Pic recounts his adventures as a bag-maker, furniture craftsman, giftware manufacturer, reluctant restaurateur, sailing school pioneer and peanut butter mogul
BY JACK MARTIN
So Pic, where are you from?
I was born in Wellington, and we moved to Auckland when I was about 10. I grew up in Pakuranga, went to St Kentigern College, and then to Auckland University for a while.
What was Wellington like?
We lived in Khandallah, right above the port. It was a beautiful view, and my grandparents were just up the top of the street. I went to primary school up the road with my sisters. Had lots of relatives and stuff around the place.
What were your parents like?
My dad was working with his father in a grocery wholesale business in Wellington that they’d established and it had really taken off during the war. It was nationalised and then they sort of bought it back. So my dad was a grocer and he used to work in the warehouse.
Then his uncle started Progressive Enterprises in Auckland, which was the first supermarket in New Zealand, and Dad went up and joined them shortly before they opened their second store. I think my grandfather put money into the company.
Is your family still involved in Progressive?
No, they’re all out. Dad’s 89.
Did you think you would always get involved in the food game?
No, I grew up thinking groceries was the most boring thing in the world and I wanted nothing to do with it. I worked in the supermarkets as holiday jobs – checkout guy and carrying bags – and then I worked in the warehouse a little bit. I studied architecture. My maternal grandfather had been an architect in Australia and I thought I’d be an architect. I did a year of intermediate architecture, failed everything, had a great time, and then went back again to do it again and I started going to sleep in lectures and I thought, “This is a waste of time”.
Do you regret not working harder on education?
I used to. Even up to five or 10 years ago I used to think, “What would life have looked like if I’d studied more?”, but actually, I’m really comfortable with what I’m doing and how I use my mind.
I’ve got some friends who are really fancy architects. I used to sail with them, and I built my own boat, did all the interior and laid it all out myself, and these friends, David and Julie Mitchell, were sailors. They wanted to buy my boat because they thought it was the best boat they’d ever seen. That was good enough for me. It was like getting my degree in architecture.
Can you describe your personality?
I used to think I was quite extroverted, but I did a management course a while ago and we did a check on extroversion/introversion, and I was about in the middle. I really enjoy people, and that’s one of the neat things about doing the peanut butter stuff – I’ve got an excuse to talk to anyone. My mother said to me once – this was when I was starting out making leather bags – “If you’re gonna sell things, first you’ve got to sell yourself”, and she’d get me to tidy up, brush my hair and not wear raggedy clothes and stuff. And I thought, “Oh, that sounds appalling. That sounds like prostitution of the first order”.
You were making leather bags?
At school we went over to Surfers Paradise when I was about 13 or 14, and there was a guy sitting down there in a little shop making sandals. This was a trendy thing to have at school, a pair of hand-made sandals, so I ordered a pair, watched this guy making them, and thought, “I could do this”. When I got back to New Zealand I bought a few basic tools and started making sandals for my mates. Made a little bit of money at it.
Then my mum wanted one, and one of her friends wanted one. This wasn’t half as cool as making sandals for my mates, but by Jesus they had a lot more money. So I swallowed my pride and got into making bags for Remuera ladies.
When I was flatting I’d set up a little workshop out the back in a shed or the laundry and just knock out bags. When I dropped out of university I bought an old bread van and put a window in it and a bunk and a sink and a workbench, and I called it Pic’s World-Famous Travelling Leather Gear Factory, and took off to seek my fortune with a mate.
When I arrived in Nelson something went wrong with the van, and I ended up staying a year. That was about 1972. The Values Party was just getting going, and we rented a house off Roy and Lucy Middleton. Lovely guy. He had a house in Collingwood Street that he was doing up, and he rented it to me and Marcus, my friend I was travelling with, and a few other people.
It was a pretty cool life. Over that winter I was there by myself for quite a while, maybe six weeks or so, and I just got stuck in making bags. I’d take in a big pile of bags in boxes and post them away and collect my cheques and sit in the shade and have a fancy lunch. I was making huge money for that time – $200 or $300 a week. And then I put it away and went travelling.
Where did you go?
I started off in the Pacific. I went to Samoa and that was pretty cool. I went on to America, and caught up with some friends in San Francisco. I saw the Grateful Dead playing at the Winter Palace. That was a wonderful night. I met up with friends from New Zealand. We had about five days in San Francisco, and then I toddled off to have adventures.
I’d been right into a book called The Diceman. This guy would never make any decisions. He’d leave everything to chance, and this was a path to enlightenment. Whenever there was a choice he would roll the dice. I was working on this basis. I had no intention of visiting any particular place.
Any other books you’d read that were particularly influential?
The Greening of America and The Whole Earth Catalogues. I was involved in a commune when I came back. Port Charles, Coromandel. We bought a big chunk of land. There were about 25 shareholders, 40 people, and we were making our own rules. You didn’t just have to go along with what the local council or the government was saying.
Then you made furniture next?
Yeah, I’d met a guy, John Simpson, at a party in Auckland, and he had a load of timber he wanted shifted, and I had access to the farm’s truck. Somehow he talked me into helping him out for the weekend.
At that stage I was working in a petrol station in Mt Eden, and I’d been thinking about making bellows – they’re a really useful thing. So I went to see John and asked about getting the wooden bits made, and he said, “You can come and make them in my workshop”. So I chucked in my job.
John was a teacher from England. He’d come to New Zealand and bought this furniture workshop in the middle of Newmarket. He had a tin shed full of old English woodworking machinery, and he’d taught himself how to work it and was making beautiful tables and stuff.
He showed me how to organise a few bits of the wood for these bellows, and I made a few and sold them. Then my dad said, “Do you want to make me a desk?” He’s still got it. It was a beautiful desk. My first crack at making a bit of furniture, and I made it out of tawa – which is a shit of a timber to work with.
John showed me how to do stuff. I worked for him for a couple of years in Newmarket, and then the lease expired on that building and we had to find somewhere else to work. We started driving round. John came back and said, “I’ve found this place in Parnell”, and it was this bloody huge warehouse with broken windows. The owner was a guy called Jim Franklin, who had a freight company. He owned the Tiri that Radio Hauraki had leased when they set up their radio station.
The factory was where they made Masport lawnmowers but it had been empty for quite a long time. Anyway Jim told John, “You can take yourself a bit of space in there, pay me a peppercorn rent and rent out the rest of it. I’ll pay for the advertising. You take 10 percent of any rent you get, and pay me the rest.” It blew me away.
We filled the place up with the most amazing assortment of people – we ended up with about 20 businesses in that space. And we had a big smoko room. We’d ring a bell at 10 o’clock and everybody had to knock off. 10 o’clock, 12 o’clock, 3 o’clock, and then Friday night beers. It was an amazing place to work.
Someone should do one of those in Nelson.
When I came down here that’s what I thought I’d do. I bought the Anchor Shipping building off Bruce Hancox. It was leasehold land but it was really cheap – about half of what I’d sold my house for in Grey Lynn. I thought I’d fill it up with little workshops and do the same thing.
What year was that?
Twenty-two years ago. I thought, “The place to start is the smoko room”. And I thought, “It’s actually close to the road and I could open it to the public”. My fancy architect friends came down from Auckland and did all these wonderful drawings, so we built this huge bloody restaurant. I thought I’d just lease it out, but nobody wants to lease a restaurant; they want to set up their own. So I had to run it. I ran it for about two years, having no idea what I was doing.
What was it called?
Coasters. Coasters Café. I effectively gave everybody who ate there about $10, until I couldn’t afford to do it any more. I sold the building to Brian Hetzel, who set up the distillery, Roaring 40s.
What did I do then? I set up a charter boat directory called Picot’s Charter Guide and got to wander round the country looking at boats in marinas, which was a dream job. I knew there was only one sailing school in New Zealand, Penny Whiting in Auckland. Although I’d sailed around the Pacific and knew what I was about on a boat, I couldn’t get a commercial ticket unless I’d served time on a commercial boat. There were no qualifications available for practical sailing, but in England there was this wonderful programme called the RYA, the Royal Yachting Association. It was a path to commercial certification.
I got in touch with the RYA and asked what the criteria were for getting accreditation as an RYA sailing school in New Zealand. It ended up with the RYA’s chief instructor coming out from England. I organised talks for her with various people round the country, and they ended up forming an association with the Coastguard in New Zealand and instituting the full programme. I felt really good about that.
So you set up a business doing this?
I started up a school here in Nelson, with Johnny Moore, who’d been a tutor at the polytech teaching seamanship or navigation. I did day-sailing things out of Nelson, and Johnny did the overnight stuff; the five-day courses. We did that for a couple of years, and that was going really nicely. Then Johnny’s wife, she wanted to run it. My eyesight was crapping out anyway. I sold the sailing school to Johnny.
Was that a lesson learned in terms of business partners?
Yes. You’re not in partnership with them alone. You’re in partnership with their family.
I then started making these ‘panic packs’, which were boxes with a bit of glass in the front, and a screen-printed back on them saying, “In an emergency, break glass” – with cigarettes and condoms and vibrators and tea bags and stuff inside them.
I travelled round the country and flogged them off to gift shops. I kept adding products. I had quite a good business. It was growing fast.
I remember you told a yarn at Couch Stories about a police raid?
Oh, that. I was making cannabis fertiliser, and the police took an interest in that. All terribly above-board. That was part of the giftware.
Anyway, I was pulling out of the giftware. Margie [my second wife] and I, we bought an old house in Grey Lynn, a block of about six flats. It was a rabbit-warren, decrepit and full of old men, half-rotten, leaking… I fixed that up and lived there for a couple of years. Once the house was done, I started building a boat. I bought this 45ft steel hull from Havelock North and towed it up to Auckland. Spent two years fitting that out.
Margie and I sailed off to Tonga, then across to Fiji, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Australia. We’d rented out the house and I’d sold my car, and we’d agreed that – I want to sail round the world – we’d agreed we’d go to Australia and then decide what to do. I’d just assumed that we’d had such a good time we’d carry on. Anyway, she wanted to come back to New Zealand.
We sailed back across the Tasman and moved back into the house, and I still had this boat. After the hurricane season I grabbed a few mates and sailed up to Fiji. Margie stayed home. While I was away she took a lover. When I got back it was a terrible mess. We sold the house and I came down to Nelson.
And soon after that, the peanut butter?
I ended up after the sailing school with a laundromat and an office down at the marina. I was still doing the charter guide, and the laundromat next door was giving me a couple of hundred dollars a week in my pocket. Then the council chucked me out of the office because they were going to rebuild it. I had to give up the laundromat.
What happened next?
I was missing that $200 a week, and it was around this time that I’d got pissed off with a jar of peanut butter that I’d bought, and I’d made some at home. Mum used to make it, and her auntie.
So I thought if I made some peanut butter on the Friday morning and sold it at the Friday Farmer’s Market, I could probably sell 40 jars and pick up a couple of hundred dollars. I spent $10,000 and bought this stainless concrete mixer from guys down in Westport, and I found someone who would sell me a tonne of peanuts at a reasonable price. A pallet-load of peanuts in 25kg bags.
We put them out in cold stores in Richmond, and I’d drive out there on a Friday morning and get a sack and chuck it in the roaster in the garage. I’d bring them up here in a plastic bin, and on this very table I had a peanut grinder like they used to have in the Bin Inn, and I’d just grind up the peanuts. I’d buy a couple of dozen empty jars from Wellington with lids, bottle them up, and I printed out labels on my printer on brown paper, cut them up with the guillotine and stuck them on with double-sided tape and sold them. And people bought them, and they kept buying them.
Right from the beginning people loved it. Does it taste different now?
No. Same peanuts, same roasting, same squashing. Actually, it varies a lot. We had a problem once with some nuts that didn’t look very good, and we went back and tasted all the peanut butter we’d made over the last couple of months. Once you sit them alongside each other, there’s a wide range in different flavours. It’s like grapes – they come from different farms, and different parts of the farm.
Would you ever have your own peanut farm?
Funny you should ask, because we are just looking into growing peanuts in Northland. I’ve got a guy who’s very keen to do some trials. I’d love to be the first to make New Zealand-grown peanut butter. We could sell it, but we wouldn’t move to all-New Zealand production unless we could be assured that it was as good as or better than the Australian nuts, because those Australian nuts are phenomenal.
So you started selling in the market – they sold like hot peanuts. What happened next? How did you get to global domination?
One of the things that had really inspired me with consumer goods was my friend Sharon. She had a bottle of green shampoo, and I picked it up and took the top off and it smelt like mint sauce. Then I looked at the label, and it said something like, “Bob’s Shampoo – it smells like mint sauce”. And I thought, “I really like this”, because you’re so used to ‘forest glade’ and all that ‘aromas of freshly cut mint’ and blah, blah, blah. This weird marketing copywriter’s speak, and I thought, “I don’t want to get involved with that”.
It really pisses me off when people like Nick Smith, bless his little heart, but when he bangs on about people going to polytech and doing stupid things like creative writing or learning poetry when they should be learning how to fix lawnmowers and stuff like that. It was such a valuable thing to be doing.
So I did that, and then my girlfriend at the time was living in the same home so she was doing most of the grinding and stuff. Then we got an order from Fresh Choice, and they wanted something like four dozen jars, or eight dozen jars.
Did you honestly not imagine it going ballistic?
Never. So, we were selling it at the Farmer’s Market, and I got a spot at the Saturday Market, and Nita Knight was saying, “Oh, you need to be making it in a proper kitchen”, so I hunted around and found this bit of space at the old meatworks. I leased a bit of factory space and painted it up and cleaned it all up, and I thought, “We need a hand basin to wash your hands”.
Then I called in the council to just check it over to make sure it was going to be okay for a food kitchen. The guy came in: “Yeah, yeah, that’s alright. Washable floors, washable ceilings, washable walls. What’s that guy doing over in the corner?”
“He’s installing a hand basin.”
And he said, “Have you got a permit for that?”
“Well no, he’s just a plumber putting in a basin.”
“You need a permit for that.”
Anyway, I went to the council for a permit. “Oh, no, you’re talking about a change of use here. You’re putting in a factory. You’re going to need Resource Consent.” And it got stuck in the council, going from one department to another. All this stuff just ground me down. It was awful. Eventually I got a letter from the council saying, “We don’t understand why you are applying for Resource Consent for this minor alteration. If you want to pay for the work this far and send us a notice saying you don’t want it…”
So I sent a very polite notice saying, “Very happy to pay your expenses so far, and thank you for all your good work, and yes, I would like to withdraw.” So we got our kitchen certificate, which allowed us to sell locally. And then we instituted a food safety programme.
Did you do a course?
No, I was working with a Nelson couple at the time, Craig and Amanda Dawkins. I sublet the space when I first took it to the Popes, who’d made Anathoth jams, and they were making jam in the back there and had Craig and Amanda working for them. They both came to work for me, and I ordered some machinery from China, so I spent about 40 grand. Bought this stuff online and I had no idea…
Was that a roaster?
A big rotary roaster. And I could have a choice of running it on gas or electricity or coal. Anyway, I got an electric one, and I wrote to this guy saying, “Is it easy to clean?”
“Yes, extremely sanitary.”
The thing arrived and it had a big metal grate inside it, a drum, and the peanuts would go in there and they’d roll around underneath a bunch of bare electrical heating elements. Any water in there would go straight onto the elements.
This drum, the wire mesh immediately got coated with mushed-up peanuts. Burnt. It was disastrous. I had to rebuild the whole thing. We also bought some water-cooled grinders and put in a bigger electrical supply. And this cost me about 50 grand. I was really shitting myself at that point. Once I’d ordered this machinery I was really feeling I was going right out on a limb here. I couldn’t really afford to lose 50 grand. The 10 grand was okay.
And how close did you get to losing it?
I never really thought we would. Orders were increasing and I knew we were going lickety split making it with the old gear we had. I was confident we could sell it but I just didn’t know we could get this machinery going. We worked with a local engineering firm and got it all sorted, and started being able to make larger volumes. We got a New Zealand-made filling machine that turned out to be brilliant. We’ve only just upgraded from that first filling machine I bought. All the other machinery has been scrapped.
So you’ve invested 50k in a roaster…
Yes, and when that worked and that was going along well, I thought, “This is great. We’ve got it all sorted. We’re easily making a thousand jars of peanut butter a week. That’s $5000 or $6000. It’s paying the three of us quite happily. It’s no stress. I’ll just keep it at that. I’ll just keep demand a little bit ahead of supply, and not get into forklifts or invoicing staff.” And then we had a truck waiting with a pallet of jars on it, and all the neighbours’ forklifts were busy, and so I leased one or bought one – I don’t remember. And I thought, “Well, you know, that’s gone now. We’ll just go for it.”
So I started looking round for another factory. A proper factory where we could build a dedicated peanut butter plant. I’d never even seen inside a food factory before, didn’t know what they looked like, so we did it pretty much by guesswork. Well, I hired a guy who helped us out with the initial designs and layouts, and there was a lot of guesswork. Anyway, we built this thing, and I had enough money to retire on if I was careful, so I just took the whole lot and went off to a machinery show in China, and just walked around buying machines. I got flown out to the wops of China to look at this peanut roaster…
Did you trust them? How did you know who to deal with?
I thought I’d just go to this show and see what was available, and also this company that I’d bought the other roaster from, they were at the show. I met one of their reps on the stand. She spoke good English and I liked her. We got on well. She said, “We make a roaster. After the show finishes I can accompany you to the factory and show you.” So we jumped into a plane and flew off into the middle of China somewhere.
We finally went in to a factory and they had this great big roaster, and people running round in white hats roasting peanuts, and I thought, “This will do me”, and we agreed to buy one. It was about $100,000. We shook on it, I came back to New Zealand and started sorting out the details with this woman who’d been helping me.
Then I got a letter from her boss, who’d sold this previous machine to me, saying, “Excuse me. You will no longer be dealing with Goa. You will be dealing with me. How can I help you?”
And I wrote to Goa and said, “Look this guy doesn’t have any English and he doesn’t know what I want. He sold me this dog shit thing and I can’t work with him.”
She was devastated. She said, “I can’t do anything. He’s the husband of the owner of the company. What’ll you have to do – slowly – is tell him you haven’t got enough power supply in the area where your factory needs to be.” And she said, “You’ll never hear from me again. But soon you’ll get a message from XY Peanut Roaster at Yahoo.com.”
It turned out that a Mr Sum was actually the manufacturer. They were just the reps. She didn’t let on about this until we’d had a look at this roaster in action and we were driving somewhere else. She said, “I have to confess we do not make this. This is Mr Sum’s factor.” We went to this factory. It was a place the size of Nelson and it was just making roasters, and this was their baby. The tiniest one.
So, I got this message from XY Peanut Roasters and started dealing directly with her, and she was sneaking round and doing the deal direct with the roaster company. I ended up sending $100,000 to a Yahoo address.
A terrifying moment.
Well, it wasn’t because I knew her and I trusted her. It was going to happen, and it did. The roaster duly arrived and we built it into the line. All this other machinery I bought from the show there, about half of it worked. I bought these great big fillers and cap tighteners that never worked. They might have been able to push tomato sauce into a jar, but no way would they ever squirt peanut butter. They got us to send 20kg samples so they could test the machine, but obviously they never did.
Did you send that stuff back?
No, we put it in a corner, and ended up wrecking it and taking the bits off and making our own machines with it. We just kept tweaking and tweaking the line until our best day up there was about 14,000 jars in a day.
Is that what you can do now?
No, we built a second line with a much bigger roaster – three or four times the capacity, and it uses about the same amount of energy. We ended up buying it from South Australia.
How many can you do now a day?
The new factory is still cranking up, so we can manage about 8000 jars in the new factory and a similar number in the old. We’re down to a single shift now. For a while we were doing double shifts. We’d have somebody turning on the roaster at half past five in the morning, and then the cleaners would finish about midnight.
But you’ve got enough capacity now not to do that?
Yeah. We need all that extra capacity so we can continue selling the stuff. We’re in Australia now. If we get to the same level of sales in Australia that we’ve got in New Zealand, both factories will be going flat-tack.
And you’re the biggest peanut butter seller in New Zealand now?
By a long way. We outsell all those brands we grew up with three-to-one in dollar value.
What’s the plan next?
Just keep going and see where it ends up. We want to be the best-loved peanut company in the world, and we are getting there.
Yeah, we’re selling in California. We’re on Amazon in America, and that’s going really well. We’re looking at lots of different sales models in different countries. Australia we’re going to be positioned premium, but in the rest of the world we want to be super-premium. Boutique. We never used to be premium peanut butter. When we started it was all bog-standard. We were just trying to make it cheaper and cheaper.
So in America you’re thinking not in supermarkets at all?
We’re in a chain, Bristol Farms, and they’ve got about a dozen or 20 stores in California. And we’re in one store in New York. But we might concentrate our efforts on online sales because the growth is going to come there. Supermarkets will have had their day before too long.
Anything else you want to discuss?
Next week I’m going up to Auckland to go with a talk with the Singularity University. I actually went to California in December…
Ray Kurzweil. Is he the Singularity chap?
I think he is. I went to a course at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto. The theme was the future of work, but it was just about the training and how to look for signals that are on a growth path, and what it’s going to mean when all these things come together. It’s like computer power doubling every year and the cost of it halving. There’s just such huge changes coming up soon.
So that really interests me, and having the company pretty much being able to run itself, I can bugger off and spend my time thinking about what might be coming and trying to pick where we might be positioning ourselves to take the company there.
Peanut butter delivered by drone?
Drones will come. We’ll get abundant energy, which might be solar or whatever. That will give us the opportunity to move round in the airspace rather than having to move across the surface of the Earth. The thing about Amazon being able to deliver parcels in drones, I don’t know that it’s terribly usable. We will see a lot less visits to the supermarket. It’s so tedious going to the supermarket and buying the same stuff every week.
I don’t know why everyone doesn’t just get it delivered.
Yeah. And getting delivered on contract, so “I need this many toilet rolls every two weeks. I need this and this…”
You can already do it. People just don’t seem to change.
I think it will come. I can see our brand being around. I’ll get a six-year-old eating the stuff and that’s worth $20,000 to me. It’s like I meet a kid and I sell them a car, bumph like that, just in the street. I can do a hundred of those a day at food shows and things, and it’s so easy. And wow, that six-year-old, one day they’re going to say to their children, “I met Mr Pic who made your peanut butter”.
There’s no reason why it shouldn’t happen. It’s just a matter of making the best stuff we possibly can.