New Zealand entrepreneur: Comvita's Claude Stratford

New Zealand health pioneer, Claude Stratford - who passed away just a few weeks short of his 103rd birthday - was a natural advertisement for the bee products that he made world famous.

Claude Stratford - Comvita founder
18 August 1910 - 10 July 2013

New Zealand health pioneer, Claude Stratford - who passed away just a few weeks short of his 103rd birthday - was a natural advertisement for the bee products that he made world famous.

With an interest that began as a child, Stratford had a life-long affinity with bees and honey. He was 63 when he started the international health product business in 1974 and continued to take an active interest well into his final years.

Today Comvita, which was meant to be a little retirement activity, is one of New Zealand’s most successful innovative technology companies with over NZ$100 million annual sales in 18 markets around the world.

Comvita is best known for its pioneering research into the antiseptic and healing properties of New Zealand manuka honey, and products that include everything from honey to specialist wound care and beauty creams.

It’s also a popular stopping off point for health-conscious visitors who find their way to the state-of-the-art Comvita Visitor Centre just outside the Bay of Plenty town of Te Puke where they can sample and buy products, and hear the story of an inspirational Kiwi businessman.

Bee products
Claude Stratford founded Comvita in 1974 when he started making and selling a range of bee products from the basement of his home in Paengaroa.

His idea was to help others - with a founding vision that included "caring for the community, producing natural products that work, and acting in a way which preserves the environment for generations to come".

Comvita’s natural honeybee products were alternative to other products available in the market at the time, and Stratford was regarded as bit of a mad scientist who spent hours with a blender and his honey.

His other products such as wholemeal flour and natural sea salt were also pioneering, and it was years before they became mainstream products in New Zealand.

Comvita co-founder and non-executive director, Alan Bougen described Claude Stratford as an outstanding New Zealander and a pioneer in the health food industry.

Bougen, who was in his 20s when he approached Stratford for a job, said his business partner seemed to have been born a couple of generations too early.

"He was selling health foods when most people wouldn’t have even heard the term," said Bougen.

First beehive
Stratford’s fascination with bees started early and, by age 11, he had left school to become a commercial beekeeper on his parents’ property near Picton, at the tip of the South Island - taking the ferry across Cook Strait to Wellington each day to sell his honey on the condition that he was home for dinner.

While bee-keeping was a constant in his career, Stratford had a variety of jobs including working on Auckland’s waterfont, driving taxis, selling insurance, growing comfrey, milling flour and working for Healtheries products.

He developed apiary businesses in the Waikato and Peria Valley in Northland, but moved to the Bay of Plenty in 1974 to be nearer family.

Export earnings
From the early beginnings of Comvita, Stratford recognised the importance of overseas markets. He began shipping products to Japan from day one, and exports took off in the late 1980s / early 1990s into Britain, Singapore, the United States, Hong Kong and Australia.

In 1992 at age 82, Stratford launched Total Value Health Foods - a small pollen processing firm that supplied Comvita.

At 95 he was a finalist for the 2005 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award, and Comvita also won the Environment Bay of Plenty Sustainable Business Supreme Award in 2006.

Stratford established a charitable trust to support philanthropic projects in New Zealand and overseas, and a scholarship supporting a PhD student studying natural health science at the University of Auckland.

He was awarded the Queen’s Service Medal (QSM) in 1999 for his service to the community,

As well as his phenomenal business achievements, Stratford had been married five times and endured his share of life tragedies, including losing both his first wife and fourth child during childbirth.

Stratford’s interest in the health-giving properties of bee pollen was inspired by ill-health during his early adulthood, and once said that he didn't know what it was to be well until his mid-30s.

After reading a book on pollen remedies by Marjorie McCormick called The Golden Pollen, he started producing and consuming bee pollen.

Until he moved into his Te Puke retirement home at 96, Stratford was still driving and working up to six days a week.

Claude Stratford's 'Top 10 tips for living well'

  • A tablespoon of bee pollen every day - Claude had been doing this since he was 26.
  • A daily teaspoon of Comvita Manuka honey and a dose of Comvita Olive Leaf Extract (15 ml), two omega 3 fish oil capsules and a multivitamin tablet.
  • Persistence and at times - dogged determination - if at first you don't succeed, then try, try, try again.
  • A drive to help others is a strong motivator - Claude’s primary reason for developing Comvita.
  • An unswerving belief in the power of nature to provide a source of healing.
  • Dream big dreams and treat any setbacks as challenges to overcome.
  • Accepting people as they are, and believing the best of them.
  • Generosity of spirit.
  • Faith and prayer.
  • Read widely, keep up with the latest information about your interests, and have an open mind.

Background: Comvita Visitor Centre

Comvita’s headquarters today is a very different set up to the one Claude Stratford operated from the garage of his home in the same small town of Paengaroa near Te Puke, 30 years ago.

Today’s multi-million dollar operation is slick and streamlined with up-to-the-minute systems and modern premises that include a visitor centre.

As well as shopping and sampling from Comvita’s product collection, visitors can experience the life of a bee in the virtual beehive, learn about New Zealand's natural and cultural history and reflect and relax in the 'Wellness Room' at Comvita's new state-of-the-art visitors centre.

Educational tours explain the process from raw material to final product, covering Comvita’s story from the shipment overseas of the first jar of manuka honey.

Sampling honey and enjoying health foods from the centre’s café have become popular with locals and tourists, with many tour operators choosing the centre as a Bay of Plenty stop off.

The Comvita Visitor Centre achieved the prestigious Green Globe Benchmark Bronze status in 2008, recognising a commitment to operate to the world’s highest environmental standard.

Comvita officially opened its refurbished international-class visitor centre at Paengaroa offering a "world-first tourism experience" in 2013.

Experience Comvita - developed in a joint venture with tourism company The Department of Discovery - is an expansion of the existing visitor centre first opened in 2003.

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