From supplying Fiji cinemas with frozen soft drinks 25 years ago, Pleass Global Limited has grown into a diverse company that is looking to new markets, new products and new opportunities.
Co-founders Catherine and Warwick Pleass came to Fiji from China, where they had been working in the beverage industry. While they started manufacturing frozen cola, they quickly saw there were opportunities to move into supplying bottled water to offices, homes and hotels under the AquaSafe® brand.
Catherine Pleass says AquaSafe is now the market leader in Fiji in terms of volume and is also known and trusted across the Pacific.
The success of AquaSafe prompted Pleass Global to develop an export brand, VaiWai®. The brand’s biggest markets are China and the United States, although VaiWai is also sent to customers in Russia and Europe. The company plans to increase its exports to Asia, Western Europe and South America. “We believe this will really change the dynamics of our company yet again, and looking forward to a very bright future once we can get COVID behind us,” Catherine Pleass says.
Unlike many companies, Pleass has been able to continue production throughout the pandemic, by creating its own workers bubble and implementing COVID-safe measures. But border closures have affected the bottom line. Freight costs, which can now fluctuate wildly between shipments, are costs that cannot be passed on to customers who have contracted to purchase water for a fixed price.
The cessation of tourism and Fiji’s second wave of the pandemic, which has seen many people work from home, has also affected the company. “The VaiWai brand particularly does very well in the tourism sector. It’s high volume in the peak tourism times and in addition to that, most of the hotels have backup house use of our coolers. So, the consumption in hotels and resorts is very very high, and significantly contributes to our revenue.”
“But we’ve been looking at other ways of selling water and delivering water. We’ve developed an app for our water delivery so that people can just jump on the app and order and get a receipt and it will be delivered in a contactless manner. We’ve utilised this time to make some significant company improvements which I’m pleased about.”
Beyond water, Pleass manufactures and distributes packaging, including single use tableware under the PartyTime brand. It’s a market that is undergoing fundamental shifts. “We made a conscious decision about four years ago that we wanted to move away from single use plastics per se,” Pleass says. “It isn’t easy in this market because people are very price driven when it comes to disposable tableware.” So, it’s been very difficult to make change because up until quite recently, the market appetite for biodegradable products was not strong.
Pleass says they started replacing plastic and Styrofoam items with tableware made from bagasse ahead of their competitors. However delays to the implementation of legislation banning plastics has damaged their bottom line. “Having said that we feel good that we did it, even though the lag of actually affecting the bans that we had coming has been quite significant.”
Compliance and community
Catherine Pleass says the company’s 2009 listing on the South Pacific Stock Exchange has been very positive for internal processes and external relations.
“What it actually does is forces compliance across most areas of the business, and it’s a good opportunity to adopt significant compliance gains in other areas that are not necessarily touched by your listing,” she says. “It’s a very positive thing, it’s certainly a very positive thing for overseas clients [who] feel that you’re a more stable, solid and reliable supplier if you’re a listed company rather than a private company, that’s the perception.”
“By being listed we also have a board of directors that are advised to oversee the business and that brings skill and intellect that is outside the staff and the executive, and that’s very important as well.”
Pleass’ shareholders include the Fiji National Provident Fund, which Pleass says, “adds to their social responsibility story.”
“These days the market environment is very different to the past. People don’t just want to buy something, they want to feel good about what they’re buying, that the organisation does have social functions and does do good things for its community.”
While Pleass operates on freehold land, it has developed strong relationships with nearby Nabukavesi village.
“This is the community that lives here and have lived here for generations, and we need to be respectful of that. And similarly, the people are very respectful of us. It’s a very friendly, peaceful environment and it’s a very positive relationship. And it’s one of mutual respect, and I think that’s the key.”
100% of Pleass’ team is now fully vaccinated, so they are looking to the future. Catherine Pleass says she is looking forward to being able to physically meet customers again.
“We haven’t actually seen a customer in the last 18 months. And while we can do lots and lots of things on Zoom, personal relationships are very important. I’m excited to get back to trade events because that, for us is a very big opportunity to meet new customers and to grow our export markets.
“We’re working on some very exciting projects at the moment, we’re doing a major custom label for a major US supermarket chain and we’re putting in a glass bottling line, so we’ll have VaiWai in glass, both as a standard option and as a sparkling option. That will be a premium product that will give us a little bit more opportunity to play with margin. It puts you in different places in terms of on-premises presentation in restaurants, cafes and things like that. So, we’re very excited about that as well.”