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Comvita’s purpose for people and planet

Holly Brown, Chief Purpose & Transformation Officer at Comvita Limited

“People first, every time.” That’s what her LinkedIn profile says and that focus is quickly borne out in conversation with Comvita’s Holly Brown.

Her job title at the country’s largest and leading Mānuka honey company, could leave one wondering exactly what she does, until you realise she began her career in human resources.


Holly spent nearly eight years with Zespri as Head of HR before taking up the position of GM Greater China in 2015.

Working out of Shanghai, she led the business through a time of extraordinary commercial challenge and disruption.

Now with Comvita, she has spent two and a half years on an executive team which has overseen a strong business turnaround, built on a focus on quality and brand.

Excellence in International Consumer needs

The hardest thing about being a New Zealand brand she says, is maintaining that quality and consumer focus.

“Really, New Zealand businesses in a sector should be working together to differentiate as a (high-end) category in the marketplace. The strength of an international subsidiary model is that it’s not a race to the bottom on price. Focusing on quality and standards is a winning strategy, but a huge challenge in a competitive market like Comvita’s.”

In her experience, developing product standards is a good way to ensure that quality is maintained in any sector.

Whether that’s working with the Ministry of Primary Industries, identifying industry-led measures or looking to technology to drive greater innovation, Holly says standards validate quality.

Learning from China

Shanghai was a sensorial experience for Holly, a city of contrasts between the two sides of the river, the ancient and modern bunds, serenity and high society. She describes moving between a temple to the glitz and glamour of the high streets and says the pace of the city was amazing and addictive. Amid all of that came some great lessons on doing business in China.

“The ability of my counterparts to think long term and learn from the past was such a lesson in sophisticated thinking and planning,” she says. “I learned about the circular nature of business, understanding reciprocity and how that flows in a powerful and positive way. And I relished the subtlety of the culture, all of those tiny cues, which my colleagues were good enough to ignore when I missed them,” she says with a smile.

Learning from Māori

Holly is quick to acknowledge that while she learned the lesson of long-term planning in China, she could just as well have picked it up from the iwi she now works with at Comvita.

“It’s sad as a nation that we’re not doing enough to learn from the past and from each other.

“At Comvita, we would still describe ourselves as at the beginning of our journey in learning how to be better partners with Mana Whenua, but we share a huge love and respect for the land and that goodwill goes a long way.”

Comvita and other large Mānuka honey producers are part of a group working with iwi to trademark the Mānuka honey brand as indigenous and purely New Zealand. The group, the Mānuka Honey Appellation Society, is promising to hand control over to a Māori Charitable Trust should it win the application.

Winning in China

Many New Zealand exporters see China as a growth market, so how has Comvita managed to achieve sales growth of 31% on the mainland in 2021? The key is in people again. In the last 18 months, Comvita has got closer to its customer and consumer in key global markets.

“It’s been about investing in and empowering the talent on the ground, especially with the creation of a Regional CEO for China. That’s made a massive difference in enabling us to position Comvita locally as a premium lifestyle brand. Before we had a global distribution strategy, now the focus is on positioning and brand.”

Being purpose driven

Having a “human and values centred approach” to business is also one of Holly’s mantras. By that she means purpose. She says it’s refreshing that purpose at Comvita has been a major factor in its increase in earnings to $25.5m.

Comvita has recently released what it calls the Harmony Plan, its own environmental, social and governance (ESG) guide to doing business in the future, which it encourages others to adopt.

The plan addresses climate change, seeks to restore nature and support communities and provides a guide to the company’s partnerships and social impact initiatives.

“The Harmony Plan is a statement of intent. It demonstrates to all our stakeholders how we want to show up and make an impact as an organisation,“ says Holly. “It’s a way of holding ourselves and others accountable. We will be publishing an annual record of our progress for all to see. That transparency is good for us.”

Comvita has pledged to gift 1% of EBITDA to global community partnerships in support of better social and environmental outcomes; to plant a tree for every pot of mānuka honey sold; and to save 1M bees globally every year. It has already planted more than 10 million trees since 2016.

Those people again

Another goal is to have all 550 or so staff as shareholders. “When the culture and leadership of the organisation reinforce an authentic and meaningful purpose, the results follow. That’s manifested in the Harmony Plan, so that as we grow, we invest in our people.”

“It may take us time, but we’ve put it out there in lights,” says Holly. “Purpose, trust, belief in people, they’re key.”

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