A Pressing Concern
By Melinda Collins
Entrepreneur is a term applied to the person willing to take upon him or herself a new venture and accept full responsibility for the outcome. Entrepreneurship is difficult and many new ventures are strangled to a standstill before they really ever get off the ground.
Then again, if the path to success was an easy stroll, we’d all be on the bandwagon. But that’s not the case, is it. The point is that with nothing ventured, nothing can be gained and that’s the challenge entrepreneur’s thrive on.
For Branka Simunovich, founder of New Zealand’s largest privately owned olive grove in a land professing to sustain a fledgling olive industry, to call her story a challenge is putting it lightly.
But entrepreneur is certainly an accurate summation of the woman once described as a Ferrari; classy, used to performing at speed and having plenty of grunt.
The story of Simonovich Olive Estate is one of passion, dedication and an enduring family history; but more importantly, one of innovation and self discipline.
Bombay is just forty minutes from Auckland, but it’s half a world away from the Adriatic island of Brac where, more than two centuries ago, the Simonovich family started growing olive trees.
Escaping from civil war, Simunovich left her Croatian homeland in the early 1990s – destination New Zealand.
She arrived in the country with two young daughters and within a few years met her husband to be, Ivan Simunovich. So, when Branka and Ivan bought their 98 hectare Bombay property in 1999, she decided to create New Zealand’s own little piece of Croatia.
With more than 40,000 olive trees, the Simunovich property is now the biggest privately-owned olive estate in New Zealand, producing up to 150,000 kilograms of fruit and 80,000 litres of oil every season.
“Entrepreneurs are ideas followers who don’t give up and are not discouraged by obstacles on the way. We seek solutions and ways to overcome them,” Simunovich says. “We’re driven by project completion.”
Although her dream is far from complete, which is not surprising for the woman who puts her success down to persistence, consistence and striving to perfection. “I’m never completely happy, always thinking I could have done something better.
“The whole project has been made for pleasure, not just for profit. However, building a business with no profit is silly, isn’t it? But all income earned will stay on the estate and my imagination is endless.”
So far, that dream has developed far beyond the olive estate and includes Bracu Restaurant. Sitting above the estate in a historic 1890 kauri villa, Bracu was the culmination of Simunovich’s heritage. “Croatian culture is hospitable, we like to entertain. I’m half Italian as well which induces it even more.”
Keen to look beyond the culinary uses for her oils, Simunovich was always focused on developing a natural line of body and skin products. The two ranges are vast; products under the brand “Olive” are made from extra virgin olive oil and “Tebe” products are made from olive leaf extract and range from baby care products to moisture milks and massage oils.
Of the estate’s production, 20 to 30 percent of the oil is used for the beauty range. And it’s these products she is most proud of. “Free from nasty chemicals, free from animal ingredients, concentrated, not tested on animals, environmentally responsible, pH neutral, skin hydrating, suitable for all skin types, quickly absorbed by skin and pleasantly scented,” she boasts.
Twenty percent of these products are imported to Europe, Asia and Australia and Simunovich’s homeland Croatia is on the cards, with product heading off later this year.
Although Simunovich seems to have taken everything in her stride, entering the export game has been challenging.
“Sending samples to new suppliers around the world is expensive due to distance. Pricing the products accordingly to market demand and expectations of product value, terms of trade with distributors, creating and managing marketing in different cultures, it’s all challenging but the biggest challenge is trusting the distributor will take care of the brand as much as we do.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m sending my innocent child into the woods and hoping it’s strong enough to survive. The markets have no mercy.”
Merciless markets have been just one challenge in creating a dream this size. The risk involved was something which could have seen the end of the dream before it begun.
In New Zealand there are no indigenous olive trees and the industry is still young, believed to only be in its second decade, so there was always the risk the venture wouldn’t be sustained.
“We’re adventurous, we like to do unusual things and we’re not scared to take a risk. It could have happened that the olive trees wouldn’t fruit. There was no similar project to look into, no one to ask for experienced advice. But then, nothing is easy.
“I love taking risks and I love a challenge. It is exciting once a project is a success. But I’m never sad if some projects fail. I take it as experience and learn from it. I never had a problem with too much work, only too many ideas.”
In fact, it’s lucky Simunovich isn’t one to turn down a challenge. “I had the friendly advice of ‘don’t do it’,” she laughs.
And there have, of course, been many ups and downs during the process, including a bad equipment purchasing decision. But, as with all mistakes, “I’ll never make the same one again.
“We want to do things right and have our business in the future.”
That’s why the Simunoviches have paid so much attention to the operation’s sustainability. “When I came here for the first time and saw running water in every gully I thought I had found gold.”
Traditionally water is such a luxury on the island Brac it’s nicknamed Thirsty Island. “If you knock on a farmer’s door in the middle of summer asking for a drink, he’ll give you wine rather than water,” she laughs.
“Here in New Zealand we take water for granted. I see water supply as a resource we need to care for. We need to look into the future and manage our available resources wisely. We are just borrowing it from generations to come, we don’t own it, we didn’t earn it. We need to look after the environment.”
In fact, Simunovich Olive Estate is not just carbon neutral, but carbon positive – annually producing 500 times more oxygen than it absorbs from the atmosphere for its own operations.
But they haven’t stopped there. Olive waste is used as fertiliser, water is recycled and used to irrigate the property and the estate uses its own natural detergent.
“I started the estate with sustainability in mind. My focus was always on caring and protecting the environment. Sustainable management is commonsense, a wise management choice which creates a lot of savings on the way and we want our business to be around for future generations.”
That certainly seems to be a given with the estate winning awards since 2004 when it first started producing the oils it is renowned for.
So, what advice would such a passionate entrepreneur give to others?
“Research, plan well, see the big apple and slice it in small daily portions, allow the time, be consistent and never give up.
“Make a wish list, write it down, because words are like the wind; they come and go away, but once word is written down it makes you focus on your goals.” Otherwise, she says, you risk the opportunity passing.
“The whole life philosophy is simple – love what you do or do what you love, it’s the best driving force. Every journey, no matter how far or close, will start with one small step and when you reach the desirable destination, equates to unlimited success.”