Congratulations to our finalists

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On Wednesday 23 July, 16 of New Zealand's most successful entrepreneurs were announced as the 2014 EY Entrepreneur Of The Year Finalists in front of an enthusiastic and positive crowd of fellow entrepreneurs and members from the business community.

EY Entrepreneur Of The Year Award's Director, Jon Hooper says, “Successful entrepreneurs have an extraordinary passion, self-belief and drive that keeps them going when others might give up. Because of this, they are able to make a significant contribution to New Zealand’s economy and to the community by creating jobs, driving productivity, fuelling growth and inspiring others.”

“Each of our 2014 finalists has demonstrated outstanding innovation, determination and entrepreneurial spirit.”

“We wish each of the finalists all the best in the coming months as category winners are chosen, and the overall winner is selected by the judges.”

New Zealand's 2014 EY Entrepreneur Of The Year category winners will be announced on Friday 22 August 2014.

You can find out more about each of the finalists below.

Naomi Ballantyne, Partners Life
‘The Queen of Insurance'

If anyone ever makes a documentary, or movie, about the New Zealand insurance industry, one of the starring roles would have to go to Naomi Ballantyne. She has played an active and dynamic part, in the creation of some of the country's star brands in the banking, assurance and financial services sector.

First with Sovereign, where she was one of the foundation employees, at age 24, was appointed operations manager. That role and responsibility grew as the company evolved into a market leader.

When the company was acquired by ASB, Naomi followed her self-discovered entrepreneurial bent to set up a new venture called Club Life. Eventually bought by ING, Naomi then left to establish her ‘trifecta' in this highly competitive arena to establish Club Life. In this new venture she has again teamed up with Sovereign founder Chris Coon as they have the interesting challenge of taking on companies they've had a hand in spawning.

Some said the last thing New Zealand would need is another insurance company yet the success of the venture to date is an indication that innovation, product design and clever distribution would spell success. Naomi initially had some reservations in taking up the CEO role largely because she herself was involved with driving a nationwide full financial services advice business called Us Advice. When the deal was sweetened to incorporate this entity into the Partners Life fold she took up the ‘crown' to build this new venture.

Naomi's approach to the overall industry, and businesses that she has helped build, has been built on a platform of creating cultures whereby the ‘right thing' is done for all people involved with the particular brand. She also has developed a reputation for calculated risk taking resulting in the introduction of a number of innovations that are now considered standard practice. She has also been a leader in the use of technology to drive efficiencies and ROI on shareholder investment.

Caroline Dewe, Alphero
‘It's all too beautiful'

The business—New Zealand's largest specialist mobile company—is beautiful. The client base, including some of the country's biggest entities, is likewise. The deliverables—in the form of experiences created to change the way customers engage with brands via mobile, tablet and desktop—are sublime. Then there are the growth numbers—1170% from year one—that truly capture the eye. All in all Alphero is one attractive package.

An early career role in the 1990s as a mobile ‘evangelist' for what was then Ericsson NZ, convinced Caroline that the way of the world would definitely be mobile. A number of subsequent engagements only reinforced this view.

There is no question that Caroline Dewe's Alphero, launched in 2011 with partner Kostia Shinderman, is changing the way businesses, and their customers, see each other. Starting with this duo, and some brilliant insights into the power of linking creativity with IT, the team now numbers 30 and is growing.

More than 50% of visits to key business web channels take place via mobile devices. Making these encounters come alive, by drawing in eye balls and opening wallets, is at the heart of what is driving her enterprise to such enriching heights.

It is the nature of the game that the revenue mix is heavily skewed in the direction of banking and finance clients and will likely be the ‘anchor' sector in the immediate future. However, utilities, retail, media/entertainment and government have already found the beauty of the Alphero offering.

Wise words from a United States-based private equity investor has been instrumental is shaping the business. “Building a good business is like writing a book with individual chapters on strategy, sales and so on. Too many entrepreneurs focus on one chapter—Product—at the expense of others.”

Ian Clarke, Fronde Systems Group

Biography to come

Michael Marr, TPT Group of Companies
‘The last laugh'

When, many moons ago, Michael Marr shared his dream of operating is own business with a company CEO, he was laughed at. “Dream on” was the sentiment backed up by the belief that a shy and retiring soul like Michael couldn't cut it in commerce.

Daunted by the derision but still determined to follow his ambition, Michael left the security of permanent employment, donned his tool belt to set up MJM Electrical (a start-up electrical and security business), and focused on where fields of dreams might be fulfilled.

As it happened fate dealt a positive hand to Michael. The business contracted to the likes of Siemens, Chubb and other security integrators. He was shoulder tapped by Siemens Building Technologies to provide some contract management support for their Auckland operation. The day of reckoning came when he was invited to a staff meeting to learn that Siemens was shutting up shop in New Zealand. Michael saw the opportunity and 48 hours later presented a business plan that resulted in him securing the Northern Region of the country.

From there, there was no stopping him albeit encountering some déjà vu moments of doubt reminiscent of the scoff from his former CEO. The bank didn't believe the veracity of the business plan or budget forecasts. Nevertheless they allowed a facility against the family home. There was another sinking moment at document signing time when his lawyer asked him “do you know what you're doing?”

He clearly did, for today the TPT Group owns businesses across New Zealand including a number of Advanced Security Group entities (with 11 branches around the nation), ASGPL, TPT Finance, Promessa Property and a number of evolving entities. Growth has been founded on integrity, striving for excellence, and continually evolving and giving people a place where they are valued and have a future.

Justine Muollo, Justines, formerly: The Protein Bakery
‘The sweet tooth saviour'

Those with a desire for decadent delights have, until late, had the dilemma of knowing that what they were eating was loaded with ‘sin'. In the form of sugar, wheat and other ingredients, are now on the ‘watch' list of being singularly unhealthy.

Salvation has come, thanks to Justine Muollo, in the form of a cornucopia of healthy baked products catering for people such as diabetics, gym ‘junkies', corporate high flyers, vegans, the health conscious and even those with celiac disease who want their ‘cake' without too much compromise.

The baking business was originally launched in 1998 under ‘The Protein Bakery' brand. Justine saw the opportunity to develop wheat and gluten free products both as the foundation of a potential business but also as her way to try to combat the rise of diabetes.

Rather than just be satisfied with the sweet toothed New Zealanders, the company has developed strong export connections into North America, Europe, Asia and Australia. Justine has also forged a relationship with global coffee brand Starbucks for supplying products with a healthy edge.

She also rebrands and repackages her top seller The Protein Cookie (over 100,000 units are baked each week) for another distributor in order to get a bigger slice of the baking pie market.

Justine has also been an innovator in creating the world's only 3D biscotti spoon which recently scooped the Dial D'or global food professional awards in Paris. She has also perfected what some thought would be impossible—a high protein, low carb, high fibre, high calcium cookie that was also sugar free.

She has funded the company single handed including payment for state of the art technology such as a packaging machine from Spain for around $250,000 and large ovens that are $180,000 a pop.

2014 saw the re-launch of the company under the simpler and more straight forward mantel using the founder's first name.

Pic Picot, Pic's Really Good Peanut Butter
‘The word is spreading'

As far as Bruce Picot is concerned everyone is nuts...or at least they should aspire to be. His greeting on his ‘really good' website sets the tone by buttering up those in search of the ultimate peanut experience. A thousand welcomes, lovely lover of peanut butter.

As far as he's concerned it is more than just a highly nutritious addition to mediums (such as Vogel's bread that partnered with him on a nationwide tour raising money for the Blind Foundation) looking for an extra flavour boost. It is also an ‘attitude' and a vibe that is embodied in the brand that bears his name and the proposition of being ‘really good'.

Bruce's initial entrepreneurial expeditions started with making leather belts and bags for friends at school. He upped the ante by then expanding into creating pieces for his mother's friends. Using the proceeds from these ventures he set sail for extended travel. It was during this time that he became exposed to the joys of peanut butter. He was on a sailing venture in the Bay of Islands when, in search of breakfast, he rowed across to an American yacht.

A man named Brad, who is now part of the folklore, offered him some US-made peanut butter on toast which was certainly edible but at the same time promoted itself as ‘Healthy Style'. What that in fact meant was low in sugar—and on that foundation the idea of creating a New Zealand style healthy spread became a point of fascination for Bruce.

Starting with a small stall in Nelson, the business is now the country's market leader in peanut butter manufacturing. Selling like ‘hot cakes' in China, the United States and Australia, Bruce will settle for nothing less than global domination and bringing the ‘best peanut butter in the world' to the world.

Luke Pierson, Heyday
He ‘gets' digital

For 14 years, Luke Pierson and his Heyday team (currently numbering 35) have been living and working in the digital world. Not just in creating websites, apps, games, campaigns and the other accoutrements of the trade but in helping clients gain market share and solve business problems.

They've worked for, and with, a number of major New Zealand brands including Weta Digital. When you complete projects for this icon of the digital world you clearly must know what you're doing and ‘get' what digital can do.

Against the advice of family, and going up against the New Zealand ‘norm' that says ‘get your degree, go overseas, and get work', he dropped out of university and set up a web design company with a friend. Up to that stage his only driving and compelling dream was to design and build a house...which he has successfully done.

Being young and essentially a ‘babe' in the business world ‘woods' meant that Luke had to work doubly hard to build up his skill base and offering. He had no networks so the only way to get business was through the ‘hard yards' of door knocking and cold calling. The saving grace was that he had entered the market at a time when websites were becoming ‘must haves' for businesses although many people didn't fully understand why.

Luke deduced that Heyday's success was coming from not being the ‘voice' of digital within an organisation but rather being a ‘digital' voice of both the possibilities and limitations of the ‘art and science' behind the revolution. In particular, understanding how digital connects to other parts of the business in terms of where it leads and where it follows.

He obviously caught the wave at the right time. From being a ‘nice to have' Luke has seen how the Internet has become a core part of how we all live and how we do business. Every company, no matter what kind, must be a digital business to thrive.

Michelle Pratt, New Shoots Children's Centres
‘The ultimate play house'

Sprouting up around New Zealand (with locations already taking root in Auckland, Bay of Plenty and Waikato) is boutique group of early child hood centres called New Shoots. In a market full of any number of options, Michelle Pratt's venture, and point of difference, is built around buildings. Architecturally and interior designed havens that are inhabited by exceptional teachers and, the by product, enriched children.

Trail blazing on many fronts, New Shoots as also gone against the conventional grain by opening up the outside world of exploration and learning. While many early child hood centres are obsessed with a ‘cotton wool' approach to minimising risk for children, Michelle's focus (negotiated with the Ministry of Education) is to let children engage with their whole world. The mandate for designers was to be ‘bold and brave' but also to ensure that any experiences would inherently be safe, fun and empowering.

This is not Michelle's first foray into early childhood education which makes the New Shoots concept all the richer. Trained originally in the UK as a chef, Michelle had a key role in the development of a series of centres eventually sold to Kiddicorp. She then launched a number of schools under the Everglade banner, and other local and international ventures, before planting the seed of what has become New Shoots.

Over 500 children attend the current crop of schools with more under franchised ventures. A key for Michelle in creating a dynamic team of teachers and administrators was ensuring that a number of key competencies were identified and put into action including expertise and knowledge, creative thinking, and motivation. Being comfortable to disagree with others to consider new ways of doing things pushing the status quo was a priority.

While the present focus is on New Zealand, the business is looking offshore—in particular the United States—to launch new schools and centres.

Daniel Radcliffe, International Volunteer HQ
‘Destination Good Cause'

Whether it is someone travelling abroad looking to try their hand at turtle conservation and wildlife preservation, or someone in a ‘gap' year looking to teach in far-away countries and climes, chances are Dan Radcliffe's International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ) will have something that fits the bill.

Established in 2007, IVHQ has grown to become the world's leading volunteer travel company. Its mandate is to provide responsible, high quality and affordable volunteer programs in over 25 countries including exotic destinations such as Victoria Falls, Nepal, Vietnam, Peru, Sri Lanka and Morocco. The programmes cover teaching, childcare, medical, construction and conservation activities.

To date over 36,000 people—mainly females aged 18-25 and living in North America, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand—have had their OE experiences made more meaningful thanks to IVHQ.

Far from being a niche part of the market, volunteer travel is often cited as the fastest growing sector within tourism.

IVHQ's sense of wanderlust is also a reflection of the founder's itchy feet when it came to career options. After achieving a Master of Business degree and securing a prestigious job, Dan lasted only three days in the corporate world. He quickly realised that he could never reach his potential by working for someone else. He returned to the family farm in Taranaki to work on building up the capital required to fund his start-up.

While some in small town New Zealand rolled their eyes up at his concept of launching a travel business with a ‘feel good' factor, Dan had other ideas. A trip abroad backpacking and volunteering in Africa cinched the deal. One of the keys to success was identifying, and then training, host organisations where IVHQ ‘tourists' would be visiting and working. The quality, integrity and user friendliness of his website was also imperative. The solution allows bookings, itinerary planning, pre-flight preparation, recording experiences and involvement with friends.

Mark Rice, CDB Goldair
‘Great connections'

When it comes to the business of marketing and selling appliances, electrical and lighting products on either side of the Tasman, CDB is clearly one ‘switched on' operation.

The power source behind the growth and diversification is sales veteran Mark Rice. In the industry two adjectives describe him—‘attitude and driven'. He has a reputation also of knowing what works and what gets results...and then going for it from there. Mark isn't a believer in back up plans. He counts on his team, and himself, to turn any adversity into advantage.

Mark's single-mindedness has also helped the company out of some potentially tight situations. The day he launched the company, the all-important exchange rate had the NZD at 0.395 to the US greenback. His argument was that if he could make money in bearish conditions, imagine the health of the balance sheet when positive fiscal fight back was achieved. When others are battening down the hatches Mark sees an opportunity to prevail and prosper.

Boasting 1800 product lines and a brand menu including Goldair, Sodastream, Yonanas, Elto Electrical and Orbit Lighting, CDB plugs into two main markets. In New Zealand, CDB distributes to Mitre 10, Bunnings, Placemakers, Foodstuffs, Countdown, Briscoes, The Warehouse, Noel Leeming, Dick Smith, Harvey Norman, Smiths City, JB Hi Fi, and Electrical Wholesalers including JA Russell, Cory's, and Ideal. CDB's biggest strength lies in large format retail environments with M10, TWL, and Briscoes.

In Australia, the business is just 18 months old but already has secured distribution with Masters Home Improvement, Harvey Norman, The Good Guys, Mitre 10, K-Mart, and Coles.

The business started in its current form in 2000 off the back of a management buyout of PDL Industries Retail business prior to PDL Industries being sold to French multi-national Schneider.

Vaughan Rowsell, Vend
‘Shopping in the sky'

The evolution of the species in retail shopping has arrived in the form of Vend. ‘Clicks and mortar' is still in the parlance of state of the art shopping, but the next level of capturing customers will involve what Vaughan Rowsell is selling. A world first business built on cloud technology offering point-of-sale, inventory and customer loyalty software for iPad, Mac & PC. One that is easy to set up, manage, and can be applied across a whole series of stores

Launched in 2010, Vend is now available in over 140 countries with 80% of its business coming from retail meccas such as North America, the United Kingdom, Australia and new markets such as South Africa, Europe and Asia. Vend currently is used at 100,000 sites around the world. The business is being serviced at sites outside of home base New Zealand including Melbourne, Toronto and San Francisco and new premises about to open in London and Berlin.

As with many great New Zealand inventions, Vend took seed in Vaughan's garage. It was literally launched on a shoe string with only seed funding from a number of friends and colleagues.

Despite these somewhat humble beginnings, Vend from the start was a business solution that would not be anchored to New Zealand shores. Within the first month of launch he had secured off shore customers. He also was not obsessed with seeking growth solely from cashflow. In order to create opportunities offered by being first to market he was able to secure a number of VC injections from a supportive stable of local and international investors. From being the sole Vendor Vaughan's team now numbers 100 and rising.

Vaughan is adamant, however, that he wants the success of Vend to benefit New Zealand. His goal is to build a billion dollar global success story from home so that the country's high tech sector continues to benefit the economy.

Warren Stephens, Lifetime Group
'A no-fear approach to life'

When he’s not leaping from planes, plunging to new depths in diving, or cleaning up on the squash court, Warren Stephens is in the business of building his financial services operation Lifetime with all guns blazing.

Starting life as a dairy farmer, in 1995 he did a complete professional switch and signed on as a life agent with AMP. Very soon he made a watershed life decision that committee meetings, consensus building and going down a long arduous path of decision making—involving all and sundry—wasn’t his style.

Rather than sit and fester at the snail’s pace of development going on within his particular branch, in 2000 he sat down with the principal and voiced a desire to buy the business. Initially the reaction was one of almost humorous dismissal. Yet three months later, a half million dollar deal had been struck and he took over the operation.

Warren had enough savvy to realise he needed a team to continue to drive the operation. He took the ‘deal’ to the remaining 9 partners and offered them the opportunity to take an equal stake in the buyout on the proviso that the business was corporatized. An agreement was reached in early 2001 and the business that eventually evolved into Lifetime swung into life.

To achieve his growth ambitions, and in light of witnessing the effects of an ageing adviser force and the decline of the traditional agency system, Warren knew the only way to travel was to become standardised, systemised and automated where possible.

From there, essentially, there was no looking back though there was some gamesmanship, trying to limit (and even thwart) the company’s expansion outside of its Christchurch base. The threat was identified, overcome and now Lifeline is operating nationally with new advisers coming on board and offices opening.

Grant Straker, Straker Translations
'Not lost in translation'

Languages are full of individual nuances and idiosyncrasies that, for the novice speaker, can create pitfalls. In general conversation, the consequences of a mistake aren’t so drastic. But when million dollar deals are on the line, an error in spelling, context or meaning could spell the end.

Grant Straker has built a business, and a reputation, on getting words right. He has developed a ‘cloud’ enabled translation platform that uses ‘crowd sources’ professional translators, and advanced translation technology, to speed up (and also lower the cost of) changing from one language to the other. The aim is to make it easier for customers to communicate globally—great for building relationships with clients but also facilitating global trade.

The move from being a soldier and truck driver to heading up a global, high tech translation business, is not a road often travelled. Having taught himself how to code, and build web applications, he left a well paying job as sale engineering manager with a multinational bas company, to realise the dream of his own venture.

Starting off originally with a focus on being a software development when he opened in 1999, Grant saw the opportunities in helping the world to communicate more freely. It was business as usual until 2010 when it became obvious that the company’s old business model of being content with operating a software company and building a multilingual content management system was never really going to set the world on fire.

Grant had always harboured dreams of building a large and successful New Zealand company earning export income—and giving people a future in business. He made the call to risk what he had built in order to move from a legacy revenue base to putting his offer up in the clouds. The risk is already producing rewards with tongues of envy wagging and Grant on his way to increase his share of the global $40 billion translation business opportunity.

Mike Taylor, Pie Funds
'Dancing to a different tune'

The last thing you’d expect when visiting a fund management web site would be to see a team, with ties loosened, holding instruments while recording a song. The sound track itself, on offer on line, is actually a mini documentary of found Mike Taylor on his pilgrimage—along with thousands of others—to Nebraska. To sit at the feet of the master and listen to how Warren Buffet takes care of business.

Clearly Pie Funds approach to getting a slice of the funds management action can be viewed as anything from different to downright refreshing.

The next thing you notice about the company is that they’re all incredibly young. That in part is the reason for taking a fresh perspective on the business of fund management and the fact they’re offering a boutique rather than mass market approach.

Nevertheless they have over 1,000 clients on their books and funds under management of over $165 million (the company launched in 2007 with $3 million under management and Mike as the soul tender). Hardly kid stuff as they are now seeking to increase their share of the ‘pie’ on offer. The fact that their flagship fund, an Australasian portfolio, has returned 220% since inception, and being voted fund manager of the year in 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2013, are part of the reason they feel comfortable taking on more of the established players.

Mike lives by the tenets handed down from his father who, at a very young age, said “the only place success comes before sweat is in the dictionary.” This ethos stood him in good stead when, in the heat of the GFC, he thought about closing down his operation. He instead battled on following also his father’s advice that a business doesn’t grow by putting up your feet.

A keen follower of military history has also likely instilled in Mike the necessity of taking the big picture, and often a path less trodden, to secure victory.

Patrick Teo, BCS Group

Biography to come

Michael Whitehead, WhereScape Software
'The Data Chef'

The use of the word ‘warehouse’ conjures up something big on size and even bigger on storage capability. Put the word data into the mix and you have the makings of a business phenomenon (incorporating the data generation and management plus big data technology and services markets) that, by 2017, is destined to be worth US$65 billion in the next three years.

Michael Whitehead’s WhereScape Software has the enviable position of being the creator of a company that is considered an international market leader in this new ‘pack and save’ IT model. He thinks of himself as a data chef working, not in a restaurant, but in a warehouse where efficiency, decision making, access and speed are all on the menu.

The concept came to him in the 1990s when he was working for a computer hardware company. The landscape was awash with an ever changing array of software and tools available—but mainly in the form of ‘ingredients and cooks’. What was missing was the creative energy of ‘chefs’ who could take all the elements and concoct recipes (covering systems, processes and solutions) that would whet and satiate business and market needs.

Rather than a boutique style operation, WhereScape is big scale and big time focused on helping operations extract data from a warehouse setting in order to make tasty and sustainable decisions. The really ‘big’ idea behind the venture was to automate much of the complex-yet-rote work involved in the building and running of data warehouses. This could cut the time and cost by as much as 80% and help business realise value from their data that much faster. Rather like a fork lift operating at Mach 3 in accessing the right elements of the intellectual inventory.

With a team of close to 100 scattered around the globe, WhereScape is hungry for its slice of this area of IT opportunity.