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From ‘the back of a van’ to East Asian expansion: Pitango gears up for big overseas push

A pair of immigrants starting their business out of the back of a soup van, only for their hard work and struggle to pay off in the form of their company becoming an organic chilled food empire worth millions. It’s the sort of rags-to-riches that almost seems too good to be true, but is in fact the origin of Kiwi food company Pitango, which opened a new $3m factory in South Auckland on May 25.

“[The] New Zealand market is our base and is very important to us,” says managing director Graeme Laurence, who joined Pitango in February 2014 after it was bought for $5m by Australian meat processor and chilled food company Beak and Johnston.

“New Zealand is a great place to try different things and if they work can be expanded into our overseas markets. We are a very small company in world terms, but we know we are quick to turn great ideas into excellent products.”

Image: Pitango managing director Graeme Laurence 

Israeli immigrants Yasmin and Ofer Shenhave founded Pitango in 2002, who began by selling soup from the back of a van. Those humble beginnings are something the firm tries to stay aware of, says Laurence, as it looks to expand overseas, particularly in East Asia. New Zealand’s international reputation for food safety also helps.

“New Zealand companies have a lot of credibility [overseas],” he says. “New Zealand is seen as a country with safe food that can be trusted.”

Pitango’s new factory will create up to 20 new jobs in South Auckland during peak season, as the company seeks to raise the share of its products that are sent overseas to 80 per cent by 2016. Currently, about 70 per cent of Pitango products are exported, mainly to Australia.

Image: Graeme Laurence with Group CEO at Beak & Johnston, David Beak in front of the new factory.

Laurence is quick to defend an approach some consumers who would prefer a more Kiwi-first focus might not agree with.

“As we travel a lot we are right in tune with what trends are developing and evolving in the markets we are interested in,” he says.

Laurence adds that he thinks Pitango’s increasing business will help support Kiwi farmers who supply Pitango with fruits, vegetables, meat and more.

“We’re proud that we use natural and local ingredients in our products,” he says.

“In this way we help support the farmers around the country who produce such high quality vegetables and meat.”

Pitango’s push to expand offers three lessons for other companies looking to grow, Laurence claims.

“Always be looking for trends and ideas that can translate to your brand,” he says.

“Figure out what your brand stands for and stick with it, even though it is tempting not to. And of course make sure retailers and customers always have a reason to support you.”

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