Topflite tends to fly under the radar when people think of Oamaru businesses, but for this family-owned success story, things are quietly taking off. Ashley Smyth reports.
While being Oamaru-based can present its challenges, these are far outweighed by the benefits the small-town lifestyle offers, Topflite general manager Greg Webster says.
“The fact we’re close to where the product is grown is a big one. Also, being a family business, family is always something we’ve put importance on.
“We want people to have a life outside of work. Living in Oamaru allows that – your staff don’t have an hour commute.”
The company, perhaps most famous locally for its striking sunflower crops, was founded by Greg’s father Jock Webster and Jock’s brothers-in-law Ross and Bruce Mitchell, in the 1970s.
They were crop farming together during “tough times” and looking for different crops that could generate a bit more return, Greg said.
“They looked at and played around with sunflowers, and got it working OK; it slowly grew from there.
“They were purely just growing and then selling the seeds on to the processor.”
The Topflite brand was born around the mid-’90s, when the Mitchells and Websters took over the processing of the seed themselves.
“That’s when they came up with the brand, because that’s when they said, right, we’re going to process it ourselves and start selling directly to bird clubs – they were our main customer initially.
“They wanted good quality New Zealand-grown seed, which has always been the main selling point of our product,” he said.
“Imported seed has to be heat-treated, which kills the seed so it can’t grow and spread disease. So we have a big advantage that ours are still alive and it’s much better for the animals.”
Greg joined the business permanently in 2013, after returning from the UK with his now wife Caro and first child Molly. He was initially working in the North Island on business development, following 10 years in accounting.
In 2015, Greg and Caro moved south and Greg took over as general manager of the company, which he and Caro now half-own. The other half is owned by Ross Mitchell’s son and daughter-in-law, Peter and Sandra Mitchell.
In 2016, Topflite spread its wings further, expanding from its original Rosedale farm base where the Mitchells are based, on Airedale Rd near Weston, to a second site at an industrial business park at the north end of Oamaru.
It now employs 22 staff across the two sites.
“The move out to the industrial park has been really good and allowed us to grow and take more opportunities when they come up,” Greg said.
A rebrand, involving marketing manager Caro in 2017 and using appealing watercolour prints by Ellaquaint, set up the company with “a good platform to move forward with”, Greg said. “We’ve recently got into all the Mitre 10s nationally, which was a big win.”
Topflite now produces feed for guinea pigs, rabbits, chickens and other smaller pets. But another area that is becoming increasingly popular is product for wild birds.
“People love feeding the native birds and attracting the tuis and bellbirds.
“Since lockdown in particular, it’s really gone crazy with people being at home, and a lot of people are talking about seeing more birds. So we’ve been catering to that market by developing more new products to give plenty of options for people who do want to feed the birds.
“That’s something we’re driving and pushing. We’re wanting to lead the way in that market.
Plans for the future are for Topflite continuing to grow. There is the possibility of dipping its toes in the extremely competitive dog and cat food markets, and also producing its own wildbird products, which were previously imported from the United Kingdom.
“We would like to get our brand more widely recognised, and locally as well. There’s still plenty of people locally who haven’t heard of Topflite, so that’s one of our big goals,” Greg said.
“The original basic marketing plan was always top-quality product, top-quality service, back when the business started.
“That was all their focus and all they talked about. So we are still holding on to those two things but adding some more things around it as well. But ultimately we pride ourselves on presenting things well, and producing a good product we can be proud of.”