Riversun rides into the future

7 June 2016 by Sophie Rishworth, Business Quarterly, The Gisborne Herald

ABOUT 20 years ago, Riversun managing director Geoff Thorpe had an epiphany. He was on honeymoon with his wife Anna in a little German wine village. Geoff was jet-lagged and unable to sleep, so took a pre-dawn stroll. He stopped outside an old door in the sleepy village and there carved in stone was the date 1497, and at the next house, 1521.

That’s when it hit him, he said.

“These people have been growing grapes and making wine for well over 500 years. This village has seen the Black Plague, Napoleon, the Kaiser and Hiltler. These guys have seen all this and they’re still making wine.”

Then as he walked through the steep vineyards behind the village, Geoff realised the acid rain, the smog of the Rhur Valley and the centuries of cultivation all had a huge impact on their wine quality.

Huge opportunity

He realised what a huge opportunity it was for New Zealand, for Gisborne, for Riversun.

“We are blessed with virgin soils, clean air, pure rainfall and really smart people. All these qualities allow us in New Zealand to make a fresh, vibrant style of wines consumers seem to love, and few can replicate.”

But, based on his extensive nursery study tours over the previous decade, he also knew that to realise this amazing potential, the local vine nursery industry had a lot of work to do. His epiphany? To return home and commit Riversun to learning how to grow the highest quality vines in the world by 2005 — and be able to prove it!

That was 1998. At the time New Zealand’s fledgling wine export industry was earning $100 million a year. Today it is over $1.5 billion, Riversun grafts over 2.5 million grapevines a year and demand for New Zealand wine continues to enjoy a decade-long compound growth rate of 14 percent.

Geoff turned 59 last month but sees himself involved in Riversun for as long as he breathes. “Riversun is an enduring passion of mine, not just a job.”

FAMILY

Geoff is one of eight children and remembers how he loved being in the garden from an early age — something his dad encouraged all his children to get into.

He has been married to Anna for almost 20 years and they have two sons, Jack, 17, and George, 14.

Geoff says Anna has always been there for him and Riversun as a sounding board and provides wise counsel.

“She is very instinctive, very smart and an amazing people-person.”

Geoff also has two older children from his first marriage, Holly, 35, and Brook, 32.

He encourages all his children to find what they are passionate about — and pursue that.

His parents, Jack and Joyce, came to Gisborne in the 1950s to start Columbine Hosiery with Jack’s brothers George and Alan.

In the early 1970s Jack took early retirement and bought land on Riverside Road, where Waimata Cheese operates from today, and planted Gisborne’s first commercial-scale kiwifruit orchard.

“Our dad taught us ‘quality always sells’, ‘be the best that you can be’ and ‘do it once, do it well’. I guess excellence is in our family DNA.”

The business world surrounded the Thorpe children as they grew up and Geoff believes they all learnt management and entrepreneurial skills through osmosis.

Importance of giving

While their dad taught them about business, their mum taught them the importance of giving.

“She was a giver, her life was devoted to everyone else.”

The result is that Geoff strives to keep Riversun not only profitable but also to become truly sustainable. He does not use that word loosely. Sustainable to Geoff is summed up with one question, “Can we keep doing this on the same land, in the same community and on the same planet for the next 100 and next 1000 years?”

This encompasses all aspects of the business environment, soil and plant health management, water and air quality, bio-diversity, machinery and energy. He thinks a lot about the future health of soil. “The secret is in the soil,” he says.

“I worked hard at high school to be a B student, but when I discovered plants it all started to make sense — and when I went to university the A grades followed.”

After leaving school he worked for a couple of years for his dad developing a vineyard at Manutuke as well as kiwifruit and citrus orchards. He then headed to Lincoln in 1977 to study for a degree in horticulture, interspersed with a year working and travelling across Europe and Asia.

On his return to Gisborne in 1981, Geoff started a “backyard’ nursery at Patutahi growing kiwifruit and avocado plants as a way to make money to go travelling again. It worked really well — beginner’s luck, he says.

In 1982 he and his first wife Kris established Riversun and then three years later he won the Wrightson Young Orchardist Award.

In 1989 he and Kris opened Touchstone Garden Centre in a three-way partnership with good friend Timothy Bell. It was also around this time he sold his first grafted grapevines into Marlborough, the first of many millions, and this business grew steadily through the 1990s. He became part of the NZ Vine Improvement Group (VIG) and met some of the leading lights in the industry, who then supported Riversun with vine orders.

GISBORNE IS IN A SWEET SPOT

Looking through the Riversun lens at the world, Gisborne should be excited, he says.

The Bay of Plenty is fast running run out of land to grow kiwifruit and avocados on and Marlborough will soon be at capacity for grapes.

“Good things are coming our way, although they’re coming despite us rather than because of us.”

What Geoff is talking about is his concern around the media’s pursuit of negative stories about our region.

“We need to tell our good news stories, there are so many of them and they are rarely heard.”

Which is one of the reasons why — after many years of keeping a low profile locally — he agreed to this interview.

Geoff cannot talk highly enough about Gisborne, and what a “sweet spot” it has nationally and globally.

Right now, the biggest thing holding Riversun back is attracting to our region the highly-skilled people it needs to make the most of the exciting opportunities on its doorstep.

He tells the story of a Spanish scientist — Dr Alvaro Vidiella — who he was looking to recruit to Riversun. The scientist, his wife and four children had settled in booming Tauranga a few years ago, so the idea of shifting to Gisborne was a big move.

“When anyone from outside this region, or country, Googles Gisborne you get all these negative stories on the front page of The Gisborne Herald — Gisborne is supposedly the NZ ‘clapital’, the porn capital and tops all the worst socio-economic indicators.”

Luckily for Riversun and Gisborne, Alvaro and family visited the region, fell in love with it, and moved here late last year.

To attract the top people they have to offer very competitive salaries, an exciting role full of opportunities and challenges, as well as a great place to raise the family.

“One promise I always make them is, they will never get bored working in Riversun or Linnaeus.”

GETTING BACK UP AFTER THE FIRST FALL

From 1998-2008 there was a vineyard planting boom in New Zealand driven by surging wine exports. Riversun found itself in the right place at the right time and started supplying vines to vineyards from Northland to Central Otago.

“It was like a bucking bronco and we went for one hell of a ride.”

It was exciting, hard work and some tough lessons were learned. But the Riversun team was driven by the positivity and enthusiasm of smart people doing “really cool things” in the wine industry. The grafted vines sold by Riversun increased 10-fold over 10 years, from 400,000 a year to 4 million a year.

Then, Boom! In 2008 the New Zealand wine industry experienced an unexpected 60 percent increase in sauvignon blanc production at exactly the same time the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) hit. The perfect storm! That bucking bronco stopped suddenly and almost everyone went flying.

The global financial system went into free fall, consumers around the world freaked out, vine orders were cancelled with no signs of any new ones on the horizon.

By 2009 the 30 vine nurseries in New Zealand fell to just four — and those four each had to live with a 90 percent drop in production. People were leaving the industry in droves. When the bottom fell out, “it was hell”.

Before the “crash” Riversun had 60 permanent staff and sadly many had to go. But Geoff and Anna decided to “tough it out”. They still believed in their team, their business and the industry. They put everything on the line to hopefully fund the business through the storm. Geoff hopped back on the tractor and Riversun went into survival mode.

A natural optimist, Geoff knew Riversun had to stay “ready”.

He stayed close to key clients and they all did a lot of soul-searching.

He knew they had to keep investing in people, infrastructure and IP (intellectual property). Riversun held on to its source blocks and its huge library of vines collected from the best wine-making countries in the world.

“You have to be constantly on your toes looking into the future — one, three, five, 10 years out — and always stay close to your clients.”

The safe option would have been to hunker down. Instead Geoff went back to that little German village and the epiphany he had.

“Nothing has changed, I thought. Our soils and climate are still unique, the people are still smart and global consumers still love our wines — we are just making too much of it, for now!”

“We believed it would come back, but nobody could tell us when!”

But it did. And when the tide turned, the core team at Riversun was in the starting blocks, match-fit and ready to go.

In 2012 people came back to Riversun in investment mode. There was a land grab under way in Marlborough as key companies realised they had to start planting again.

Geoff and Anna made the decision never to go back to old volumes and since then Riversun has taken a more measured approach.

Prior to the crash they were one of 30 nurseries. They were now one of four and they had doubled their market share.

THE ROLE OF SCIENCE

Geoff is a great fan of science and very proud of Riversun’s laboratory Linnaeus. It brings together leading-edge technology with some of the world’s top people. Linnaeus manages all of Riversun’s in-house R&D as well as testing the grape vines, soil health, food and water quality.

Geoff likens the technological changes under way in the plant world at the moment to the discovery of the microscope.

“Molecular biology is rapidly de-mystifying everything.”

Linnaeus also does contract research for the New Zealand wine industry — a four-year vine health project it is working on at the moment is the biggest of its kind in the world and a ground-breaking piece of research.

It has recently become the sole NZ licensee for Australian-based “MicrobeLabs”— a package of leading-edge technology which will allow them to measure a soil’s microbial health status.

It also recently took on the staff and purchased the assets of Gisborne’s Hydro Technologies lab business and continues to offer the full suite of tests that business has provided to the local community for the past 20 years.

A big, hairy audacious goal

After the European epiphany, Geoff came home, sold Touchstone, exited all the other nursery crops Riversun had in its portfolio and focused 100 percent on grapes. Remember, he wanted Riversun to learn how to produce the highest-quality grafted grape vines in the world by 2005 and be able to prove it.

“I am a great believer in the importance of having a very clear vision of where you are going in life. People who don’t know what they are aiming for always miss the target with remarkable accuracy!

“In business, it is really important that your vision is both challenging and aspirational — and it doesn’t hurt if it is also a tad audacious!”

The crazy thing was, as soon as he landed on that BHAG (Big, Hairy Audacious Goal), the orders poured in.

“The universe does want to support good intentions, so don’t be surprised when good things start to happen.

“Amazing people knocked on our door wanting to join us. People say we were just lucky but it had been 15 years of hard slog up to that point.”

Within three weeks of fully committing to their BHAG they had set up Linnaeus laboratory to do all of their virus testing. In 2000 they launched the vine industry’s first independently-audited certification scheme. Then, after five years of negotiations, in 2002 Riversun signed a 25-year exclusive licence with the French government clonal selection agency ENTAV, giving them access to the biggest, best selection of grapevine clones and varieties in the world.

In 2003 they opened New Zealand’s first privately-operated, Ministry for Primary Industries-accredited, grapevine quarantine facility, and over the next few years they imported 120 new clones and varieties from the four corners of the globe.

They now had the best-quality vines in the world — and, thanks to Linnaeus, ENTAV and Riversun’s own certification programme, they were able to prove it!

Then came the GFC, which messed everything up!

UP AND THEN DOWN . . . AGAIN

During the depths of the GFC, the New Zealand kiwifruit industry was laid low by the arrival of PSA in Te Puke in November 2010.

By late 2011 desperate BoP growers were calling Riversun wanting them to propagate tens of thousands of gold kiwifruit vines grafted on to an exciting new rootstock — Bounty 71. There were hopes it may have some tolerance of PSA, but there was a problem.

It had never before been propagated on a commercial basis anywhere in the world, and there were only 40 mother-vines from which they could harvest cuttings.

But Riversun was still clawing back from the GFC and Geoff was happy to do “anything”.

In less than 12 months they turned those 40 mother-vines into 80,000 cuttings and were ready to start grafting.

Then in November 2012 that bucking bronco threw them off again when PSA was believed to have been found in a handful of vines that Riversun had propagated a year earlier.

Geoff was not totally convinced of the accuracy of the test results, but the media got hold of the story. Not wanting to risk their hard-earned reputation with a PSA outbreak, they made the tough decision to immediately dump all their kiwifruit production.

But a group of growers got together, purchased all the vines and grew them on and grafted the vines themselves — and they are all now in full production.

Happily for Riversun, grapevine demand had returned with a vengeance so it was onwards and upwards for the team.

WHATATUTU — A magic spot

To the outside world, Riversun is essentially a nursery growing grape vines to supply vineyards around New Zealand. But Geoff says they are actually in the business of risk management — and one of the biggest they have to manage is the weather.

“Climate change is very real. We live and deal with it every day. In the past four years we’ve seen weather extremes we have not seen in the past 40.”

While still reeling from the PSA setback, in November 2012 Riversun’s grapevine production on Back Ormond Road was almost wiped out by an unprecedented late-season frost — one degree colder and it would have wiped out half their production.

Vowing never to take that risk again, Geoff decided to buy some land and build a frost-protection dam. They had been growing vines up at Whatatutu for almost 10 years and knew it was a magic spot, but was also very frost-prone.

Baby grapevines need free-draining soils and Whatatutu has some of the best soils in the world for them. One metre of volcanic ash sits on top of 10 metres of river shingle, and those terraces sit 30 metres above the Waipaoa River. The terraces are surrounded by small mountains, creating a continental-type climate, with hot, dry summers and cold, frosty winters.

Riversun purchased land upon which to build a frost-protection dam and installed a sprinkler system over 30 hectares of field nursery — goodbye frost risk!

But Mother Nature had different ideas. Rather than throw a late frost at them, in December that year she dumped a massive hailstorm on to the property — the first Riversun had had to endure since it started. While it looked devastating at the time, the vines soon bounced back and the losses were negligible. But it was another close call and in 2014 Riversun installed a 3ha trial block of hail netting.

Not to be placated, rather than test that out with another hail storm, in July 2015 Mother Nature delivered five centimetres of snow on the nursery, collapsing some of the netting!

And that was only four months after dodging another climatic bullet — Cyclone Pam!

It had been due to make landfall at 6pm on Sunday, March 15th and winds were forecast to hit 120kmh. The 25kms of artificial windbreak between the nursery blocks was not designed to handle that. Baby vines would be laid low by such brutal wind and lashing rain.

As Geoff drove out of the nursery at 4pm that day, MetService increased the forecast windspeed to 150kmh!

“As I drove home, I was very Zen about it and thought, there’s nothing more we can do.”

Thankfully, Pam glanced off the East Cape. Riversun has since planted natural shelters to hopefully take the sting out of future cyclones.

“A lot of our success is because our key clients know the extraordinary lengths we go to to try to manage all of the risks we face on the way to delivering them their vines. We tell them we can never guarantee that we will deliver their vines on time — but we do guarantee that we will always try harder than anyone else to do so.”

TAONGA OF THE INDUSTRY

Geoff wanted Riversun to have the best-of-the-best vines from around the world. So they scoured the globe and collected new material from Chile, Argentina, Australia, California, Canada, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and — of course — France. The vines had to go through two years in their quarantine facility before being multiplied up and finally planted into Gisborne soil.

Given the huge investment they had made to get the new imports to this point, Riversun purchased the old Waihuka Stud property at Manutuke in 2005 and went about creating the industry’s biggest collection of high-health varieties and clones.

Today there are almost 250 selections grown on the property — made up of over 50 varieties (half new to the industry and imported by Riversun) and over 200 clones.

Geoff says wistfully that importation is “not for the faint-hearted”. It costs about $25,000 per import, about a quarter never make it through the quarantine process and, for those that do, the road to commercial success is long and littered with many casualties.

After the two years in quarantine, it takes another year to propagate enough vines to plant out in the source block at Waihuka. It is two years before they see the first fruit — and they then make experimental wines to showcase to their clients. If that gets the client’s attention, they order some vines, wait another year before delivery, and then they plant a small area to see how they perform in their region. It takes them three years to get their first wine and then they have to get consumers to buy it.

Sometimes the wines do not appeal and the vines are soon removed. But, even if consumers love them, if they can’t pronounce the name on the label most will not want to embarrass themselves by trying! Think gruner veltliner or mourvedre, mtsvane or viosinho!

However, several new “rock stars” have emerged from the import programme and have made all the hard work worthwhile. Some are what Geoff calls “step-change” clones of mainstay varieties like chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot gris, and some are new varieties.

Look out for Spanish variety albarino — it is winning awards around the world already.

Waihuka is truly a taonga of the industry, says Geoff, and is a key part of what sets Riversun apart from all its competitors.

THEY ALSO DO . . .

Late last year a strategic decision was made to once again commit to a crop-diversification programme. With all their eggs in the grapevine basket, Geoff and Anna were concerned about the risk that posed for their staff. They were determined to try to avoid putting them through what was experienced from 2008-12.

However, diversification had bitten them in the backside before. In 2005 Riversun imported several new varieties of avocados — they were rewarded by huge demand from growers and they scaled-up production accordingly. The trouble was, when the GFC hit, it took everything with it.

Having spent the past four years furiously rebuilding the grapevine production side of the business, Geoff and Anna decided it was time to revisit diversification.

By happy coincidence, demand for avocado trees had recently exploded. Thanks to new science showing the numerous health benefits from eating avocados — reducing obesity, heart disease, cancer and the impacts of ageing — avocados are the new “super food” and global consumption has rocketed. Every avocado tree nursery around the world is suddenly booked out for the next few years and the timing for Riversun could not be better.

“Zespri is also very positive about its kiwifruit future and has recently announced the release of tenders for 400 hectares on new gold variety plantings for each of the next few years. This has led to a surge in demand for our potted grafted kiwifruit vines.

“To top it off, the local persimmon industry is also in steady expansion mode — so these really are exciting times for Riversun, for Gisborne and for New Zealand.

“We have decided we need to grow our non-grapevine business to the point it accounts for at least a third of our income and all of these opportunities will hopefully help us achieve that.

“We have been very busy in recent months recruiting key staff, leasing additional facilities and refining our production systems. Now for the hard part — making sure we under-promise and over-deliver.”

Riversun and Linnaeus now employ about 50 permanent full-time employees, with a seasonal swell of local people bringing staff up to 150 during their production season, which is typically from June to December.

TRULY SUSTAINABLE BY 2020

In 2013, in another “lightbulb moment”, a new BHAG was enacted — to strive to become truly sustainable by 2020.

“People tell me sustainability is a problematic term because everyone has a different definition of it. I say it is time we reclaim it and we now have a definition which is really very simple.

“If you can’t be doing the same thing on the same land, in the same community and on the same planet in 100 and in 1000 years — then it is NOT sustainable. End of story!”

With that “reverse engineering” definition in mind, since 2013 they have been looking at every aspect of their business and have made remarkable progress.

They have eliminated artificial fertilisers from all of their field operations and, in the field nurseries, have eliminated all herbicides and non-organic sprays. These have been replaced with organic fertilisers like chicken manure, blood and bone and compost. Weed control is now done with cultivation and straw mulches, and disease control is with organic fungicides.

They are currently investing in machinery to reduce their soil compaction by 66 percent and will soon eliminate all non-recyclable plastic mulches and grafting tapes.

They are confident that by 2020 all their vehicle fleet will be electric, tractors will run on bio-diesel and solar panels will power the company. Wood-fired heating technology is already being trialled and by 2020 they expect all their glasshouse heating to be fossil-fuel-free.

As if that is not enough, all their properties are flanked by immaculately-trimmed lavender hedges and the ends of the vine rows are planted with rosemary. Why?

“Because the bees need all the help they can get,” says Geoff.

To top it off, since 2008 they have planted over 20,000 native trees and shrubs as part of their riparian revegetation programme, and that is set to hit 100,000 by 2020 — making them Carbon Negative, Zero Waste and Truly Sustainable. They call it “Toitu 2020”.

Now that’s what I call a BHAG!

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