New Zealand Merino Co chief executive John Brakenridge
addresses the audience at the New Zealand International
Business Awards, watched by his sons George (8) and Ollie
(12). Photo from NZIB Awards.
Talk to New Zealand Merino Co chief executive John
Brakenridge and there's one word that keeps cropping up in
conversation - innovation.
And it is that innovation that has seen both the company and
Mr Brakenridge recognised at the New Zealand International
NZM won the AUT Business School award for most innovative
business model in international business, while Mr
Brakenridge was named KPMG leader for outstanding
contribution to international business.
The judges commented that by ''flipping the traditional,
production-led and commodity-based merino-growing industry on
its head'', NZM had delivered a much-needed innovative
approach to marketing an agricultural commodity.
They also mentioned how Mr Brakenridge started with ''a very
clear vision'' of what the industry needed to do to move
merino out of the commodity basket and up the value chain.
''He has been resolute in his pursuit of that vision.
Overcoming reluctance from some in the industry to challenge
the status quo and do things differently, John has been a
catalyst for change.
''[He] has transformed the New Zealand merino industry and
created significant value for its multiple stakeholders.''
Mr Brakenridge said the awards were recognition for NZM's
growers and for the company's clients.
He acknowledged the efforts of NZM's 700 growers and their
determination to continue to innovate, along with the work of
the team at NZM and its brand partners.
''Our growers, from 12 years ago, determined that without
investment and innovation, there is no future.''
Without that innovation, he believed the industry would be
struggling. And it was innovation that kept Mr Brakenridge
and the team at NZM motivated.
''It's our ability to come and try new things knowing we're
going to have a largely receptive grower base who do
understand the need for change [and] are prepared to have a
go at something new.
''In comparison to a whole lot of other jobs, within
something like this, the team here feels you can make a
difference,'' he said.
NZM is holding a series of grower roadshows this week with
the aim of gaining insights from growers.
While meetings often involved spending time giving
presentations and answering questions, the company was going
to ''flip that on its head''.
Growers would be asked what was most important for them, what
was ''over the horizon'' and where the company's emphasis
should be with regard to its investment.
''As a business, we're only going to survive if we're
relevant. Meanwhile, the market and a whole lot of
circumstances are changing. We've got to change with those to
There had been a ''huge'' amount of change in the luxury
market, fewer suits being sold and much more fine and
ultrafine wool being produced worldwide.
''We're having to work on a whole lot of innovation, new
product development and new markets,'' Mr Brakenridge said.
In the outdoor activity market, the company had to look at
how to align itself with its brand partners to help them keep
that innovative edge.
A government-backed strategy, through the Primary Growth
Partnership (PGP), was developed in response to increasing
pressures from competing land use and competitive threats
from around the world.
The company was trying to get the sheep industry back to
being a mainstay of the New Zealand economy.
The PGP initiative had helped the company define its
strategic direction, he said. Key areas in which it could
benefit growers were in helping them improve on-farm
productivity and through production science and forage work.
Also important was how it could continue to influence prices
growers were getting for their products in the market,
through ensuring farmers were made aware of market trends so
they produced what was in demand.
The company was also looking in a broader sense at how it
could influence its suppliers' income, such as with its
partnership with Silver Fern Farms - it partnered with SFF in
the launch of Silere Alpine Origin Merino - and the work it
was doing with co-products, such as leather.
NZM liked to think of its model as being ''people to people''
rather than ''business to business'' or ''business to
consumer'', Mr Brakenridge said.
''That might not sound that different but it actually is.
It's about building relationships, treating them as people
[and] getting their insights rather than thinking of them as
''I think that within New Zealand, the difficulty is we
underestimate the power and the force of the status quo.
''It's not as though the status quo is bad or anything like
that but, just overall, people and businesses and support
structures are largely resistant to change.''
NZM was putting much time into the likes of its grower
meetings and conferences to ensure people understood the need
for change ''and to also understand where we need to be
changing as a business''.
The company liked the idea of ''that whole ecosystem'' where
businesses, universities, research organisations, venture
capitalists and innovators worked together.
''If we, as a New Zealand company, want to compete with the
world's best, if we want to be relevant through to
fast-changing channels to market, then we need to be up there
and working with the global leaders in that, and often New
Zealand businesses have been too shy to do that.
''Yet, when we do go to places like that ... there's
something about our New Zealand approach that people
''We're there, we listen, we're empathetic ... People seem to
connect with us and that helps us hugely''.
NZM had been able to go to some of the world's most
prestigious brands and have ''very high-level'' strategic
discussions with them.
Mr Brakenridge was concerned New Zealand was continuing to
''very much go down the easy commodity route'' and there was
not enough emphasis on working out what was special about
what it did.
That was why conversations had started with primary sector
companies and there was a willingness to start to consider
''We could be targeting the same people for meat as a fishing
company might be for their fish products, as a wine company
... but historically there's been almost no conversation to
get across industry companies to work collaboratively,'' Mr
''Instead, all of the politics and everything you read about
is all `Hey, how do we get competing companies to work
''Whereas ... there could be a more immediate and logical
solution of saying 'Hey, let's get a coalition of the willing
for those people that want to target the higher-end consumer
that individually might not have the resources but
collectively would have.''
New Zealand's primary sector was largely still based on the
circumstances of the previous century and out of touch with
this century and even the next five to 10 years, given the
world had changed considerably and the channels to market
were changing, he said.
Those conversations had started and included the
establishment of a ''boot camp'' initiative, bringing
together primary sector leaders.
There was a heavy emphasis on talent development and how to
work with individuals and institutions to develop talent that
''A lot of our universities haven't adjusted their
curriculums fast enough and actually aren't as in touch with
the changing business needs to be putting out the type of
talent, with the type of skills, we need,'' Mr Brakenridge
While respecting everyone who ''got us where we are today'',
the reality was that the commercial environment being entered
into was going to be quite different.
What was needed in terms of people, businesses and research
and development was likely to be quite different.
An analogy drawn in a boot camp discussion was ''it's not
about making the current boat go faster, it's about
redesigning a whole new boat''.
''We need to be very careful that, even if we've got
something of an edge, others are learning of our edge very,
''If we don't keep shaping and investing and moving, we'll be
like that last race [in the America's Cup] where we just
watch a boat that has just learnt from us so quickly and ...
is moving so much faster than us.
''That is no way criticising Team New Zealand, because we
just think what they did was amazing, but there is a lesson
in it for all of us and we just don't feel that New Zealand
is innovating enough,'' Mr Brakenridge said.
''From a broader concept, we are perhaps selling our
technology too quickly and without the development of IP
[intellectual property] so that these other countries could
`do an Oracle' to us.''
Mr Brakenridge was heartened by the enthusiasm among New
Zealand businesses across the primary sector to share
knowledge, insight and opportunities.
''There is a maturity occurring now within some New Zealand
primary sector businesses of the idea that `Hey we don't have
to do it all ourselves and there's a whole lot of benefit
that we can get by working alongside each other'.
''That doesn't suit everybody. A number of companies still
want to go off and do it in the way of last century and you
can't really force that on them.
''But I think, over time, the market selection will work that
out. Farmers will be smart enough to understand that they
need to back the companies that are differentiating,'' he