Getting down to business: Blue River Dairy
L-R Timothy Wixon (BNZ Head of Tech Industry), Gareth Lyness (Blue River Dairy Marketing and Supply Chain Manager), Robert Boekhout (Blue River Dairy General Manager), Melissa Collier (Deloitte Partner)
Creating a world first product isn’t something that many companies can claim, but Blue River Dairy harnessed innovative thinking from their Invercargill base to craft something brand new. We talked to Marketing Manager, Gareth Lyness, about the company, their pioneering product and their Fast 50 success.
Please tell us a little about what Blue River Dairy does and how it started.
Blue River Dairy started in 2003 as a sheep’s milk dairy business. The company began by producing cheese and over time, sought to add value and scale up by developing sheep’s milk powder to sell in China. However, we weren’t able to sell enough volume of powder at the very high market prices there, so the board identified a different opportunity - infant formula.
With that in mind, we developed the world's first sheep’s milk infant formula, but we were suddenly unable to get it to market because in China, they'd changed the regulations. Fortunately, in February 2015, the Chen family from Changsha in China stepped in and acquired the Blue River Dairy plant and brand. They were the ideal choice to take on the business, because they understood the market and could bring in extra expertise as well as capital. Equipped with that support, we were able to get that unique formula to market and the rest of history!
What is your role in the business and how many people do you work alongside?
I'm the Marketing and Supply Chain Manager at Blue River Dairy, and joined the company in 2015. There's 110 permanent full-time employees in the business now and on any given day, we might have as many as 150 people working across the factory.
Why do you think there’s an interest in sheep’s milk products?
I think particularly in Asian markets, intolerance of bovine dairy products is quite common, and while goat’s milk offers a more digestible alternative, sheep’s milk is also more digestible and also has a superior nutritional profile. It also tastes better!
How do you encourage innovation in the company?
Innovation is part of our culture, so while we demonstrated innovation in creating a product that was a world first, we find new and efficient ways to do things in the factory too.
Also, in our home in the South Island, we haven't got a large number of infant formula manufacturers around us. That means we’ve hired many people who were new to the industry and have built their skills on the job. While established industry experience is important, often the employees that we’ve trained have brought fresh eyes to easily identify opportunities for innovation, which is great.
Who is responsible for the scientific research and product development at Blue River Dairy?
We’ve got a technical and quality team of 13 people, who dedicate a lot of their time towards research and product development. Having that dedicated team has led to us having some pretty good and unique brands, so they’ve been important.
What challenges have you come up against as a business?
There have been many challenges, certainly in recognising the regulatory changes in the Chinese market. Lots of manufacturers were out or down for a while as a result. We succeeded out of that though.
And while other manufacturers were forced to reduce the number of brands they could sell in market, we also developed a goat and a bovine range of formula on top of our sheep range, becoming the first plant in the world to manufacture formula from three different species’ milk. That was a challenge to achieve, but a good example of our innovation, and it's really led to some significant business growth.
Blue River Dairy did so well in the Deloitte Private Fast 50 programme – your team took fourth spot on the index, as well as the ‘National Fastest-Growing Agribusiness’ and ‘National Fastest-Growing Exporter’ titles. How have you recognised your Fast 50 success in the company?
Well, it’s a fantastic chance for celebrate and promote the brand. For one, we put up a pretty massive billboard at George Bolt Memorial Drive in Auckland with our new title of ‘New Zealand’s Fastest Growing Exporter in 2018’, while in China, they put the Fast 50 titles on 50 high-speed rail stations, which was amazing. So yeah, there's been a fair bit made of it!
Jen Scouler works in the Deloitte clients & marketing team across digital content and social media. She also works closely with Deloitte Private.