James Annabell was back in Taranaki on a break from playing rugby in Hong Kong when the chance that changed his life came along.
He’d already tried a law degree in Wellington and played rugby for Taranaki from 2006 to 2008.
But there was no regional contract on offer the following year so he went to Hong Kong and Germany to continue with rugby.
In a spell back in Taranaki, working for Taranaki Regional Council as a land management officer, he made a contact that further down the track helped create the business he runs today.
As part of the job he met Waitotara Valley farmer and beekeeper Henry Matthews, who owns Settlers Honey.
Matthews recommended Annabell to a honey company that was trying to establish itself in Asia. He was given a six-month sink-or-swim contract based in Hong Kong to get more of the company’s manuka honey into Asia.
Knowing nothing about honey it was a steep learning curve but Annabell says he’s never been frightened of giving an idea a go.
He’s the first to admit that initially he knocked on a lot of doors, just finding his way, in his first week visiting supermarkets with a backpack full of honey samples before later frequenting New Zealand consulate events.
It was hard work but before long the focus on honey took over from rugby.
He continued to work in Hong Kong but one Christmas bought a beehive to give to his father Toby as a present.
Toby, a former sheep and beef farmer, had spent his life living and working in the rural sector and was handy with anything associated with the land, at the time running an agricultural contracting business.
He took to beekeeping so well that it wasn’t long before the father and son bought 100 hives between them.
They soon built up their hive numbers from there and Toby eventually sold the contracting business to concentrate full-time on honey production.
In the meantime James continued to work out of Hong Kong, further developing the Asian market for two of NZ’s largest honey companies, but he had always wanted to be his own boss.
It was a step he had been thinking of taking but was aware he needed to know as much as possible about the honey industry before taking the plunge.
That came sooner rather than later after his boss at the time told him if he tried to go out on his own he would discover just how tough it was and would probably fail.
That was all the motivation needed.
Annabell resigned the next day and joined forces with his father.
Egmont Honey was launched in 2015 and its growth has been rapid with turnover last year about $32 million.
Its first shipment overseas was 500kg to Hong Kong but by the end of 2016 it was exporting to 10 countries and today exports are to double that number of nations including China, Singapore, Australia and Britain.
The biggest market is Australia, where its honey is sold in about 800 Woolworths supermarkets.
The company trades 1000 tonnes of honey a year from its 4000 beehives and external suppliers all over NZ.
The focus is purely on honey production rather than pollination.
Some of the land the hives are on is so remote about 90% are flown in by helicopter, either very early in the morning or late in the evening, when the bees have returned to the hive.
Using helicopters makes sense not only for health and safety, reducing the need to transport them by ute over some rough and ready tracks in the back blocks, but also makes environmental sense to not disturb the ecosystem around the location.
Though Egmont’s beekeepers have a pretty good idea region-by-region when the necessary plants should be flowering they constantly keep an eye on the weather to make sure hives are in the right place at the right time.
The company produces a variety of honeys but the manuka variety, particularly that sold under the Unique Manuka Factor quality mark, commands the best price.
To receive that grading the honey has to contain certain naturally occurring chemical markers. All Egmont’s UMF honey is tested by an independent, Government-approved laboratory.
Egmont Honey’s beekeepers keep an eye on the weather over summer to make sure hives are in the right place at the right time.
For the first few years of its operation Egmont’s packaging was done under contract because Annabell likes to run a lean overheads structure, making sure the business is profitable from day one and not investing ahead of the earnings curve.
However, eventually the company grew to a size where it was justified in building its own state-of-the-art processing facility.
The factory opened in 2018 houses the processing, packaging and dispatching departments.
Built to its own specifications, it has a dedicated quality assurance department, a double-pass filtration system with multiple creaming tanks and a highly automated packing room, capable of handling a variety of packaging and labelling specifications.
Other features include a range of different certifications, including MPI, halal and kosher, also with 24-hour production facilities.
Annabell says the company is constantly on the lookout for new markets with the focus for the next six to 12 months on the United States.
It’s in a pretty sweet position to build on what it’s already achieved.