Changing business, one Moonbar at a timeby Rob O'Neill
At 44, after professional cricket and high finance, Richard King is already on his third career: manufacturing and exporting healthy, energy-packed snack bars.
“You want to play to the highest level,” King said. “It got to the point where I realised I wasn’t going to play for New Zealand and I needed to start looking for other opportunities.”
Having played 41 first-class matches, first for Otago and then Auckland as a specialist batsman, King packed his kit bag and went in search of new challenges in business.
A corporate job in finance followed. Before the global financial crisis, King says, he was lending money. After it, he shifted into recovery, trying to get the money back.
It was while working in the Auckland CBD, King became frustrated with lunch and snack options available.
“I got fed up with eating scones and muffins and brioches for morning and afternoon tea and looked for an alternative. The more I looked around the more I became frustrated with what was available in the market.
“There was a lot of big brands promoting pseudo-healthy food that didn’t have a lot of whole food in it, real ingredients.”
There were fillers and enigmatic numbers in the ingredient list, King says. Four digit numbers.
“What is that? What’s it going to do to me in ten years?” he asks.
Energy snack bars were full of fillers such as rolled oats, rice bubbles or puffed wheat and lacking in whole foods – unprocessed natural ingredients.
So King started making his own, at home in his Kohimarama kitchen using ingredients that had not been processed, extruded or baked and that were free from common allergens.
Food that’s “genuinely healthy where people can pronounce the ingredient list and understand it.”
“I started out asking how hard can it be to create a bar? It turned out to be really hard. I’ve lost sleep over it.”
It started while he was still in finance. Then, four years ago, he took the plunge full time. It started with baby steps but King is not thinking small.
The first product to emerge from King’s kitchen was Moonbars, a healthy alternative to mainstream snackbars. His company, NZ Goodness, is now developing a new snackbar product for kids, called In The Wild.
So what makes a Moonbar?
Firstly, the foundation ingredient is premium nuts which are full of poly- and mono- unsaturated fats, “good fats”.
“Why not have a premium nut as your foundation ingredient, almond, pistachio or hazelnut and from there add some colour and seed and dried fruit and have some fun, bind it together with honey?” King asks.
As a binder he started with Manuka, but that polarised people. A chat with a beekeeper put King on to Rewarewa honey, which he calls the “best tasting honey in the world”.
It both complemented the other ingredients and delivered a unique aspect to the product which, at $3.99, is aimed at the “discerning consumer, willing to pay a small premium for quality food, well wrapped.”
It was a long road to the first product though. At the beginning he was chopping nuts by hand – a 50kg bag of almonds taking 2 to 3 hours.
“That just really messed with my head,” King says. “I found when you confront pain it forces you to find a better way.”
Experimentation was the name of the game. One Moonbar, for instance, contains Incaberries (Cape Gooseberries) that King discovered in his grandmother’s garden. They are, he says, nutritious and tart, bring a sweet-and-sour taste to the product.
“If I don’t know something I will ask,” he says. “There’s a lot of common sense. I have a strong understanding of numbers from my finance background and intuitively understand brand, which I don’t think a lot of people in NZ do.”
The Moonbar brand is derived from King’s first word, “moon”. The individual bar names are riffs on David Bowie and Beastie Boys song titles.
King used Metro magazine’s Top 50 café feature as a calling list to kick off his sales channel. Cheered by a positive reception, the next challenge was to scale up manufacturing.
Lacking capital he found a contract manufacturer and began targeting supermarkets in high-income areas.
“I worked out early when selling food you need volume and to get volume you need to be in the supermarkets,” King says.
Again, the product was well received.
“Just to get into Foodstuffs and Progressive has been a wonderful achievement in itself,” he says.
Supermarkets are a really competitive space and they have a margin expectation. A supplier can work around that form the ground up to set a retail price or set the price and work backwards.
One thing many small businesses forget when pursuing their passion and bright ideas is competition. Big companies may not be fastest to market, but they have the capacity to spot changes in demand and respond.
King says that within 18 months brands such as Tasti and Nice and Natural were producing new-look bars and promoting health more.
However dates remained the primary ingredient and binder.
King says there is nothing wrong with dates, except they are high in sugar and need to be matched with ingredients high in fibre or “good” fats.
“Those two macronutrients restrict the body’s insulin response to sugar,” he says. “If you don’t have them in your product the consumer will get a hyper followed by a hypoglycemic response – a sugar spike then a downer.”
The Moonbars USP (unique selling point) remains: premium nuts as their foundation ingredient and the flavour of Rewarewa honey.
It is attracting some knowing nods from nutritionists as well. Auckland-based Nikki Hart said she really likes the simplicity of the whole food ingredients in Moonbars and the idea of a minimal non-bake methodology.
“He spoke to me several years ago about his bars and I really liked the fibre and unsaturated fat of the nuts and seeds,” she says. “The natural sweetness of the NZ Rewarewa honey and dried fruit creates a bar that delivers just the right type of energy for a snack in a minimally processed way.”
In search of volume, King is also exploring Asian markets – and again finding success.
He was part of a cultural delegation with Asia NZ Foundation to Malaysia and Singapore and an Asian trade forum of Maori businesses delegates. He also visited China with Phil Goff as part of Auckland’s tripartite city agreement with Guangzhou and Los Angeles.
Those efforts led to King meeting a good distributor and exports to Malaysia starting this year. Moonbars are now sold in two Asian pharmacy chains.
“That’s a big win for NZ Goodness,” King says.
“Exporting is a whole learning process, a steep learning curve. I’ve just signed distributor in Australia for NSW, ACT and Victoria. The first export order is on its way.”
A constant challenge, though, is capital. King says his bank, ASB, is supportive but it is always hard to grow out of cash flow.
“2017 is an awesome year but also hugely challenging. It’s a rollercoaster of emotions,” he says.
With a young family, it’s about surviving and at the same time growing.
King is hoping to attract an investor in near future to help further build distribution and commercialise new products.
The plan to build globally recognised company – delivering safe, healthy and nutritious products.
“Big companies run business but it’s the little companies that change it,” King says.
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