Innovative firm cultures teamwork

Last updated 05:00 02/02/2013
Clearwater
MYTCHALL BRANSGROVE/Fairfax NZ

TOP THAT: Clearwater’s sales manager, Sam Lees, left, and head of production, Chris Moran, at Peelview Farm in Geraldine.

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Over seven years, it has stood the test of time competing against Fonterra. Clearwater's sales manager, Sam Lees, waxes lyrical to Emma Bailey about the organic yoghurt produced at Peel Forest.

How did Clearwater's Organic Dairy came about?

A Dutchman (Ad Sintenie) and a Kiwi Organic farmer (Bryan Clearwater) sat around the kitchen table. One didn't think they were getting a fair deal from Fonterra as there was no organic premium in those days and the other thought all New Zealand's yoghurts were either full of sugar or sour as grapefruit. They also considered the list of ingredients too long on a standard tub of yoghurt. Both being the sorts who embrace fiscal restraint, they set about the task of stripping all the unnecessary ingredients and processes out of making yoghurt and thus the majestically simple, yet incredibly tasty Clearwater's Cream Top Natural Yoghurt was born. Just organic milk and probiotic cultures, a 2000-year-old recipe revisited.

The history of Peel View Farm, where you're based?

Peel View Farm, Peel Forest, the home of Clearwater's was once a conventionally farmed beef and sheep unit until organic pioneers Bryan and Jackie Clearwater took over the block 12 years ago. Three years of organic conversion and a lot of learning along the way. Bryan regards his soil as the most important factor, more of a living, breathing, salad-growing bowl providing the right conditions to feed 250, predominantly A2 cows who ultimately give us the richest, creamiest milk I've ever drank.

How integral is being organic to the product?

Organic has become synonymous with people who knit their own underpants and enjoy far too much body hair. The reality is no-one should buy food simply because it's organic; they should buy it because it tastes fantastic and forms part of a balanced diet. Roadkill is by-and-large organic but you don't see people stopping on the roadside and fighting over who should take Percy Possum home for tea. We are an organic dairy company because we think it is a more sustainable way of producing food for generations to come and the organic milk we produce tastes beautiful as a result.

What do you sell?

Our yoghurts sell themselves. The power of word of mouth is incredible. We enjoy the benefits of making a great tasting range of yoghurts including cream top natural, honey, apple and cinnamon and "Topless", our fat-free yoghurt. If you need something a little sweeter then try our creamed rice pudding. English-style clotted cream is another crowd-pleaser.

When have been the periods of biggest growth?

The business has been growing for seven years straight but, oddly, our largest increase has been between 2010 and 2012. This just proves that with a great product, coupled with a real story told by passionate honest people that success is available whatever the economic conditions.

Biggest changes in the industry?

The explosion of gourmet yoghurts. You look in the supermarket fridge next time you're out - there's truck-loads of the stuff.

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Toughest aspects of the business?

We're a small player in the dairy industry in New Zealand but Kiwis love the underdog and really enjoy a bantamweight like us competing on the supermarket stage against the Muhammad Ali of the dairy scene, Fonterra. However, we are faster, leaner, and have a greater ability to respond to market trends which allows us to bring new things to market. Business, by definition, is tough, especially now. What's brilliant about New Zealand, and particularly South Canterbury, is people are always willing to help out with a problem.

What have been the challenges?

Tight cashflows, not enough milk, too much milk, growing pains. This list goes on. The small- to medium-sized businesses of today are challenged on a daily basis. We compete for shelf space with the big boys with massive marketing budgets, we're challenged to source organic ingredients from New Zealand and overseas.

We're expected to innovate above and beyond our customers' wildest dreams. Bottom line, though, a good team helps like nothing else. Our people are our biggest asset, Clearwater's just gets under your skin as we're all striving to do something good for Kiwis rather than just profiting from them. Our business is food and smiles. Great servings of both keep us ticking along.

Highlights?

We make great food, people tell us all the time. There is honestly nothing more rewarding than when a parent tells their young child that "you won't like that" when they're given a sample at the market and the kid shoves the spoon in his mouth and a broad grin spreads across their tiny face.

How many staff?

I hate the word staff. I never use it and it really gets my goat when others do. We're not in Victorian times now. Some of you might be thinking I'm splitting hairs, well, so be it, but mark my words there is nothing more demoralising than feeling like you're just a number. Our team comprises our farming partners, the Clearwater's plus two fulltime production champions, Chris the Cheese and Dr Trev, who are ably assisted by a further three tigers in the production room, complemented by two office constables who police our finances. I'm on the road creating sales opportunities with Eve and Phillip offering prods and pokes of encouragement at board level.

Hours per week worked?

Our customers drive our business. We have a short shelf-life product because we don't add any crap to it. We make to order. All our range is made on a weekly basis. If someone somewhere needs it, we make it for them. Simple.

Where to from here?

An exciting rebrand and a new direction for Clearwater's. We're in the process of changing our name to Clearwater's: The Organic Dairy Company. A completely new and unseen range of products will be hitting grocery store shelves in the coming months.

SAM LEES

What is your age? 31.

Where did you grow up? Rural Worcestershire, England.

What is your favourite food? Anything made with yoghurt, rice pudding or cream.

What is your favourite song? Our yoghurt rap I wrote two years ago while suffering from a short period of insomnia.

If the world ended tomorrow, what in your life so far would you be proudest of? Being a "yes" person. Embrace every opportunity that comes your way. You never know – you could be gone tomorrow.

Who has inspired or mentored you? I'd like to give a big shout out to the big Dutch man, Ad Sintenie, who gave an ex-banker with delusions of doing something great in the New Zealand food industry a shot. I was a greenhorn at that stage, no previous experience and no expertise in food but Ad saw something and believed. Thanks, mate!

- © Fairfax NZ News

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