Twenty-eight years ago Brett Wharfe started out, just by himself, in the hothouse business. He wasn’t quite alone though. He had his dog and his bank to help him .
To be honest, at first neither was really able to do much for him. As most small business owners know, you have to get the first stages of your business going before the bank comes in too handy, and dogs are good company, but not so handy with the fertilizer.
So Brett set to work. He started with a quarter of an acre under glass and before long he decided that it was all a little too much like work, so he set to dreaming.
He thought that if he could get more into the packing and marketing side of growing he’d spend fewer of the hard hours growing.
Again, as most small-business people know those plans about how things will just get easier if you start doing twice as much for a while really mean that you end up doing twice as much for a long time longer. But as Brett put in the work, the bank started to become more handy. They were there with seasonal overdrafts to help through the lean times, and there was the mortgage for new development as his company scaled up to get to certain economies of scale. There always seemed to be another point just around the corner that if they could only get that little bit bigger, things would be easier. And as the business grew and proved itself, getting access to that little bit more became easier, too.
As the years passed Brett travelled to build new markets and learn from established businesses overseas. On his travels he would see bigger and bigger operations.
“I’d see them and think, I’d like to have a business like that, I’d see how professional and sophisticated the operations were and then want to do that myself. In some ways business is like sport – you want to be a good as you can.”
It was in setting up the Australian business that BNZ really came into its own. Brett’s biggest customer is the Progressive Supermarket chain in New Zealand, but the second biggest bit of the business is the produce exported to Australia.
“When we set our business up in Australia it was potentially going to be very difficult, but with the relationship they had with the big bank NAB there they made it very easy.”
When buying supplies like fertiliser in international currency, Brett gets the benefit of BNZ’s advice, and in doing business Hothouse exports to a range of countries including Taiwan, Japan, Canada Noumea and around the South Pacific, so the bank's strong international team is a real bonus.
The way the bank will take dealing with that right out of his hands is something that Brett especially appreciates.
“I enjoy the personal touches that the bank works hard at to make things easier for me. Like certain transfers that I have to do with international banks, they will step in and do it all and that makes what can be a rigmarole into something easy.”
But more than that, and more than simply banking – it is the relationships between Brett and his BNZ team, especially Murray McLaren, that are what really matter.
“You know, I was actually a bit reluctant to talk today. I’m not really that comfortable doing interviews and so on. I went out of my normal zone to do this as I really do value the people that help me from the bank and wanted to be able to do something for them. It has got to the point where you get the feeling that the guy you are talking to has some commitment to your business and wants to see you succeed and you feel they are also part of the team.”
BNZ partner Murray McLaren says Brett is “really passionate” about his business. “He can rightfully be proud of what he has built but he remains really modest and quite shy when it comes to media so I'm delighted that he agreed to share his story.”
They are part of a team that for now is going steady. Brett has gone from starting with 20,000 feet under glass to now having 2 million. And where it was just him and the dog, he now has 350 employees.
They have built to a size where they don’t need to be pushing always harder to get just a bit bigger as it will then get easier as they have actually got there for now.
But the next time growth is on the cards, Brett knows who to turn to – the same people at BNZ who have helped him for 28 years.