‘Growers and quality come first’ secret to Riverlock’s growing business

In addition to picking, packhouse and coolstore services, Riverlock also provides management and leasing options for a number of its clients.

Eastern Bay of Plenty family-owned pack house and coolstore business Riverlock commenced its kiwifruit journey in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s as part of its diversification from dairy farming in Opotiki. Family member and Horticultural Managing Director Doug Brown says the venture started small with some kiwifruit plantings but soon developed into a vertically integrated operation.

“We now have relatively significant orchard holdings and also pick, pack and store for others. We’ve also developed our own orchards in Gisborne and have clients there as well. That geographic spread provides risk mitigation and also spreads the packing window, which goes from early March through to the middle of June. That window is also due to the varietal spread, which starts with the new red variety, then early SunGold out of Gisborne, and finishes up with green Hayward.”

In addition to picking, packhouse and cool store services, Riverlock also provides management and leasing options for a number of its clients. This season Riverlock is expecting to pack around 2.7 million trays of kiwifruit, and has grown by a million trays in the last two years.

“We’ve invested a lot of money in automation, mainly to reduce our reliance on labour, especially through COVID-19 and events like that. But it also drives productivity, which has the effect of adding labour inputs anyway. We’re a small packhouse but have the latest technology including smart equipment from France made by MAF Roda. We have the very latest optic grading system, a carton handling system and Gentle Box Fillers (GBF).”

Riverlock currently has a static capacity for 1.1 million trays, of kiwifruit but is in the process of building another coolstore that will provide an additional 400,000 trays. Static capacity is the number of trays in the coolstore at any one time, and throughout the season trays are coming in and leaving the coolstore, creating turnover.

“We pick the vast majority of the fruit that we pack so that we can retain quality control of the whole chain. Our catchphrase is ‘Riverlock, where growers and quality come first’.”

While some pallets might sit in the coolstore for two days, others will be upwards of seven months awaiting market orders. “We’re focused on only sending the best quality off-shore, and after a period, every pallet is checked for condition,” says Doug. “We export all our Class One fruit through Zespri, and that goes to over a hundred different countries around the world. That’s by far the biggest percentage of our product. We also pack Class Two fruit that we can export to Australia and also supply to the domestic market.”

At peak, Riverlock employs about 60 in the packhouse, and a similar number in the field picking. “We have a lot of returnees, and we’re also seeing a lot more backpackers returning. We pick the vast majority of the fruit that we pack so that we can retain quality control of the whole chain, from orchard to export, which we feel is very important. Our catchphrase is ‘Riverlock, where growers and quality come first’.”

The company’s full-time permanent team is about 20, with many staff having accrued 15 years plus continuous service, which speaks of Riverlock’s family culture. Doug acknowledges that the skillsets required today are quite high-tech and quite different from what they were in the pioneering days of kiwifruit. “We have our own lab and test all our fruit on a weekly basis to monitor the maturity characteristics to help make better decisions. We do a lot of analytics and data mining.”

Always looking for smart and ambitious people, Doug points to Riverlock’s Packhouse Manager, Melissa Walker as a classic example of someone with the right attitude. “She started as a seasonal shed worker a number of years ago and approached me about the opportunity for a full-time career. She’s smart, good at computer and people skills. The ability to manage people is so important in our industry. Our quality Manager Monique Tangaroa is another good example. She started as a fifteen-year-old working night shift.”

© Waterford Press Ltd 2024 – Independent Print Media New Zealand

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