Sitting with Steve Bird in the garden at Fish Face, it’s hard to believe he’s still not ageing.
It’s been quite a while since we last met. I put it down to the grapes, the laughter and the genuine warmth behind the quiet banter. He loves Fish Face.
“They know their business really well,” says Steve. “They’ve developed a loyal following in this town. When it comes to talking about the food to their customer base, we know they’ll talk about our wines the same way.”
It’s important to Steve to put his brand in good hands and develop a one-on-one personal relationship that’s mutually beneficial.
“The food they produce is absolutely a perfect match with the wines we produce,” he says. “There’s never a conversation about price - it’s always about service.”
Steve loves to walk into the restaurants that stock his wine and see what else is going on and how he can add value to their customers’ experience.
Steve Bird Wines is still the small family business with the immense heart of generosity and sharing that’s been evident since before it started trading in 2005. What I love about them is how Steve and Caroline Bird have won numerous gold awards with their signature blends, while carving out a solid business founded on manakitanga, whanaungatanga and kotahitanga.
The value placed on these principles around family, reciprocity with giving and receiving support and goodwill, and the feeling of unity is what drives a sense of going forward in business together - with their growers, suppliers and the restaurants they supply wine to.
They’re now entering a new and exciting era of their wine making journey, with the development of what is one of New Zealand’s most innovative business solutions – to take high-quality local food and beverage products direct to Chinese consumers through a collective of Maori businesses.
After visiting and studying Chinese businesses while on a trip to China with Waikato University, I was surprised and delighted to see how much in common both the Chinese and Maori people have around doing business.
“It’s all about the relationship,” says Steve. “Strangely enough, that works for us. We think in terms of generations and so do they.
“In the markets we’re going to, it’s important to have a really strong identity and a great story. That’s the only way you’re going to differentiate yourself from the hordes.
“It’s tough here, but wait until you get to China and see how tough it is. Family is sacrosanct over there.”
The formal agreement to create the HUI Maori Collective was signed at the Beehive in October 2018 in the presence of the Minister for Trade and Economic Development, David Parker, and the Minister for Maori Development, Nanaia Mahuta.
Steve Bird Wines is one of the 11 companies in the collective which together will sell a range of premium products, including wine, Manuka honey, fruit bars and Kawakawa soft drink.
Te Puni Kokiri and Poutama Trust have also provided support for the new collective and enterprise.
“We’re eternally grateful to them,” says Steve.
Their Maori-branded product suite will be hosted on NZ Post’s flagship store on the e-commerce platform Tmall Global, which is part of the Alibaba Group. Chinese customers can order online, and NZ Post will then package the order from its Auckland Airport warehouse and send direct to Chinese consumers in a partnership with China Post.
This innovative solution is underpinned by a world-first verification process developed in collaboration between AsureQuality, New Zealand Post and New Zealand Trade and Enterprise for the HUI Maori Collective.
The ‘Food Trust Framework’ means that Chinese consumers can be confident that their goods do come directly from New Zealand and the authenticated Maori producers in the collective.
The HUI Collective launched in China in November, during the China International Import Expo in Shanghai.
“The NZ Trade Enterprise teams in Auckland and Shanghai have been spectacular,” says Steve. “So polished, and very capable. We’re very grateful for that assistance.
“The HUI launch was the best event we’ve ever thrown there. The Chinese government officials were seriously impressed. A large portion of that is due to Tiki Taane - his performance just blew them away.”
Despite the enormous potential ahead, Steve still likes to spend what seems like a disproportionate amount of time on what is clearly the Maori competitive business edge – developing those one-on-one reciprocal relationships.
“They talk about the concept of five cups of tea,” he says. “If you’re doing business with Chinese, you’ll sit down and start talking.
“You’ll probably have five fairly lengthy meetings before you talk about whether you can supply a product. They will investigate you in detail. ‘Is he real? Is he genuine?’ are questions they ask.”
Steve has had his eye on the entire Asia amphitheatre for years, right through the fight to stay afloat during the global financial crisis, forging a new market back into the USA, and through developing the Tuku Maori Wine Collective with other like-minded people. He’s resilient and, above all, sowing a future of manakitanga.