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Hunter chooses olive oil and truffles over hands-off investing

By Graeme Kennedy

Friday 17th March 2000

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Sharon Hunter and Tenby Powell COMPUTERS TO CUISINE: Sharon Hunter and Tenby Powell - not an idle couple
NBR Rich List husband and wife team Sharon Hunter and Tenby Powell plan a string of acquisitions to support rapid growth of their joint investment vehicle's first business venture, food importer Continental Distributors.

The couple formed Hunter Powell Investments (HPI) after Ms Hunter and PC Direct co-founder Maurice Bryham sold their highly successful computer company in 1997. They initially planned to use HPI as a base to launch a diversified business group and had targeted another three investments before deciding to go with Continental alone after identifying strong growth opportunities in the specialist food sector.

Continental was established about 15 years ago and has a $20 million-$25 million turnover with a 2500-product range and 50 staff at distribution centres in Auckland and Christchurch with a Wellington base to open in July.

"The industry is very fragmented and similar to the computer business when we started PC Direct," Ms Hunter said. "There were many companies involved but the major brands has only about 20% of the market, leaving an 80% opportunity for us.

"Food distribution is like that. There are low barriers for entry and high capital is not needed to start - it's not hard to bring in a product, put your name on it and go and try to sell it.

"Even the biggest players are not huge and with so many small companies the opportunities for growth are significant - this is a huge market and we are passionate about it."

Mr Powell, who was formerly in senior management with Fletcher Challenge before he headed machinery hire company Projex, said growth would come generically, by introducing new technology and through acquisitions.

"We plan to acquire food distribution companies which have strengths different from ours - perhaps a dominance in certain markets that might take us years to develop by ourselves," he said.

"This is a dynamic industry and we are making things happen very quickly while relying on a core group of people with competencies we won't have for years.

"We want Continental to be a one-stop shop with the majority of things people need, but with the technology to provide and manage that for the customer in a way New Zealand has not seen before."

The company's business is shared by retailers and the food service industry, including hotels, restaurants and food processors which import raw materials through Continental which imports its own brands: Contel for canned goods, Seabest seafood and Vero olive oil products.

Most food is sourced from Spain, Italy, Greece and Asia and its 2500 items include cockle meat, baby octopus, caviar, sauces, salamis, hams, olives, dozens of pasta lines, snails, truffles, wines and cheeses.

"New Zealand cuisine has changed dramatically with more people travelling and reading about overseas food styles," Ms Hunter said. "And cuisine has expanded with our more varied population, particularly Asian and Middle Eastern arrivals.

"We want to offer the very best products at the right price - top chefs will not cook with second-rate product, so the business will grow as New Zealanders eat out more often."

But with an estimated $10 million fortune, why have the attractive young couple with a baby son bothered to get back into business and all its pressures?

"Why should we do anything at all? We looked at investing and that stacked up on paper and met all the hard criteria, but was not exciting," Ms Hunter said. "We explored many opportunities and evaluated a number of factors beyond returns and growth - at the end of the day, it's got to turn you on or there's no point doing it.

"We were told investment was the sensible thing to do, but all you are really doing there is investing in someone else's guts and efforts. We would rather be the ones doing it - with all the challenges and the enormous fun.

"There is nothing quite so special as building an outstanding team and being part of what such a team can achieve - you can move mountains and being part of that is far more exciting than just investing and putting money into equities."

And perhaps a quote from Hunter Powell Investment' mission statement says it all: "We believe everyone has the potential to be innovative and creative. It helps to be a little weird, but you don't have to be.

"It needs the right environment: our company will create it. It needs the right education: our company will provide it. It needs to be applied: we'll take the risks. We value the creative spirit and we are tolerant of weirdos."

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