A passion for health

NAOMI ARNOLD
Last updated 10:31 10/02/2014
Gigatown
NAOMI ARNOLD/FAIRFAX NZ

COUNTRY FOLK: Though it has a turnover of about $1m a month and is NZ's leading online natural health outlet, HealthPost occupies a lonely Paddock in remote Collingwood.

Gigatown
NAOMI ARNOLD/FAIRFAX NZ
TOP TEAM: HealthPost co-general managers and partners, Dan Jessep and Lucy Butler; executive director Abel Butler; and his partner and HealthPost Australia manager Lilani Rogers.
Gigatown
NAOMI ARNOLD/FAIRFAX NZ
DEMAND: Rows of health and beauty products inside HealthPost, in Collingwood.

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Naomi Arnold visits a Collingwood business spreading its Golden Bay roots around the world.

Excellent St in Collingwood is just a gravel road. It doesn't go anywhere in particular; in fact, its main attraction is a historic cemetery, crowded with daisies, Queen Anne's lace, and grasses nodding heavy with seed.

But if you go down Excellent St and turn left into Orion, you happen upon a paddock housing the modest office and warehouse of one of the biggest employers in Golden Bay. It's a company that has been growing at 40 per cent for the last several years and turns over more than a million dollars every month.

In 25 years, HealthPost has gone from a once-a-year paper mail-order catalogue to ruling the New Zealand natural health and beauty industry. Every day, it posts out up to 1000 orders, stuffing a courier van with pills, soaps, creams, oils, powders and superfoods and sending it over the winding Takaka Hill to customers in New Zealand and far, far beyond - to Seoul, London, Tokyo and Rio de Janeiro. Orders have even made it as far as Kazakhstan, to one presumably worried man who regularly buys products to support his virility.

"We were worried about fraud, with Kazakhstan," executive director Abel Butler says. "But he turned out to be a really good customer."

Although it's almost as far as you can get from a main centre, HealthPost's out-of-the-way location is an important part of its identity. Abel says a strong Golden Bay ethos of friendliness, community, and sustainability finds its way into every aspect of its business. After all, the company hasn't moved far from where it all began, a stone's throw away in a house down Gibbs Rd, a few hundred metres up the road.

It was 1988, and Abel was just a boy of 7 when his mother, Linley Butler, started looking for affordable barley grass to help heal her ulcerative colitis. She found a supplier, ordered some in bulk, and began sharing it around the community. Word spread, and Linley, then a solo mother of three in need of money, decided to get off the domestic purposes benefit, sell her orange VW Beetle and create a new business.

She figured that with a mail-order business she could work at night once the kids had gone to bed, so she set up a desk in a corner of the living room, cleaned out a few shelves in an old wine cellar, and started HealthPost.

"It was an unmet need at that time, particularly in remote parts of New Zealand away from health food shops, and having access to [products] at discounted prices," Abel says. "It solved a problem, hit an existing demand and grew organically very quickly by people telling their friends."

As it expanded, Linley employed two friends to help, and for the first dozen or so years the three women released their paper catalogue once a year, running operations from Linley's home.

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But everything changed once the internet arrived. In 2001, Abel urged his mother to take advantage of her large customer database to build an e-commerce site, one of New Zealand's first. The business moved to its paddock in 2012, and now healthpost.co.nz has its own line, BioBalance, which has a range of 40 products.

The website also boasts 100,000 visitors a month, 4000 products, and about 100,000 people on its database. Ten per cent of orders come from overseas, and Australia and Japan have their own HealthPost sites too.

But it's still a family business. Abel's wife Lilani Rogers runs the Australian arm in Auckland; his sister Lucy Butler and her partner Dan Jessep share the general manager role, and Abel and Lucy's Nelson-based father, Peter Butler, bought his former wife's share of the business about five years ago. He's now board chairman.

"Fifty-odd people beavering away in a building plonked in the middle of a paddock have been able to out-compete the big pharmacy chain websites and give the American ones a run for their dollars," Peter says. "It's an intensively competitive market. There's an illusion out there that all you have to do is create a website, because there's a low barrier to entry. Big American sites tend to be very price competitive because of the enormous economies of scale. It's a real battlefield out there; the Collingwood team have done so well, and they're able to hold their own."

That's down to getting a lot of little things right, he says.

"Fantastic customer service team; they're great on the phone. And having a really big range."

He says Linley's original ethos still holds true. "She is absolutely passionate about the importance of natural products to people's health. For the first 10 years it never made a profit, because she didn't think you should make a profit selling supplements. That was a hard way to run the business but that was her ethos. That's come over, to a degree; we do price competitively."

Abel says running a sustainable business "in every meaning of that" is the company's biggest challenge. Recently, after three years of running its Give Well scheme, donating $1 to $2 for every order to charity, it has ticked over a quarter of a million dollars in donations, an average of nearly $7000 a month. These days, the total is running at around $15,000 a month.

More than 1000 people in the Pacific have had their sight restored thanks to HealthPost's contributions to the Fred Hollows Foundation, and money has also gone to the Red Cross, World Wildlife Fund, Nelson Ark, Plunket, and kakapo recovery.

"We really want to be a force for good that is ongoing and self-sustaining," Abel says. "The area we're operating in is subject to heaps of change. E-commerce is changing, retail itself is changing, the ideas in the health and natural health industry are changing really quickly as well.

"What we find ourselves doing quite a lot is trying to centre ourselves and have a sustainable position within that, rather than getting carried away with any one particular fad or trend. [It's] about being a wellness company and providing good outcomes for our customers; what they want or need from us changes over time, and it's about responding to that."

A big focus is speed of delivery, important if they don't want to lag behind bricks-and-mortar stores. If a product is ordered before 3pm it is generally in the customer's hands the next day, and punctuality is important to them; during the floods of 2011 when SH60 at Birds Hill was washed out, they got a helicopter on mates rates to ship the goods out on time, and also loaded 400 Courier Post parcels into a 4WD and took them to Takaka through a back road up behind Pupu Springs, helped along by a friendly landowner. HealthPost must get through. "That's very much the ethos," Abel says.

So customers can ask questions and have them answered in real time, the HealthPost website has a chat function that allows shoppers to ask specific questions about products, ingredients, and sources. Their customers are a vocal lot, and not shy about speaking up if there is a product they want that is missing from the range.

Indeed, staff see common lifestyle issues reflected in the microcosm of the site. HealthPost's most popular products are omega 3, vitamin C, co-enzyme Q10 for heart health, glucosamine for joint health, and weight management supplements.

They've just started stocking liposomal vitamin C, where the vitamin is fused to fats, allowing easier absorption. They're also bringing on a magnesium and vitamin B product that uses the liposomal technology as well: a New Zealand first.

"We're doing stuff here that is at the cutting edge of innovation internationally," Abel says. The superfoods industry has taken off, and HealthPost imports plenty, including cacao from Satipo in the Peruvian Amazon and organic coconut oil and raw cashew nuts from Sri Lanka. Customers give feedback via reviews on Facebook and the website, and there are plenty of glowing ones, as well as a few confused. One review of a bag of bitter cacao nibs - the base ingredient of chocolate before sugar and dairy are added - damns the product with one star and says: "These do not taste anything like chocolate and my husband and I were disappointed."

But supplements and superfoods won't have much of an impact if someone's diet and lifestyle are rubbish. Abel says New Zealand is in the middle of an obesity epidemic, and he doesn't think it's going to go away.

"A lot of people are looking for a quick fix, a superficial solution for that. The most noticeable [increase] has been the weight management stuff, mainly green coffee bean extract, which has come out of the States," Abel says. "Anything featured on TV in the US goes gangbusters." Indeed, one green coffee bean extract product has attracted nearly 100 reviews, mostly from people who have seen good results. "We're trying to help people make the best possible decisions for themselves about their health, rather than making those decisions for them."

HealthPost naturopath and medical herbalist Carolyn Simon blogs about natural health on the site, and says the biggest lifestyle problems she encounters are nervous system disorders: stress, anxiety, and insomnia, all a result of the time-poor modern lifestyle. "It all comes back to imbalances," she says. "Too much stress, not enough relaxation or down time. Too much processed food - that's an important issue."

Carolyn is one of two naturopaths on the roll of 55 staff, which includes another herbalist, a homeopath, and a massage therapist - as well as a quarter of the local volunteer fire brigade. The company is also distinctly multicultural for rural Golden Bay, with a lab technician from Switzerland, a language teacher from Israel, and more from Japan, England, Australia, and France.

Dan says the business encourages a good work-life balance. Many staff work flexible hours, giving them time to explore other passions such as tramping, gardening, print-making, writing, qi gong, fishing and music. It's pointless to live in paradise if you don't have time to enjoy it, and it's hard to forget what else is out there when your workplace is nestled between the sea and the Whakamarama Range.

"Those people that come to the Bay and live in the Bay want that lifestyle," Dan says. "It makes them happy staff; it's good for the business as well."

"We say before they start ‘What's your ideal working week? Four days or five days?'," Abel says. "We're really open to the fact that if it's four days we'll make that work." Disillusioned accountants take note - they're looking for a company accountant who wants a lifestyle change. However, it does make it difficult to get qualified staff, especially for the highly specialised roles. This year, it opened a small office in Auckland to get around that, where it's easier to recruit the digital skills the business needs.

Staff bring an interest in health and the environment to their jobs. They also plan to adopt the hillside opposite their complex, chopping out pine trees and adding a pest-trapping programme. For four years now they have been planting thousands of trees to form a new coastal totara forest, creating a wildlife habitat on the Motupipi sandspit after a 2009 fire destroyed the community's previous work. More trees also offsets the carbon impact of the courier vans coming and going up and down the Takaka Hill every day.

Indeed, Dan says they run a pretty tight ship, environmentally speaking. Cardboard used to be their main waste product, but with a special shredder they can now use it in their packaging. In 2012, they installed 72 solar panels on the building's roof at a cost of $50,000. On average, the panels supply just over half of the power they use, and and the rest goes back into the grid, which they draw from on cloudy days. It should pay for itself in 10 years.

Abel says that philosophically, the company is happy to keep growing. No debt and no High St rents means they can follow a slower, more sustainable path: "organic growth rather than hyper-growth", he says.

They're in the process of doubling storeroom floor space to fit in more stock, currently crammed into several shipping containers lined up in rows behind the paddock fence. Peter says the big growth rate they've seen in the last few years is actually quite stressful on a business. "It has been slowing lately, and that's not all bad. Systems aren't always at breaking point and you're not having to reorganise. Every two years or so we've had to double the size of the building and increase staff."

As for the future, he says: "We've got some ideas. We're an ambitious company, put it that way."

Business is booming down Excellent St.

- Nelson

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