25 years……. “It’s been a blast ”
Lex Dillon, 64, retired last week; this article reflects on the past 38 years working in the horticulture industry.
Lex has worked for the NZ Hothouse group for the past 25 years. NZ Hothouse is a massive success story, in the NZ greenhouse horticulture industry, and has been built up from a small family business into a company that employs over 350 employees.
Born in Huntly, Lex grew up in South Auckland. He finished his college education at Otahuhu college, he then studied accountancy at Manukau Tech. The skills learnt studying accountancy held him in good stead for the future.
In 1975 Lex began his working life as an assistant accountant in an engineering company. A few years later Lex married Robyn, at the young age of 21. Robyn and Lex decided to have an overseas experience, travelling to UK in 1978 and returning to NZ in 1980. On their return to New Zealand Lex continued his accountancy work for Avon Cosmetics, initially involved with inventory control before moving into a warehouse manager position. After several years Lex wanted a change and began a new role at Chep. This was where Lex got his first taste, at the ground level, of horticulture. Lex started in a rep-role, before becoming a regional manager, which evolved into a Market Development Manager. Lex was heavily involved with the introduction of plastic crate pooling in NZ for the horticulture sector. He later spent some time at Weckpack as Market Development Manager.
During the early 90’s one of Lex’s customers was Brett Wharfe, founder and Executive Chairman of NZ Hothouse. From this connection Brett offered Lex a position to join his team in 1995. Lex was initially employed to sell hydroponic lettuce before moving into many different roles as the business grew, eventually ending his career as Managing Director for the Glasshouse operations. Lex was never afraid to adapt his role as the business evolved.
What achievement are you most proud of looking back at 25 years working in this company?
“I started in a business that had many small growers mainly supplying one supermarket, now we are supplying customers all over New Zealand, in fact all over the world”. Lex is proud that he started working for a business which employed less than 30 staff but now, at busy times, has over 400 employees. Lex has taken much satisfaction in watching other people grow as the business has grown.
I asked Lex how has he seen the greenhouse industry in NZ change in the past 25 years?
“It’s like most industries worldwide, there are fewer businesses but of a bigger size”. To grow the business in the early days, Lex said there needed to be a consistency of volume and quality. For example, many tomato growers would remove crops before Christmas leaving markets uncertain and short of volume. This was the catalyst for building greenhouses, to give the markets certainty and continuity of supply. This started the growing side of the business, first with tomatoes, then later expanding into capsicums and cucumbers.
Now that COVID-19 has occurred I wanted to know what Lex thought may happen to the industry moving forward?
He believes customers will reassess supply lines and security of supply. “Fruit and vegetable growers were there when everyone else was shut down (supplying supermarkets) so there is a good future for our industry”. Lex believes that compliance will continue to be a challenge and this may make it tougher for growers. They will have to adapt, become innovative and find new solutions. “The growers that do, will succeed”. Lex also said COVID-19 has had a positive impact on hygiene protocols and the way we all look at further improving hygiene levels.
What is role of technology and what is the future for the NZ greenhouse industry?
“It has a great future because glasshouse production is the most efficient at using water, capturing fertiliser and using it again by recirculating. The cost of labour continues to grow so automation is also going to happen. When you look at international greenhouse production it’s just continuing to grow and grow around the world”. Lex’s believes it will continue to expand in New Zealand because other (historically outdoor) crops will become greenhouse crops. However, Lex strongly advised not to build a greenhouse without having a customer first! There is more than enough area for traditional crops but an exciting future for innovators elsewhere.
Lex believes new structures will be built replacing structures nearing the end of their economic life. “This will allow growers to take advantage of new greenhouse technology advancements and or new varieties and where more efficiencies in production will occur”.
What will you miss working for NZ Hothouse?
“It’s been a blast and most days I have loved coming to work.” Lex will miss the people, the diversity and cultures of this industry because “it is a people industry”. He has been able to travel and see some amazing growing operations around the world. He says he will stop spending half his time at the supermarket looking at tomatoes but somehow, I think that will be easier said than done.
Lex is also standing down as a member of the Tomatoes NZ Board which he started on in 1999. His contribution has been immense and his vast experience will be missed. Lex is modest when asked about his direct contribution but if you ask anyone, past or present on the Tomatoes NZ Board, they will tell you his input will be extremely hard to replace.
Lex has endured personal tragedy with the sudden and tragic passing of his wife and life partner Robyn in October 2016. They had been together since he was eighteen and had raised three children. Spending more time with his children, grandchildren and his parents has been part of his motivation for retiring. Lex said he has learnt the one thing you can never get back is time.
Lex’s major passion is travel. He has been to many parts of the globe and has no intention to stop exploring. COVID-19 has delayed his immediate travel plans so he will be spending the next few months working on his next big project - his garden and golf game.
Personally, I would like to thank Lex for his support and guidance throughout my own career. NZ Hothouse has been a major factor in my career progression and Lex has been part of that. I have fond memories of Lex, Luke Dillon (Lex’s son), Anton Hendricks (past tomato grower) and myself teeing off for Friday night Ambrose at the Waiuku golf clubs all of those moons ago. I look forward to teeing off again one day.