It was while he was overseas that Roger Belton first had the spark of an idea that led to what is now a thriving New Zealand seafood business - Southern Clams Ltd.
"Back then - in the 1980's - I perceived that there were a lot of high end food products in New Zealand that if developed, would have value elsewhere in the world.
“The natural resources were the easiest to focus on rather than complicated things such as cheeses. So I started with what New Zealanders call cockles – known elsewhere as clams. I believed these would work because I had seen them in North American and European markets and restaurants, where they had a high value placed on them.”
On returning to New Zealand, Roger could see there was lots of untapped potential and set about focusing on the higher end restaurant trade. "Targeting niche markets meant I could avoid being in a sea of commodities where price is king."
Roger found that niche markets are different according to different cultures, so has focused on being responsive to those niches.
"I do make a point of trying to visit most clients at least once a year - which means a lot of travel. There's always a fairly long chain between the production of a product and the consumer - and a lot of valuable information can get lost in transmission. If there or 5 or 6 different parties in the chain, as a producer it’s really important that you can cut through that and have more direct contact with the consumer. While I don’t usually have contact with the consumer eating the seafood, I do with the people who are selling them the shellfish – the retailers and restaurants."
As all exporters know, when starting out, it's imperative you find an import agent who is the best channel for the products you want to find a market for. Roger found selecting the best channel to be particularly difficult in China.
Here are Roger's top tips:
Spend some time on the terrain, learn as much as possible about the culture and the systems. This is a lot easier in a European context than an Asian context - especially when it comes to food products, because the values assigned to foods are very much tied to the cultural context. So if you don’t understand that cultural context, it's going to be very difficult to put your product in the optimum position.
Find a good agent - I started by providing product to New Zealand exporters who already had the channels open. As demand grew, we had direct approaches from buyers in the countries we were exporting to. Then we developed a direct export to those markets and ended up forming a subsidiary company that focuses exclusively on exporting seafood to niche markets in North America, the UK and Asia.
Understand what the market needs and wants. If you can satisfy that demand, and respect the requirements that may not be explicit, and service that demand, then in a sense one doesn’t have to do any marketing because you’re offering the complete delivery of a product for which there is a strong demand.
Overall, a focus on quality and delivery is what Roger believes gives Southern Clams its competitive edge, not only in New Zealand - where they’re sold in New World and Pak 'n Save supermarkets, restaurants and wholesalers - but in markets all over the globe. "We're focused on developing channels that work for delivery of a live, highly perishable product," says Roger. "We guarantee at least a week’s shelf life on delivery anywhere in the world."