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September 11, 2018

Thoughts from New Zealand’s Finest Cheesemaker

Simon Berry, CEO Whitestone Cheese, Beautiful Oamaru

The other day I Instagram-ed my hairdresser to ask if I had to bring my own beard trimmer.

This is one of the reasons I love Oamaru, it has the intimacy of a small town, and is also a place where it’s possible to run a successful business for thirty years. 

Sometimes we get asked if Whitestone Cheese would ever consider moving from the regions to the Big Smoke. It's an interesting question and one we have often thought about.

As any regional business owner will tell you, there are pros and cons. Being outside larger commercial hubs means we miss out on certain social aspects, particularly the broader spectrum a city might offer.

Then there’s the personal touch. We’ve always believed meeting face to face is the best way to do business. From the regions, this creates a significant challenge. You can’t have regular daily meetings with potential customers because they’re not in the same community. I’ve been trying to cross paths with a potential collaborator recently from Christchurch. If I was based in the Garden City we would have met months ago and because I’m isolated, she can’t make it all the way to see me.

I’m sure some of our clients would like us to up sticks, but we’ve realized Whitestone’s success is largely due to having incredible raw materials on our back doorstep. If we set up a factory in Wellington, where would we get our milk from?

Our geographic location means we have a fantastic water supply, which runs directly from the glaciers of Mount Cook to irrigate our pastures. Our limestone soils are rich in minerals and produce world-class milk. We have the luxury of extremely efficient local farmers and great local staff.

Living in a small town also brings the perks of a local network. Whether dropping your car off to the mechanic, supporting a rugby team or taking your kids to school, we deal with people we know. We see them every day. In bigger cities, you lose that intimate relationship. The brands or companies are larger than the people working for them. Workers come and go. In a small town, you know your tradies, the people you deal with are your neighbors. There’s a bond.

There’s a wonderful strength to a small community, getting to know key people at grassroots, developing relationships, knowing they’re there for the long term. And if they run a business you want them to win! They put care and attention into their work. You do the same in supporting them. We’ve found that when we deal with an organization in a larger city the relationship is very commercial.

I think people would be surprised how easy it is to set up shop in a region, particularly in today’s world of connectivity. People are nervous of stepping outside their comfort zone and I’ve seen newbies to these parts who have done exceptionally well. Down the road some passionate locals have returned and have set up the thriving Scott’s Brewery. They started small in Auckland then realised they would prefer to be near their home of Oamaru, they found a site  locally and starting brewing. With just a little tap room out front where you could taste their beer. Next thing you know, it’s expanded into one of the best bar’s in town. It’s all about community and the rewards are great for those who make the shift. And the rent has real value!

In the wider scheme of things, our local business represents our entire region and even our country. You could say the same about any national brand. The All Blacks represent all rugby clubs in New Zealand. We sit in our living rooms and feel connected to our national team. Business is no different. Create that connection and people become a part of it.

Back in the days of Rogernomics, the well-worn phrase amongst the farming community was ‘Diversify or Die.’ The resulting economic downturn inspired ideas, creativity, and new business.

Riverstone Kitchen is a world class restaurant that began life at the north end of Oamaru in 1987. Now they’re building a huge castle, only the second to be constructed in New Zealand. Top Flight, who produce bird and small animal feed, is another example of a local company who also began in ‘87 and has enjoyed similar success.

Both companies stretched their thinking out of a need for diversity.

Sometimes I ask friends of mine from larger cities what keeps them there. Depending on the industry, they’re almost always locked in due to their reliance on their trade or career path.

I guess it cuts both ways. Harness what you do and accentuate it. In Oamaru, we make the most of those opportunities. I think about how lucky we are. Dunedin’s new stadium is just an hour’s drive away and this weekend I’m taking the family water skiing in Lake Benmore.

We have everything we need, including hairdressers on speed dial.

Speaking of which, I’ve gotta fly. I’m late for my beard trim with Gabby.

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