Designated as a “global celebration of the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women, International Women’s Day marks a call to action for accelerating women’s equality.” Throughout the month of March (Women’s History Month), DeltaTrak will celebrate women from some of the businesses we are happy to support. We’ll be talking with women who function in diverse roles and have profound insights to share.
Our first interview is with Sharon Kirk, co-founder of Hortinvest Ltd, a cherry grower and horticulture management company established by Ms. Kirk and her husband in 2016. At an early age, Sharon discovered she had a fascination with cut flowers and plants. She pursued this passion and obtained a Horticulture Science degree, becoming a horticulturalist, scientist and marketer.
Hortinvest is in the Otago Region on the South Island of New Zealand and is self-described as horticultural specialists with unique and specific experience in all aspects of the New Zealand cherry and apricot supply chain, from orchard to packhouse to export customer relations.
An interesting fact from New Zealand history is that in 1891 it became the first self-governing country to grant women the right to vote.
Why did you start Hortinvest?
It was my husband really, but we both have skills. He’s the developer/grower/orchard manager, and my skills are logistics and marketing. Between us we have the skills that allow us to do what we do. My Husband has one set of skills and I have another one. And we both understand what the other does. I have a really good overview of how things work in the orchard, and he has a really good overview of logistics and marketing. Our orchards are fully integrated. We plan, develop, grow, and we run a team of people. We harvest and then we run the logistics, packing and marketing. We started the business because we saw that there was an opportunity to start a business in Central Otago. It was the right fit. It’s never an easy thing. It’s been a bit of a roller coaster ride. You have to suck it up and say, “We’re going on a journey.”
That’s great. It’s not often that husbands and wives can work together. That’s commendable.
It has it challenges (laughs). It’s good. Mostly he’s in the field and I’m in the office. I spend some time out in the field with him and he spends time at market with me. Our customers all know who we are as a team. From the supply side, they all know who we are as a team. It works. He has strengths and I have strengths. When you put two individuals together, they’re greater as a team. And you don’t ever do anything by yourself do you? You have to have a team of people around you. We have a couple of great boards of directors from the companies we work with who support us. We have an amazing team/staff. We have rally good suppliers who support us. We have shareholders who support us. And our family. It’s never a solo journey. You need to have those people around you supporting you from a professional point of view, but also from a personal point of view.
What has it been like being a woman in this industry?
I’ve been in the industry for 35 years. It was a lot harder 35 years ago, even 25 years ago, or 20 years ago. A lot of our original business was in Japan. I speak Japanese, as I spent some time living there. Look, it’s not difficult being a woman in this business. You’ve got to know your stuff and you’ve got to know what you’re about. And you’ve got to know you’ve got a good product and you’re out here to sell it. During development, we raised $30 million in capital and another $15 million from the bank last year. You’ve got to jump right in and do it. You’ve got to believe in yourself. You’ve got to be on a learning journey. You have to keep your mind open to learning. You just need to stay true to yourself.
What would you say is the biggest challenge facing your industry today?
Right now - labor. People coming into the industry. I’m not talking about people picking. I’m talking about people who actually know about our industry, how awesome it is. People tend to think horticulture is all about picking fruit or packing fruit. It’s everything from recruitment to financial management, packhouse management, quality control, marketing, logistics. The orcharding side of it, like managing the orchards. There’s a lot of money to be made in this industry. People just don’t know about it. I guess they don’t know about it because we’re not that great at talking about it. But, the cherry industry is a fantastic industry to be in and horticulture is a fantastic industry to be in. We’ve got a growing population who need to eat. We don’t survive if we don’t eat. It’s not all about soft drinks and ice cream. People need fruits and vegetables.
So, what is the solution to attracting more people to the industry?
Talking about what we do. How fantastic it is. I mean don’t get me wrong. It’s a tough industry to be in. It can be long hours. It can be a lot of pressure. For the people who are good in this industry, it’s in their blood. It’s what they do.
Most companies have experienced significant supply chain issues over the last two years. What challenges have you had in this area?
We are having supply chain issues. The cherries have to be covered with net to protect them from birds, hail and wind. First of all, (we’ve had issues with) just getting the netting made and getting it here by ship. Of course, shipping costs have gone up. Probably getting product out of China has been the easiest. When it comes to Vietnam and South Korea it been a lot more difficult. We bring a lot of our packaging out of China. I’ve actually found buying out of China to be as easy as it’s ever been. Freight is the difficulty because you’re waiting for boats. But if you’re ordering – you have to order in advance of when you think you’ll need it because you have to allow for that two or three-week delay in shipping. An increase in freight cost has been difficult. The other side of it is the lack of space to get product to market. But New Zealand has been a special case. We’ve closed our doors. We’ve had a pretty tight rein on that by our government. Hopefully those issues will gradually get better.
How have DeltaTrak’s products helped to alleviate some of your supply chain issues?
We were struggling to get our fruit from Cromwell to Auckland. And you have to get it across Cook Strait. It’s a ferry ride so the truck goes on a ferry. Traditionally, we would change trucks about half-way. We were having issues with our fruit arriving in Auckland at the right temperature. It was arriving at 11 or 12 degrees which is unbelievably not ideal for cherries. So we starting tracking why that was happening. We’ve used some of the (DeltaTrak) recorders to track that. And then we decided to load a full truck ourselves here, which is 24 pallets, and send it straight to Auckland to see what the difference is. We discovered through being able to track the shipment we can actually get our fruit there cold. If the doors don’t open and the truck stays cold, we can get our fruit there cold. The other thing we were using it for, not really supply chain related, was just to track what is happening in our orchard over the flowering period.
This year's official theme for International Women’s Day/Women’s History Month is “Break the Bias,” and the whole month is dedicated to honoring women, shining a light on their current societal contributions and celebrating the many important roles women have played throughout history.
When I started in this industry 35 years ago there were 8 or 10 women in a similar role as me. I think there are five of us left that are similar age to me, doing similar roles in different companies. I would encourage any woman to have a go at this. It’s not for everybody. You do have to be tough. And you do have to be focused. And you do have to be prepared to stand up. The horticulture industry has a lot of men, but there’s more and more women coming into it. Women can be in this industry. We can make a valuable contribution. We can make a difference. And it’s my passion. It’s about finding something you’re passionate about. I could talk to you all day about horticulture, about cherries, about branding and marketing, about my customers, about my team. Because I’m very passionate about what I do. It doesn’t ever occur to me that (I’ll stop). I might sometimes think, “I don’t know if I can do this.” But that’s when you need good people around you. People are relying on you to do it, so you really don’t have a choice. At one company I’ve got seven shareholders. At another I’ve got 83. Then I’ve got my own company. Then I’ve got all my staff. And then I’ve got all my customers. At what point do I say, “Well I’m going to let every one of them down and walk away.” It’s a very pressured environment and I have a high expectation of myself and my staff. I make no apology for that because if you don’t have an expectation for the people that are working with you then what do they have to aim for. If the boss doesn’t have an expectation, then where do they go?
What do you think is the biggest issue facing women business owners today?
I think it’s women’s own belief in themselves. I’m a director on a board that has three accountants and I’m not an accountant. I’m a marketer, a horticulturist and scientist and all those other things. And I sit there and look at them and think, “Oh my God! They know more than me. They’re better than me.” Actually, they are not. So, for me it’s believe in yourself and try to learn from people. Don’t isolate yourself. Learn from the people around you. Being a business owner is extremely isolating and extremely lonely. You need to be able to spend some time working on yourself, using a mentor and believing in yourself.
I don’t think of myself as being an entrepreneur or a businesswoman. I’m just a person out there doing what I love doing. If you’ve got a passion, follow your passion.
What advice would you give a young woman contemplating entering your industry?
When I was in High School, I did all the sciences, because I wanted to be a marine biologist. And I also took typing. And that was the one good thing I did because having the ability to type has gotten me in the door for jobs. What I would say is if you look at a role – take my role for example. I’m a director, I’m head of marketing, I’m a CEO. Pretty cool job. I get to do some travel. Work some pretty long hours. Make pretty good money. I own my own company. Really cool right? So, if you think that’s cool and that’s what you want to do, you’ve got to be prepared to start at the bottom. My first role was personal assistant to the managing director of an export company. When I was in school, I went to the career guidance counselor and told her I wanted to be a marine biologist. She looked at me and she said, “You’re not that smart. You like typing; you should think about being a secretary.” Other people might have said, “Oh okay. I’ll just be a secretary.” I said, “You say I can’t do it, but I’m going to do it.” But that ability to learn the typing… When I went for a job at the export company, it wasn’t for the secretary’s job. But they said, “We don’t have anything for you at the moment, but why don’t you come and be the personal assistant for the managing director and then as an opportunity comes up, you’re on board.” So, you have to be prepared to start at the bottom. You have to be prepared to learn. You don’t need to create all the ideas yourself. What I did was I looked at the people I worked with and said, “What he’s got is good. And what he’s got is good.” So, I adopted it in me. I’m not an innovator. I’m an adopter of other peoples’ good ideas and I put them together and try to make them work for me.
I suppose my advice would be: It’s a cool industry to be in. You can earn a lot of money. It’s really exciting. You can travel. But be prepared to start at the base platform and work your way up.
We enjoyed speaking with Sharon Kirk of Hortinvest. It’s always a pleasure learning about our customers and their businesses. It’s also great knowing that DeltaTrak provides products and services which help our customers accomplish their goals. Be sure to come back for our next Women’s History Month interview.
Hortinvest.com, https://hortinvest.nz/, accessed 2/25/2022
International Women’s Day, 2022, https://www.internationalwomensday.com/, accessed 2/25/2022
“Women and the Vote: Page 1 - Introduction”, New Zealand History, Research and Publishing Group of the New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage, https://nzhistory.govt.nz/politics/womens-suffrage, accessed 2/25/2022.