New Zespri CEO Dan Mathieson in for the long haul
New Zespri chief executive Dan Mathieson is in for a long commute in his latest role.
The 43-year-old Kiwi will continue to make his home in Singapore where he has been living for the past two years, but at the same time he will maintain a presence at the kiwifruit co-operative's base in Tauranga.
He recently replaced Lain Jager as CEO when the latter called it a day after a turbulent eight years, his tenure coinciding with the arrival of the destructive Psa disease, but then the spectacular recovery of the industry.
Today Zespri is in a growth phase, with revenues of $2.2 billion, and eyeing a goal of $4.5b by 2025. Globally it has become one of the best known fruit brands after just 20 years.
Raised and educated on the North Shore, Mathieson studied communications and Japanese at AUT before heading to Japan to work in corporate communications for electronics companies Omron and NEC, bridging the gap between head office and subsidiary offices.
"It was a great experience and an eye opener. They [the Japanese] have a very detailed focus."
After seven years, during which he met his Japanese wife, Mathieson was ready to return to New Zealand, except in 2003 a job came up in the Zespri operations team in Tokyo.
"That gave me the opportunity to continue with my language skills but have a strong connection back to New Zealand with a product I was going to be more passionate about than in IT. It was a win: win situation," he says.
At the time Japan was the largest single market for Zespri, a position now eclipsed by China. Kiwifruit appealed to the Japanese because of its consistent quality, year round availability and health associations.
Zespri put a lot of effort into building awareness about the fruit and its nutritional value. Paradoxically fruit consumption generally is slightly on the wane in Japan, something he puts down to an ageing population and consumers looking for more convenient ways to eat fruit.
In 2005 he took over as market manager for Korea where he stayed for three years. Zespri had begun plantings on islands in conditions quite different to those in New Zealand, with fruit grown in plastic houses, partly to guard against typhoons.
While his Japanese language skills were not put to use in Korea, his time spent working in a different culture paid off in his dealings with Koreans.
Having made good gains in Japan and Korea, Zespri turned its attention to south-east Asia, and in 2008 Mathieson became regional marketing manager in Singapore. The focus was primarily on Singapore and Malaysia, but that has now expanded.
In 2015 T&G and Zespri agreed to work together to market kiwifruit in Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos.
Mathieson's next promotion was to president of global sales and marketing in 2013. The position was at first based in Tokyo but it was decided to create a global marketing hub in Singapore, what he describes as the "heartbeat" of Zespri's sales and marketing strategy.
"A big part of Zespri's success is the way in which it has internationalised its business. We have a global strategy which starts from the consumer going back to delivering returns to our growers."
"It's a tough environment, consumers have many choices so by having talented local people in the markets it gives us an extra point of difference over other fruits. Our messaging is different country to country."
Despite the fact the majority of the 450 Zespri staff are based overseas, Mathieson stresses its New Zealand heritage is the "backbone of everything we do", with a strong connection to its grower base.
"Apple produces products all around the world but is always known as an American institution. For Zespri we will have products grown in more locations but having New Zealand as the heart of our industry is going to be critically important."
The demands of being the CEO of an international company notwithstanding, Mathieson puts great store on being available as much as possible for his family. His children are aged 12, 8 and 6.
"My job has always had a considerable amount of travel so we focus on quality time together, making sure I'm there on the weekends and for the sports games. Both my boys play soccer and my wee girl's a gymnast so I connect between the games and after the games."
His rugby days are over but as a handy batsman Mathieson enjoys the odd game of cricket on Singapore's steamy turf, contemplating his next long distance trip.