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July 17, 2017

Simon Berry, CEO Whitestone Cheese, Beautiful Oamaru

How slow and steady can win the race.

We live in fast paced world today, both in the personal and professional sense. We’re one tweet away from someone famous and can carry our entire office in our back pocket. 

Which is both a good and a bad thing. 

While other companies might work at the speed of light and try to make a quick buck, at Whitestone Cheese in Oamaru we’ve always believed slow and steady wins the race.

This approach could be seen as conservative, but we’ve seen first hand how quick growth can become a double edged sword.

We began our company in 1987 and after 12 years of slow growth due to it being a complimentary business to our farm, we went through a period of rapid growth soon after I joined Whitestone full time 2003, this growth brought its own challenges. There were issues around management and resourcing and problems training staff, all of which put unnecessary pressure on the plant and our facility, which ultimately lead to product quality issues. 

Having come through the experience reasonably unscathed, we realised we were in no hurry to grow and we formed a board to help manage the associated risks with growth. How many entrepreneurs do we see who quit a start-up as soon as they begin? I look at those guys and think, what motivates them - or is it that obvious?

Whitestone is no flash in the pan. For us, it’s the Whitestone family that drives us. By supporting our team, we're providing for the community and we can get on and focus on producing high quality. While financial planning is critical, in part it comes second to our focus on quality. Do the first part right and the rest will catch up, don’t worry about that.

Slow and steady means you can focus on what really counts. We've built our plant up on the number 8 wire mentality. We're always prepared for a rainy day, be prepared for those. Through it all, our long term objectives remain constant: spend what we can afford, reinvest profits and keep cash in the business.

Slow and steady means you’ll start to get a lot of loyal customers. You’ll have this newfound confidence because you know they'll come back. That’s when you know you have a quality product. A slow burn approach means your brand is slowly built as being trustworthy.

It takes a long time to build this trust. Ultimately, your customers should know that quality not only relates to your product, but also to your service and your team. If one of our customers at Whitestone, for whatever reason, isn’t satisfied with our cheese we’ll deliver a replacement to their door, explain and apologise. Quality is the overarching word here.

On the flipside, work in a hurry and lose the things that matter, like staff, culture, and the very reason you turn up every day. Being in a rush to make a profit will leave you wondering why certain staff members left. Were resources low, or costs too high? Was there too much pressure on certain positions? Were sales targets not met? Did quality standards slip? We’ve learnt to recognise these alarm bells early and put the right priority in the right place.

I have no doubt being in Oamaru, as opposed to the Big Smoke, has helped us realise our goals. Generally speaking, our people are not driven by high debts and a high pace of life. There are less external distractions and rents are not sky-high. In our larger cities, team members can often be heavily in debt and those pressures can easily flow into business operations.

I’ve found operating a business from the regions brings other unbeatable advantages. Whitestone’s business model is very similar to wine. We craft a product that is luxurious and has a high enjoyment factor. It would be hard to think of any significant cheese factories around the world that are housed in cities. French cheese come from the regions, it’s no different in the U.S. Such isolation adds a strength to a regionally produced product, try sourcing high quality raw materials in cities.

Since working alongside my father Bob Berry, I’ve learnt there will always be hurdles in business and it is crucial to keep your eyes on the long game. Have confidence in your vision and stick with it. When things become challenging, good to think of the Winston Churchill quote:

‘You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.’

A thick skin helps, so be prepared for meeting those barking dogs.

Keep marching on down the road.

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