On the week of his 80th birthday, we sat down with Jim Kebbell to learn more about the history of Commonsense and find out what he’s learnt from this inspiring business.
What was the driving force behind the beginning of Commonsense Organics?
I got into organics because I discovered that Shell Oil was the biggest owner and patentor of food seeds, they had been developing a whole lot of seeds that were dependent on petrochemical fertilisers. I come from a conventional farming background and I thought that having an oil company in charge of the food chain wasn’t a great idea. I discovered that the organic movement was about growing in a completely different way which was sustainable and not dependent on artificial, limited resource materials. That’s how I got into it and I got rather enthusiastic about it all. We first started with an organic food co-op up in the Aro Valley and that was the beginning of us opening our own shop to sell what we grew.
What’s been the biggest lesson you’ve learnt in the last 26 years?
I think the most important thing we’ve learnt overall is that the absolutely indispensable area of running a business is personal relationships. Building your relationships with your suppliers, ensuring they’re still there next year. If you’re just price driven, you’ll probably drive your growers out of business. In the early days, I used to talk to the growers and say ‘How much do you need from us to ensure your business is sustainable?’ And we’d pay that amount for the year. The growers liked that because they knew what they were going to get from us which is quite different to sending it to auction.
The importance of people can’t be over-estimated. If people aren’t happy, they’re not going to trade with you anyway. They have to trust you - the suppliers, the customers, and the staff too. If the staff don’t enjoy their work, they’re not going to be very good at selling. But if someone likes a particular thing in the shop, they can sell so many of them.
We often didn’t advertise for staff - people just turned up and they wanted to move up through the business. And it’s a great thing because it means that people work here because they genuinely want to. We've been really blessed with really good people and people who are really interested and keen to do what they’re doing with us.
Any funny stories to share?
Well I was a real amateur when I started, but I gradually learned how complicated retailing is. We had a chap who worked for us who we called ‘Stack-‘em-high-and-watch-‘em-fly’. He worked for us for a while, changing and rearranging our displays to help sell our goods better and it taught us a lot. There are a whole lot of aspects to selling that the amateur just doesn’t know about. I was never very good at displaying but ‘Stack-em-high-and-watch-em-fly’ had taught me a few things and one day I arranged what I felt was a very nice display of oranges. We didn’t have many customers to start with, which I was quite grateful for because I wasn’t quite sure how to handle them. But a woman came into the shop and she went straight to my orange display to take one. And I shouted, ‘Don’t touch them, I’ve only just put them there!’ My kids called it the John Cleese approach to retailing…
Do you see a change in the organic movement now, compared to when Commonsense began?
Well, it was pretty small when we began! In fact, there weren’t really any organic shops, just a little food co-op in Wellington and just a few little places across the country.
It’s grown exponentially from those days, our stores are always growing and globally, the organic movement is huge now. New Zealand is funnily enough quite a way behind many other places in the world. We have this international marketing image of ‘Clean and Green New Zealand’ and in Europe, people say to me, ‘Why would you have to be organic in New Zealand, isn’t everything there organic?’ And I think New Zealanders think that everything is clean and fresh and sustainable here but that’s not the case at all. So, it’s really quite important to keep our shops going, and to have more of them!
You co-founded the business with your wife, Marion and your daughter, Lucy is the company’s corporate services manager. How has it been mixing business and family?
Marion wouldn’t have anything to do with it at all to start with, I was losing so much money to start with, she didn’t want to talk to me about it. But she came into the business around the year 2000. I was anxious because I thought she wouldn’t like it. But then she got into it with a vengeance and of course, she’d taken it over by about six months in, for which I was quite grateful, and I went back to the farm.
But we’ve handed the business on to the next generation now and they’re doing a fantastic job. Lucy and Anna (our CEO) were our first staff in the store when they were 16 year olds. They used to run the shop while I coached football on Saturdays. They’ve been friends since way back and I always thought they’d be a part of the business. Our Merchandise Manager Teva rounds off the leadership team. They all have complementary skills. But the real heroes of our business are our store managers and their staff.
What’s next for you?
I haven’t finished here yet!
One of the things about getting older is that you get busier because it takes you so long to do anything. It takes you longer to get out of bed in the morning, to make breakfast, to think what you’re meant to be cooking, everything takes longer!
So I have less time and less need to work, but I do quite a lot of things that the rest of the leadership team ask me to do (like talk to the bank manager because I’m the one who’s always done that). I also still run the farm and we’re going through a big planning stage up there at the moment. So I’ve got plenty to do.
One of the great things about having your own operation is that there’s no need to retire, you can just fade away gracefully bit by bit. They’re beginning to ignore me here which is quite good but I don’t think I irritate them just yet. I think they’re a great team, they all have completely different skills and they work really well together. I know the business is in safe hands.