In Mangawhai, located in the New Zealand countryside, lies a beautiful olive grove. This grove is the site of a family-run business that plants, grows, and harvests these olives and then uses them to manufacture premium quality extra virgin olive oil. This is the home of Divinity Olives, a company run by married couple Michael and Leanne Chinnery.
The business, which also makes their own balsamic vinegar and strawberry compote, is streamlined and focused; with a small number of products and an even smaller team, the quality of the product takes top priority. Divinity currently sells their products in over 50 stores and online, and business is growing.
I spoke with Michael about their experience, of raising their three kids while being entrepreneurs; and for Michael, of holding down a full-time day job as well. He also recounts which decisions were instrumental in his success, and what inspires him about not just the olive oil business, but New Zealand entrepreneurship in general.
Getting Started and Choosing a Name
Michael bought the land and planted his olive grove originally as an investment in the property market. Shortly afterwards, he met his future wife Leanne, and they discussed business possibilities for the olives, with the understanding that nothing would be actionable for at least four years while the olives matured. But of course, time flies.
“All of the sudden, after four years, the olives were maturing,” Michael remembers. “I thought, ‘How are we going to build a business around this?’ It had just been in the background for so long. We scrambled around thinking: ‘Okay, how do we set up a business? We’d better come up with a brand. We’re going to come up with a name. We’ve got to come up with a business plan.'”
They considered what they wanted their brand to be like: clean, pure, classy. From these ideas they came up with “Divinity Olives,” a name that encapsulates all these characteristics.
Finding the inspiration to take risks
Michael has a degree in business ethics, so he had some experience and generally knew the ropes. Still, he looked to his fellow small business owners for inspiration.
“The degree gives you a lot of insights on how to do things, but then you’ve got to apply that to the real world,” he says.
“I looked at all the small entrepreneurs around nowadays. There’s so many small businesses in New Zealand alone; 95 percent of businesses in this country have ten employees or less. It’s just a whole network of small entrepreneurs. Those who do well, they’re the people that inspire me. I think that’s something: to put some risk out there, to risk their own future, their own capital, and give it a go.”
“It’s just my wife and I,” Michael confirms. Aside from the commercial olive harvesters they contract in, Divinity is a family business. “We used to do that [harvest olives] by hand, ourselves and with friends and family, but they got tired of us,” he says with a laugh.
With three small kids, two other properties to maintain, and a day job as a CFO for a hotel chain, it’s a busy life for Michael and Leanne.
Michael says entrepreneurship is just a part of who they are: “The desire to improve our lives is the main thing that keeps us going. My wife is a very motivated person. She keeps me going. She just doesn’t stop working. Even though we have all that going on, my wife still does fundraising for schools and all sorts of big events. We basically take on too much, and that’s just how we live. That’s the norm for us. We love that sort of stuff.”
We basically take on too much, and that’s just how we live. That’s the norm for us. We love that sort of stuff.”
Echoing many small business owners, the Chinnery’s biggest challenges have been maintaining cash flow and not overextending themselves. “Time has always been our biggest problem,” Michael notes, saying that when you’re a small operation, not having a enough time to invest in the business can limit its growth. Cash flow has sometimes been tight because the Chinnerys have never taken money from a bank, but that may need to change as they expand.
“We had the potential to go to about fifty-five stores in the country. Now we’ve got potential to double that easily. We’re at the stage now where we have to think seriously about if we need to take another leap forward to grow the business.”
Balancing work, a new business, and a family
“We’re up at a quarter to six every morning. Get the kids ready and leave at around just after seven. Then it’s my normal job. I get home at six in the evening and I work on the business ’til about 10. Then my wife does business during the day and at night as well, between all the rest of her activities in life. I think for us to grow, we need to get some employees, people who work for us. Someone to do bottling and labeling and perhaps some selling and distribution, basically. That’s the next stage.”
Using a business plan to grow faster
Divinity has used LivePlan for three years, revising their business plan as they move forward with their enterprise. Michael says it’s easier to stay organized that way: “It’s good to just write it down. It keeps [the plan] in your head, at least. You know what’s coming ahead of what you’ve got on, and businesses then evolve quicker.”
Using LivePlan, the most important metric that Michael tracks is their cost of sales. After realizing they could make a key product—their balsamic vinegar—by themselves for less money and with higher quality, Michael saw it as an opportunity to cut their cost of sales and make room for growth.
Advice for aspiring entrepreneurs
“For a small business, keeping your costs under control is vital. So many businesses fail because they can’t control their cash flow, and they try. There’s a lot of experimentation in small business, trying to find what’s right for you. You’ve got to be true to your beliefs and what you think will work, and not be too influenced by other people. You have a gut feeling on where you think your product’s going to go, and you’ve just got to bet on yourself.”
“You’ve got to be true to your beliefs and what you think will work, and not be too influenced by other people. You have a gut feeling on where you think your product’s going to go, and you’ve just got to bet on yourself.”
What’s in the Divinity Olives toolkit?
- Xero: Michael describes their use of this software as “general accounting, invoicing, AP and AR and month and year end reporting.” It connects to the LivePlan software as well.
- Airsquare: Airsquare is a platform they use for “website design and hosting, eCommerce, invoice generation, online payment management and inventory control,” Michael says.
- Agile CRM: Agile CRM is Divinity Olives’ preferred customer relationship management software.
- LivePlan: For business and financial planning. “The thing I look at the most is our cost of sales,” Michael says.
What’s the secret to your success?
“Balance is one part of it. Sometimes we slow the business down because we want to have balance in our lives. You’ve got to make the job, the business, enjoyable. Occasionally you fall out of love with your business, but then you’ve got to find ways to fall back in love with your business again. You have to have some time out and refocus again.
And, I love our products. When people taste them, you see the look on their faces. They know that they’re having a good experience with it. I feel proud of that. I love the fact that we’ve developed a good brand, and people love our brand, even our name. It took us a while to get to that point, but we had to make sure we had it right to begin with, and it took us a year to get there. Once we got there, we were happy to stand behind it, and to feel proud of it.”
What has helped your business become successful? Share your experiences with us in the comments.