2016 AUT Business School Excellence in Business Support Awards Supreme Award winner: Plant & Food Research

Plant & Food Research has been awarded the Supreme Award in the 2016 AUT Business School Excellence in Business Support Awards. Formed in 2008, its research is used to add value to New Zealand’s plant and food industries. And, in an effort to maximise that impact, it’s proven itself as a leader of best practice.

New Zealand prides itself on delivering quality, world-class exports. The horticultural, arable, seafood, and food and beverage industries lead the way in that regard and, with a combined turnover of $10 billion, they make a significant contribution to the nation’s wealth and well-being.

Adding value to those products is Plant & Food Research, which uses its resources and research to enable its industry partners to produce a greater volume of better products with reduced environmental impacts and fewer inputs.

In order to touch multiple parts of the supply chain and optimise its partners’ success, those research areas include breeding and genomics, bioprotection, sustainable production, food innovation and seafood technologies.

Professional scientific research aiding agriculture and horticulture in New Zealand dates back to the early 1900s, but it wasn’t until 2008 that Plant & Food Research formed. And since then, its research services and the tools, technologies, cultivars and other products it has developed have become fundamental to the operation of many of New Zealand’s leading primary industries.

MEASURING SUCCESS

Given it’s charged with supporting New Zealand’s plant and food industries, the success of Plant & Food Research is based on the impact it has on those industries. To do this, it uses performance measures such as export growth, industry profitability and sustainability, as well as feedback from key industry leaders via the governance frameworks that oversee the research investment process.

“It’s about the benefit that our research has for New Zealand,” CEO Peter Landon-Lane (above) says. “So it’s not just research for its own sake. How we measure our success is how our research makes other organisations or other people successful.”

Plant & Food Research is Pipfruit New Zealand’s primary research partner, and its CEO Alan Pollard called Plant & Food Research a “world leading innovative organisation”.

“Without its support and application, the industry would not be where it is today.”

Other feedback from its customers supports Pollard’s statement, with Plant & Food Research being described as competent, expert, professional, approachable and collaborative in an MBIE survey.

HOW IT WORKS

In order to maximise the impact of its work, Landon-Lane says it needs to figure out what research needs to be done in the first place, and that comes from its very strong customer focus.

“We work with them and find out what their objectives are, what their strategy is and what the research is that can best help them achieve that,” he says.

It’s this customer focus that’s one of the aspects that sets Plant & Food Research apart from other research institutes. Often research institutes are investigation led to support education, which Landon-Lane says is excellent, but is not suited Plant & Food Research’s work, as it works with particular customers.

He says it’s had customers from around the world find it hard to believe they can get exactly what they want from Plant & Food Research and have it delivered on time.

“We benchmark ourselves against the best research institutes that we can find around the world because science is international so we need to be up there with the best.”

A key example of Plant & Food Research’s work is its response to the discovery of the kiwifruit disease Psa in New Zealand. Alongside Zespri and other collaborators, Plant & Food Research instigated a large research programme that supported the industry in maintaining a strong export position, including orchard management protocols, disease control and new cultivar development targets. The breeding programme led to the commercialisation of ‘Gold3’ (ZespriSunGold), a new cultivar now performing well on world markets in place of its predecessor.

For this effort, Zespri CEO Lain Jager commended Plant & Food Research for making a huge contribution to the kiwifruit industry’s remarkable turnaround since the discovery.

BETTERING ITSELF

Despite its evident success, Plant & Food Research strives for continuous improvement. Landon-Lane says it’s an important part of its culture and how it works, because “if you think about it, science or scientific research, by nature is about continuous improvement”.

“So it’s an easy fit, to have a continuous improvement mindset in the company because it’s how our work works.”

That improvement includes investing its profits into new science capabilities and testing them through its Future Science Programme in order to anticipate what the market will require from it and its expertise.

It also includes improvement to its facilities, but most important is its investment in its staff.

We are a service organisation. We don’t have a big manufacturing plant churning out products, we have people and our product is knowledge and knowhow, advice and technology,” Landon-Lane says. “So investing in our people would be the equivalent of Fonterra investing in the latest processing equipment.”

BEHIND THE SCENES

Plant & Food Research has over 800 staff across 15 sites in Australia and New Zealand, and underpinning its performance is a commitment to fostering a positive workplace culture.

Giving it something to aim for, that culture is characterised by three shared values: (1) the creative application of its knowledge, (2) relationships based on honesty, mutual respect and trust, and (3) achievement through leadership.

All staff are offered professional development and encouraged to grow their careers through in-house leadership programmes, recognition and reward, as well as support for academic and professional qualifications.

Alongside this, all vacancies are advertised internally to provide opportunities for career advancement contributing to an annual staff turnover rate of 4.91 percent.

KEY TO SUCCESS

The need to invest in its staff becomes evident when Landon-Lane summarises his key to success with the words “people, partnership and performance”.

While he doesn’t disregard the importance of scientific research, he says in order to maximise the impact it will have on other people and organisations, Plant & Food Research has to have the right culture.

He says “partnership” refers to working effectively with the people it’s trying to benefit as well as its research partners while “performance” sums up the delivery of its research and “running of a good ship”.

However, it’s not just about the performance of the management team, he credits all the staff 

for going above and beyond for the research and its partners.