Thorley Robbins (left) and Jacob Ryburn, co-founders of Purewood. Photo / Supplied
Thorley Robbins, co-founder of Tauranga start-up Purewood, a firm which makes wood wool for packaging, talks aspirations with the avocado plant and how a chaotic trip to India got the business on its way.
does your business do?
Purewood was necessitated out of the fact that I needed a better quality wood wool for my avocados when I first started The Avo Tree. This business is separate to my other business The Avo Tree and was born out of the fact that I couldn’t get a good quality wood wool from the only supplier in the North Island, so I got on a plane and flew to India where I met this guy in the back streets of India and bought a machine, bought it back to New Zealand, reconditioned it and started making my own wood wool.
The Avo Tree started in 2015 as the first direct to market avocado supplier. We cornered out a niche in supplying fruit straight from the tree and about five years in I started to look a bit further at the avocado tree and the fruit to understand what else we could do with it. We looked at the customer base and at the time it was about 90 per cent female and started to look at avocado oil and realised there was no dedicated avocado oil-based skincare in New Zealand.
From there we developed New Zealand’s first all-avocado oil-based skincare range and then continued to look further at the tree. We also produced an avocado-leaf tea and are currently working on avocado wood wool – shredded from the avocado tree – to make packaging for inside parcels. We’re investigating using avocado wood instead of pine wood as the packaging for all products – looking at that full circle and how to use all parts of the avocado tree. The Avo Tree is Purewood’s biggest customer right now.
We’re in the R&D stages of how we can create a better product – we’re forever trying to investigate the opportunities to create a better wood wool, and that’s what it has been for the past few years. We’ve been operating for 18 months nearly now.
What was the motivation for starting the business?
We got our machine for about $32,000 – very cheap – it was a chaotic time going to India to purchase it, but I realised that I wanted to make my own wood wool. I asked a mate of mine, saying I thought there was opportunity here and a way to eliminate plastic; we needed a lot of wood wool for The Avocado Tree and I believed a lot of other people would want it if we could make it cleaner, so we found a wood wool machine on an Indian marketplace and contacted the seller. We missed our first set of flights but eventually flew to North India, wound up in Amritsar, met this guy in the back streets of the back streets, saw this bit of machinery and ended up buying it. We paid him US$900 cash to seal the deal and then 50 per cent of the balance and 50 per cent of arrival.
When it arrived in New Zealand it had been packed during a monsoon so it was a biological nightmare and cost us $10,000 to get the container fumigated because it had so much bacteria growing in it. The whole trip and journey to get the machine in action has been crazy. We had a cow jump out into the road when we were driving at 100km on a country road at 1am, it wrote the car off, the cow nearly killed us, and we also missed our flights on the way back, so it was an ultimate chaotic start to this business but quite funny looking back. There are all sorts of funny little things that happened in the process of getting this bit of machinery to New Zealand and running. We had to replace the motor too, which ended up being delivered to us from Gloriavale.
How big is the team?
We have two people working on Purewood full time, and then there is my business partner, Jacob, and I. Jacob is an engineer with his own engineering firm and I have The Avo Tree, which are our main businesses at the moment.
How much have you invested in the business?
We have invested close to $170,000. A lot of that cost went into setting the business up and one-off costs such as getting the machine.
What’s your biggest challenge at present?
We sell a lot of product to other companies but we are also keeping our blinkers on a little in terms of not being too open to too much business because making wood wool is much harder than what we anticipated and first bought the bit of machinery.
There are so many variables in the manufacturing process; whether it is the wood, wood moisture, wood grain, wood size, the material thickness – there is a prime spot for a perfect thickness and we’re still teething that out to see where we stand, then there’s the filtering processes, which removes dust and small bits. It has been a two-year project of learning and understanding how wood works, and we know if we can get the product really good in terms of clean and consistent then it becomes more of a usable product and therefore we open ourselves up as an alternative product to plastic.
We have 15 main customers that are on the journey with us as we try to create a fantastic product. We want to supply the best possible product and we are fairly confident in our production that we supply an okay product but okay is not good enough for us, it has got to be the best.
Where do you get your avocado tree wood from?
This is where the crossover with The Avo Tree comes in. With The Avo Tree, we manage the pruning of avocado orchards – avocado trees need to be pruned in order to fruit properly and be picked easily, so we do a lot of pruning. It was the combination of having a lot of pruned wood sitting on the ground and it pretty much all went to firewood or pushed into a heap and then mulched if it’s small enough and then thrown back under the trees, but it is essentially a waste product so we thought we could put it into the wood wool machine. I was sitting in an orchard one day staring at an avocado log and I was like “hmm, I wonder if we can do that”. We took a couple of logs back to the factory and started making wood wool out of them. From a sustainability perspective it is fantastic, but it is also super marketable.
What are your long-term plans?
The long-term goal would be to make a product clean enough that it becomes more available to companies that currently don’t use typical pine wood wool because of the dust or mess it creates. There are a heap of companies out there at the moment that we know from research would love to use wood wool, but it can be dusty and dirty, with bits all over the ground. It is impossible to avoid that completely but you can make the product a lot better so ultimately, in the long run, our plan from a packaging perspective is to create an ultra-clean wood wool, which allows us to service companies that do want to use but don’t want the mess. Longer term, we’re also looking at wood wool panels, which is like sound panelling. We think there is huge potential for our product, particularly in the vegetable plastics space too.
What’s your timeline on being able to scale up operations?
If you asked me this a year ago, I would have said six months, but we’re still not there yet with perfecting the product so it is hard to know. We are so close to being there – it is the best wood wool in New Zealand at the moment – but it is not perfect, and that is why we are being very cautious in supplying. We’re using about 20 per cent of our machine’s capability at the moment so we have a long way to go with that machine, so once the product is perfect then we will scale up. We have another machine lined up in South America for when we need, but there is no point in purchasing that at the moment.
What advice do you give to others thinking of starting their own business?
Do it yesterday. Life is so short. If you spend your time talking about doing something you never will and then one day you’ll be dead. You’ll regret the things you didn’t do.