2016 was shaping up to be a record year for them in terms of tonnes processed.

“Trading conditions have been tough domestically and in certain export markets.

“But our new partnership in China has made some big strides this year with a record level of navel oranges exported to that market.”

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