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Rockit – small but packing a mighty punch

t may only be 100 grams in size, but the world’s smallest commercial apple is packing one big punch across the world.

With over 100 million apples packed in 2021 and forecasted growth of over 400 million apples packed by 2025, it doesn’t take rocket science to work out that Rockit Global Limited needed a multimillion-dollar purpose-built, automated post-harvest facility to keep up with consumer demand.

It’s been a meteoric rise for Rockit Global since entrepreneur Phil Alison had a great idea in 2002 to position the miniature apple as a completely unique, healthy, nutritious and fun snack option that could sit alongside chocolate bars and chips.

Instead of the apple being a commodity, Phil decided to put a small quantity of apples into a plastic tube and position it as a fast-moving consumer good (FMCG) products.

Phil sold the business to investors in 2019 and with two over-subscribed capital-raising processes that secured new money from existing investors – growers, Ngai Tahu, Punchbowl Investments and Pioneer Capital – the new post-harvest facility, new branding and eco-friendly packaging, the business has hit the afterburners.

New chief executive Mark O’Donnell is heading mission control and along with a team of over 100 permanent staff, they are introducing the miniature apple with new cheeky character ‘Rocki’ to new international markets, anticipating huge demand, especially in Asia.

Up until now, growing and packing Rockit apples has been labour intensive, so major investment has gone into innovating within the supply chain, with a focus on automating many parts of the business.

The new 20,600 m2 post-harvest facility, named Te Ipu, by Ngati Kahungunu, on six hectares within Irongate’s industrial zone is part one of a multifaceted strategy to make sure the business keeps up with demand.

Currently 500 hectares of trees are planted in New Zealand, and a further 1.7 million trees planted around the globe, with another 150 hectares to be planted this year and 250 hectares in 2022.

“We are on a very exciting, very steep growth trajectory and we anticipated the requirement for this facility some years ago, as we were quickly outgrowing Cooper Street, but it was always planned for 2021,” says Mark.

The new facility was up and running for the 2021 harvest, in early February, thanks to a project construction team predominantly made up of local businesses such as MCL Construction, Strata Group, CR Automation and Kinetic Electrical, as well as global leaders with local offices such as MHM Automation (locally known as H & C Automated Solutions) and Worleys.

“There is a broad team of contractors and suppliers that have supported Rockit since the beginning, most of which are based in Hawke’s Bay. We’d also like to think that we have supported them off the back of our growth.

“The rate at which we have expanded in the last few years has tested the capacity of many of the local contractors, and we’ve engaged additional firms in order to be able to execute our development in time for the following season.

“In terms of our new facility at Irongate, we have been pleased to partner with a number of companies that have been committed to delivering the project. While I can give credit to all those we’ve been working alongside, Strata and MCL are two local businesses that have performed extremely well. Kinetic Electrical have also repeatedly delivered across several work fronts, and CR Automation – who were the main plant integrators – worked very hard to hand over a plant that worked from day one under a tight schedule.

“We have also invested in state-of-the-art automation through local firm MHM Automation in a two-year collaborative project that delivers our packed fruit at a much higher rate with fewer people involved.

“While there were many challenges throughout the project – the most significant being Covid19 – all of our partners remained committed to delivering on schedule, and were collaborative and innovative in coming up with ways of dealing with any challenges that arose.

With Stage 1 complete planning for Stage Two is underway, with land capacity at the back of the current facility.

“The next stage is expected to commence in 2023, when we will add more processing technology to provide further capacity for production through to 2030 and beyond.”

As well as launching a new facility, the company has also refreshed its brand to appeal to the growing global market. Rockit is presently sold in more than 30 countries, including the US, China, India, Vietnam, Japan and the Middle East, and was launched into India last season.

General manager of global marketing Julian Smith says the new brand has been updated following global consumer feedback that showed a significant opportunity to develop a more contemporary and appealing brand for Rockit.

“The new brand reflects our unique personality and our approach to doing things differently.

“We involved the entire company in the process to develop a new story and position in the market, focused on standing out as the brand with attitude, personality and fun,” Julian says.

A new logo, packaging and design will be launched in global markets on 1 July starting with a big campaign with Rocki and PAC MAN to celebrate International Children’s Day in Greater China.

“We are excited to partner with TAMCO and the PAC MAN brand to bring something special and showcase Rockit for the first time on the global stage with another branded consumer icon, PAC MAN.

“Our new brand represents our personality – brave, innovative and a little bit cheeky and has tested extremely high in all global markets so far,” says Julian.