Kiwi family business Ethical Agents is a key supplier to the agricultural and veterinary industries - in fact you could say they've become the vanguard of these important New Zealand sectors. So how are they competing with the big multinationals without compromising their ideals?
When news of the kiwifruit vine disease broke in New Zealand, Greg Roberts and his team at Ethical Agents immediately knew of a product that would help.
The company now holds the sole agency in New Zealand for Trigene, a disinfectant that kills all viruses, protozoa and bacteria, but is safe for humans and 100 percent biodegradable.
Ethical Agents had its name long before sustainable, eco-friendly and green were buzzwords. For Greg's parents, who started the business 44 years ago, being ethical meant caring for Kiwi farmers, vets and their animals.
Today many orchards in New Zealand use Trigene to sterilise their plant loppers and farm bikes to prevent spreading the disease, while almost every vet clinic relies on the product for sterilisation. Ethical Agents has sourced a superhero of sorts, a disinfectant used nationwide to protect our beloved fruit.
Helping Kiwis care for their flocks and crops is what it's all about for Greg. Our farmers were suffering, and he knew how to source what would solve the problem.
To New Zealand veterinarians, Ethical Agents is the source of specialist veterinary pharmaceuticals and other vet products, holding 35 sole agencies from leading manufacturers around the world.
Ethical Agents began sourcing new R&D from overseas in 1968, operating from under the family home in Auckland's Pakuranga. It was while Greg's parents still ran the business that advisory firm Bellingham Wallace first became involved. Greg bought the business from his parents in 2002. Surprisingly the success rate of generational succession is not high, with only a third of family businesses successfully transferred to the next generation.
"Succession is about the journey and our role was to help guide the Roberts through the process to achieve the best outcome for all parties," says Bellingham Wallace associate Yuline Little. "From implementing crucial shareholder agreements to ensuring all funding issues and sources were covered - we were with them every step of the way. The result was a strong foundation for future growth."
But working with Bellingham Wallace has made things easier, in a relationship that's lasted 25 years.
Today Ethical Agents supplies unique products like Trigene, Calol and Propalin to the veterinary market. If you're a vet, you've probably heard of these, but if you're not then it's worth noting that Ethical Agents were one of the first companies to introduce insect growth regulator for flea control to New Zealand, and several of their products are the only ones of their kind available here.
"We stock the only antihistamine left on the market," says Greg. "If a dog has a reaction and goes into anaphylactic shock, Antimine is vital."
Greg says the company may only order small quantities of these drugs each year, but without them the vets - and the animals - would be in real difficulty.
"We're not a wholesaler and we're not a multinational." The company doesn't just bring R&D from overseas - Greg and his team have worked on a few of their own products, tackling New Zealand-specific issues like facial eczema. "We're the source, that's what we do."
When it comes to number crunching, being an importer first and foremost means depending on what's happening overseas.
But working with Bellingham Wallace has made this all quite manageable, in a relationship that's lasted 25 years.
Yuline says what makes her client particularly interesting is its unique seasonal cash flow, and this can leave the company vulnerable.
"Yes, seasonal cash flow can make things a little tricky," says Greg. But having the support to recognise patterns in the market has enabled them to keep things running smoothly. Every year Ethical Agents has a higher turnover in the first three days of July than in the whole month of June. Only a seasoned professional would attribute this to farmers beginning their preparation for calving season.
The company's point of difference, says Yuline, is that it remains a family business focused on innovation, while similar-sized competitors have been bought by multinationals.
Greg says relationships have remained a focus of the business since the beginning. "Over the years we've formed quite special relationships with all our suppliers," he says. "We've tended to focus on developing strong partnerships with family businesses. We like to support those."
Yuline shares the Roberts' passion. Monitoring foreign exchange variations, planning for the future, forecasting, attending the monthly management meetings and giving advice "daily, or weekly, or just whenever they need it" makes for a comfortable, dependable relationship. "Greg is open to advice, driven and a real pleasure to work with. By innovating, pushing development and capitalising on R&D the business has grown to become a vanguard of New Zealand's agricultural sector."