Flying high on the seeds of success

Main image: Topflite marketing manager Carolyn Webster and general manager Greg Webster;...
Main image: Topflite marketing manager Carolyn Webster and general manager Greg Webster; clockwise from top left, sunflowers are still a staple seed for the pet food business; Greg Webster checks out a paddock of canary seed. PHOTOS: RACHEL WYBROW PHOTOGRAPHY/SUPPLIED
Topflite is a quiet North Otago success story, growing from humble beginnings amid the district’s farmland to one of New Zealand’s leading pet food brands. Business editor Sally Rae talks to general manager Greg Webster about joining the family business and the opportunities Covid-19 has afforded it.

When Greg Webster was growing up on a farm in rural North Otago, he vividly recalls his father, Jock, telling him never to be a farmer.

It was the 1980s — an era that was "so tough" for farmers who were battling crippling drought and huge interest rates.

"They were under the pump. Some of that probably rubbed off," Mr Webster recalled this week.

As well as farming at Totara, Jock Webster was also an innovative thinker, establishing a birdseed business with his brother-in-law Ross Mitchell.

From humble beginnings, selling by mail order to bird breeders, Topflite, as it is now known, has grown to be New Zealand’s largest bird, rabbit and guinea pig feed provider.

At its helm as general manager is Greg Webster, who now owns half the business with his wife Carolyn.

He was proud to be the next generation involved with the family-owned business, and New Zealand-grown success story, factors which resonated with customers in the burgeoning pet industry, he said.

The Mitchell family settled at Rosedale, near Weston, in 1871 and become linked to the Webster family when Ainslie Webster — Jock’s sister — married Ross Mitchell.

After completing a degree in agricultural science at Lincoln in 1970, Jock got a job as a scientist at the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research but, after 13 months, he decided it was not for him.

He had several job offers, including one from Ross Mitchell, who was farming with his brother Bruce.

Mr Mitchell thought they might be able to help him into a farm, something Mr Webster had always dreamed of having.

In 1977, he achieved that dream of buying a property at Totara where he and his wife Helen raised their children Nick, Jane and Greg.

In 1974, the first sunflower crops were planted at Rosedale. The intention was to the seed for oil as the Mitchell and Webster families looked for a better return outside conventional crops.

Greg Webster said both his father and uncle had an ability to look at opportunities and be willing to try them — in this case, undertaking research on how to grow sunflowers.

Ross Mitchell travelled to the United States, visiting universities and learning about the equipment they needed.

They realised there was a market for birdseed and initially they were selling the seed in bulk, until the processor failed to pay the bills.

So they thought they would have a crack at doing it themselves, initially under the Mitchell and Webster name.

As well as selling by mail order, they had a few distributors who would buy containers of seed off them at harvest time to distribute to bird breeders.

Canary seed was added but it was still a reasonably basic operation, based at the Mitchell family’s farm.

The Topflite brand was developed in the 1990s and they started doing seed mixes for birds. Jock Webster did a lot of work to get the formulations right.

His son described the growth of the business as a "slow burn" — Faye Stewart, a big part of the business for more than 20 years, and his father would travel around the country "slowly chipping away" and getting more retailers.

The business continued to expand the range over the years to rabbits, guinea pigs, chooks, ducks and wild birds and its products were now stocked by about 700 retailers in New Zealand.

Greg Webster attributed a lot of that to the work done in those early years.

Pet store Animates was one of its big customers and Topflite had supplied that business since it started with only one store.

Heeding his father’s advice, Greg left Waitaki Boys’ High School and headed to the University of Otago to study business.

Always keen on finance, numbers and business, his plan was to head to London afterwards and work in finance.

In the background, Topflite was always "there" and he did some work there during university holidays, as well as some market research for a couple of studies and also worked on some product development.

"I was always involved in some level."

After studying marketing and accounting, he got a job at KPMG in Auckland where he attained his chartered accountant qualification.

KPMG employed graduates each year so there was a good group of young people there. As he recalled, it was good training and good fun.

He headed to London in 2009, a year after the Global Financial Crash, and enjoyed the lifestyle of the big city.

He worked for global paint company Akzo Nobel in a treasury-type function for three and a-half-years.

He met his future wife Carolyn in London, through mutual friends.

Both had been to the University of Otago but had not bumped into each other.

The daughter of an English mother and a New Zealand father, Mrs Webster grew up in South America and attended school in the United Kingdom.

She was drawn to London by both school and university friends living in the city and was working in financial PR when the couple met.

While in London, Mr Webster saw some opportunities relating to feeding wild birds, which was a "huge" business in the UK. He got in touch with a large manufacturer and organised to bring some lines to New Zealand.

The couple returned to New Zealand in 2013 with the first of their three children, 6-month-old Molly, in tow.

They had enjoyed a "pretty good run" in London, and had done lots of travelling, but life was changing with a young family.

While it was always a possibility, it was not obvious at that stage that Mr Webster was going to work for Topflite and he also looked at other options to get wider business experience.

The family moved to Mt Maunganui and a role was created for him in sales and business development. He also did a "fair bit" on the financial side.

Moving there was a way to ease back into the New Zealand pace of lifestyle. Mrs Webster started to get involved "around the edges" in the likes of label design, fitting it in around family.

Before moving to North Otago in 2016, Mr Webster began work as Topflite general manager and was regularly back in his home district.

Coinciding with that was the establishment of a distribution hub and head office in the industrial area in north Oamaru as it was "overflowing" at Rosedale, he said.

Succession also needed to be dealt with; Greg and Carolyn now co-own Topflite with Greg’s cousin Peter Mitchell (Ross and Ainslie Mitchell’s son) and his wife Sandra, while Greg’s brother Nick and his wife Kate have a dairy farming and sheep and beef operation.

Peter Mitchell is at the helm of Rosedale Farming Company which continues to be a key supplier to Topflite, providing about 35% to 40% of the raw material it used, from land both owned and leased.

Greg Webster said a big turning point for the company was securing a contract to supply Farmlands after the South Island’s CRT and the North Island’s Farmlands merged in 2013.

Jock Webster (left), Ross Mitchell, Peter Mitchell, Sandra Mitchell, Greg Webster, Carolyn...
Jock Webster (left), Ross Mitchell, Peter Mitchell, Sandra Mitchell, Greg Webster, Carolyn Webster and then baby Sylvie Webster at Rosedale Farm near Weston; Sylvie Webster with a Topflite Wild Bird Welcome Kit; Jock Webster and a young Greg Webster. PHOTOS: RACHEL WYBROW PHOTOGRAPHY/SUPPLIED
Previously, Topflite had supplied CRT stores and a few Farmlands stores.

Winning that contract got the company a lot greater market share in the North Island and its business had consistently grown since then.

"They’ve been a big part of our growth story," he said.

As well as from Rosedale Farming, raw materials were also sourced from other areas, particularly Canterbury.

Some lines, such as millet seed that did not grow well in New Zealand, were imported, but Topflite endeavoured to "keep that to a minimum" as the New Zealand-grown ethos was still a very important part of its story, and it was still growing sunflower seeds and canary seed in North Otago as it did in the early years.

"We have tried to stick to what’s worked for us and been successful, taking a natural product as much as possible, not messing with it, and focusing on the quality of the product," he said.

This year, crops had struggled during what was a "particularly average year".

There had been little sun, something sunflowers needed, but they had "just" enough sunflower seed for the next year.

One of Topflite’s challenges was it was competing with other specialised crops farmers could grow, sometimes putting pressure on prices it had to pay.

And as Topflite kept growing, Rosedale Farming could not keep matching that growth — unless it was continually expanding its footprint — and so Mr Webster was keen to find more long-term partners.

That, he acknowledged, was a good complaint to have.

Peter Mitchell was heavily involved with the arable industry so his insight continued to be extremely valuable. Coming from a farming background also helped.

"We’re farmers at heart as well. We understand the complexities [of the industry]," Mr Webster said.

While no longer a director of Topflite, Jock Webster was on an advisory board which met every two months.

That initiative had been "fantastic" with external advisers providing an independent view and giving "a nudge" when needed.

It also freed up Greg to do more innovation-focused projects, something that he really enjoyed. The pet industry was increasingly competitive and they needed to "keep bringing out new things".

The company recently completed a strategy reset and a big focus was on making sure it had a pipeline of product development, hence the recent expansion into the dog food market.

This month, Topflite launched the Hound brand, selling New Zealand-raised freeze-dried meat treats packaged in eco-friendly compostable bags, film, or recyclable cardboard.

Demand for locally sourced pet food has risen sharply during the pandemic, when global supply chains were unreliable and shipping costs were rising.

Freeze-drying fresh meat ensured 97% of its original nutritional value was retained from its raw state.

With 99% of moisture removed, it was a lightweight treat that was blood-free and minimally processed with no additives, preservatives or fillers.

As people were increasingly concerned about the origin, sustainability impact and nutritional value of their food, they wanted the same for their pets, Mr Webster said.

A few years ago, he did some courses through Icehouse and part of a market validation exercise was identifying opportunities.

He chose dog treats and, given how quickly the pet industry was growing, he reckoned he should have "nailed it down" then. Since then, it had always been on the radar and was about finding the right opportunity.

Dogs were becoming an important part of the family in New Zealand, although the country was still a fair way behind other countries such as the United States or China where some doting dog owners had treadmills installed to take their dogs for walks inside, or took part in fashion shows for dogs, he said.

Covid-19 had provided opportunities for Topflite as people were spending more time at home, unable to travel, and had more money to buy another dog and feed it nice things — or they got a bird or rabbit, Mr Webster said.

Pet ownership had increased during the pandemic. Many people had built chicken coops — treating the hens like pets more than egg layers — or fed wild birds, which were especially noticeable during lockdowns when there were fewer cars around.

People had also become much more supportive of New Zealand-grown products and businesses. And Topflite’s story was a "real story", he said.

Topflite did not export any products. It went through a project last year with an export consultancy to explore the possibility but seed and grain was "really tricky" with customs-related issues.

It might happen at some point in the future but in the meantime there were still plenty of opportunities in the domestic market, Mr Webster said.

Providing the dog treats rollout went well, then there was a possibility of adding meal options.

The wild bird feeding sector was still "massively growing" and Topflite continued to look at developing products that were good to feed native birds.

About four years ago, Topflite added hay to its range, repacking it for convenience, and that had grown a lot.

Cats were also another possibility for feed options.

Topflite — a finalist in the primary industry category in the 2020 Westpac Otago Business Awards — employed about 30 staff.

While it had always preferred to stay out of the spotlight, it now realised the importance of brand recognition, particularly when it came to staff recruitment.

"People don’t know what we’re doing and [that] it’s a decent-sized business. Most people think it’s going to be a little garage," he said.

Recruiting staff could be a challenge sometimes but, increasingly, people were willing to move to North Otago which was a far cry from Mr Webster’s own days growing up in the district.

He acknowledged the Mitchell and Webster families had shown great foresight — "a lot of people probably thought it was crazy at the time" — and a lot of the design and engineering work done by Ross Mitchell was still in use at Rosedale.

Agriculture had been the main driver for the revival of the town, particularly the development of irrigation in the district, in which Jock Webster played a key role.

Greg felt fortunate to have the opportunity to return to North Otago and to be involved in a business like Topflite, and continue the family involvement with the business.

Mrs Webster was Topflite’s marketing manager and the couple endeavoured to keep a balance between work life and family life, spending time in Central Otago and the Waitaki lakes area.

There were always challenges and areas to improve but Mr Webster believed the business was on a "pretty good curve".

"Things are growing. Manage the madness really, because it’s growing reasonably quickly, especially the last two years, makes it quite busy."

As for the family’s own bird involvement? They have four chooks and some quail and Mr Webster was contemplating building an aviary during the Easter break.

And keeping watch at the Topflite headquarters was Bert, the resident office cockatiel for about 18 years.

His longevity, Mr Webster — not missing a marketing opportunity — quickly attributed to living solely off Topflite seed.

sally.rae@odt.co.nz

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