Rachel Taulelei has proven to be a change-maker in New Zealand’s fishing industry. Her Wellington-based business Yellow Brick Road is built on the values of sustainability, responsibility and consideration for future generations.
Earlier this year Rachel Taulelei got a call out of the blue. Sir Ron Carter was on the line to inform her that she had been named an Emerging Leader in the 2012 Sir Peter Blake Leadership Awards. There were six in total, including All Blacks captain Richie McCaw.
Taulelei had no idea her name had been put forward, so the news came as a surprise – albeit a pleasant one – and she has already had a taste of what it’s like to network with past recipients and business people of the calibre of Sir Stephen Tindall, through the Awards night.
“It was great to be in the same room as people I’ve long admired,” says Taulelei. “These are people who have achieved great things in their life, and they are genuinely interested in who we are and what we are doing. It was very humbling.”
Whoever nominated Taulelei obviously recognised her leadership ability and innovative vision, which she has clearly demonstrated through a number of initiatives and business decisions over recent years.
Before starting her wholesale fish supply business, she already had an impressive background in economic development and trade. The role of New Zealand trade commissioner and manager food and food and beverages in North America was fertile learning ground for what works and what doesn’t in business. She got to know the stories of hundreds of companies during her eight-year term.
Back living in New Zealand in 2006, Taulelei founded Yellow Brick Road with the aim of developing a sustainable supply of responsibly-caught ‘premium’ fresh fish, primarily for the country’s finest restaurants. By ‘sustainable’ she’s referring to the fact that our fisheries are a finite resource – one that requires careful and considerate management so future generations can also enjoy them.
I ask, “why Yellow Brick Road?” “Why not a name associated with seafood?”
“Yellow Brick Road is a name my husband came up with at around 3am one morning. It’s a name that resonated and allowed for the business to expand into other foodstuffs. It’s a classic song and a classic movie suggesting courage, heart, brains and following a path to success. It’s about loyalty, responsibility, commitment, passion and energy,” says Taulelei.
Passion and commitment are something Taulelei is not short on – those qualities are driving the growth of her values-based business. She understands New Zealand’s need for successful businesses and the need to vigorously protect its ‘clean, green’ image – and has demonstrated that it is possible to marry those objectives in a commercially-successful model.
Chefs and consumers alike struggle to apply a meaning to the word ‘sustainable’, which is interpreted in different ways, by different people. Taulelei’s interpretation includes maintaining a transparent and responsible path from ‘sea to plate’ – so chefs and consumers alike can know how, where and when a particular fish was caught. When it comes to the ‘how’, Taulelei has a strong preference for long-line fishing.
This is harvesting one fish at a time,” she says. “It’s a measured way of catching fish and places a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of fishermen.”
Taulelei sees New Zealand’s seafood industry as an unstoppable export focused freight train.
But her main focus is on extracting the maximum amount of value from fish – and she believes that the greatest value comes from doing less to the fish.
Taulelei doesn’t rate her skills in either the cooking or catching of seafood – she believes her greatest strength is in putting people together. “I’m a firm believer in having the right people in the right place.”
Talking of ‘right people’, she’s aware that to progress the business she needs more smart minds around her to give her direction, motivation, insight and accountability. With Sir Stephen Tindall raising the subject of a board at the Awards dinner, her mind has subsequently been more focused on greater governance.
Taulelei has faith in the fisheries quota management system, and believes the country must be vigilant in how it is managed. She admits to being somewhat ambivalent towards some species under management, such as tuna and orange roughy and wonders if authorities have enough information to base their findings on.
Taulelei reminds me that the fishing industry is a lean one, and it would be easy to regulate people out of it. “It’s an expensive industry to operate in, when you factor in overheads such as compliance, equipment, fuel, bait and maintenance – so the regulations must be geared towards keeping fish stocks sustainable, and for making businesses viable.”
Another major passion in Taulelei’s life is the City Markets in Wellington – a not-for-profit she co-founded with chef Martin Bosley. Now in its third year, the market’s goal is to “create community through food”. It is a weekly outlet for high-quality locally-produced food and provides advice and business mentoring for new artisan producers who often struggle with the business model.
Taulelei is on the board of Grow Wellington and mentors a number of startup businesses.
Of Ngati Raukawa and Ngati Rarua descent, she also has a passion to bring younger people into governance, supports the development of Maori commercial activities utilising natural resource holdings, and is an associate director of the Wakatu Incorporation – the inter-generational business behind the Kono brand.
Meanwhile, Yellow Brick Road saw its best ever sales figures in 2011, with 2012 showing even greater promise thanks to “systems and processes that have now bedded down”. More fishermen, fish farmers and chefs are partnering with the company as they come to understand its unique premium offering. It also helps that New Zealand is moving away from being a nation of “skinless, boneless fillet eaters”, as Taulelei describes us. Chefs and consumers are rediscovering the art of buying fresh fish still with their skins on and filleting them. In the same way live, flat oysters have it over their “shucked dead cousins”, she says.
There’s a new appreciation for what we can eat and Taulelei is taking on the responsibility of bringing it to our tables in the freshest, most sustainable way possible.