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Bhana's Blues

Posted on 20 May 2014

Balrent Bhana, known as Woodsy, spends a lot of time driving tractors in the family potato growing business.

“I do a lot of thinking too,” he said. “I’ve got a passion for what we do and for potatoes. They’ve been around for so long, we should show them some respect.”

And that has led to Woodsy and his three brothers sponsoring the Auckland ITM rugby team and the Blues this season in order to promote the versatility and health benefits of potatoes.

“We need to let people know how much potatoes are a part of sport,” he said.

“People eat them in order to play sport so why isn’t the industry pushing the issue? We want the next generation to say they eat potatoes because their rugby players do.”

The family firm, Hira Bhana and Co Ltd, has grown potatoes for the last 40 years mainly for the local market, but Woodsy felt promotion could be stepped up. He has seen loads of advertising for pet food on television and radio and that’s just for animal consumption! “So why can’t we promote our potatoes which we all eat ourselves?”

He and his older brother Amrut started to wonder whether there was more that they could be doing to fuel customer awareness of potatoes and get them to buy more. “Everywhere in the world you see potatoes,” he said. “We should give them a title.”

His light bulb moment came during a dinner at Sky City where the two brothers sat down with some of the Auckland Blues players.

“We got talking and they asked us what we did,” he said. “When we told them we grew potatoes they told us they ate them at lunch before every game. The penny dropped.” Woodsy got his two older brothers, Dinesh and Bharat, together with Amrut and asked them three questions:

  • What are New Zealanders passionate about? (Answer: Rugby.)
  • What is the country’s biggest city? (Answer: Auckland.)
  • And which team does the large population most support? (Answer: The Blues.)

So with a plan in place they approached the Auckland Rugby Union in August last year with the big idea of trying to sponsor the Blues.

“We kicked it off very much at the last minute,” Woodsy said. “We didn’t think we had a shot at all.”

But at a meeting with the Union’s marketing manager Jeremy Cameron the suggestion was made that they could sponsor the Auckland ITM Cup team. “It was too hard to refuse,” he said. “It was a stepping stone to get to the Blues.”

So that team ran out on to the field with the firm’s name on theshoulders of their uniforms, and this year the Bhanas have stepped up to their goal of sponsoring the Blues. Their company, and potatoes, will be featured on electronic signage at the Blues’ home ground of Eden Park as well as on a fixed board there and be displayed in the team’s printed match books.

“They’ve been a great franchise to go with,” Woodsy said. “They’re so easy to work with and we got such a warm welcome we felt like family. They’re not a corporate by any shot.”

That excellent relationship continued after Jeremy Cameron left, with Grant McKenzie taking over his role. And Woodsy can’t say enough good things about chief executive Michael Redmond, Blues coach Sir John Kirwan and sponsorship managers Karen Parlane and Victoria Hunt.

He also finds it hard to stop extolling the virtues of potatoes, saying that the Blues endorsement is an indication to all other rugby teams that they should be eating potatoes to play at peak fitness.

“You can’t get cancer, and you can’t get drunk after a good feed of potatoes,” he said. “Let’s get potatoes up there. I don’t know why anyone hasn’t done this before. Everyone has been on their own and the buck stops there.”

Woodsy said growing potatoes is hard work and the family doesn’t want to keep producing the vegetable to receive prices under the cost of production. “We want people to demand potatoes but we don’t want them to be over-priced. The people are the judges. We’re looking at it long term. It’s a win-win for everyone.”

He’s been heartened by the support for their sponsorship move from companies they supply potatoes to year round such as Foodstuffs, Turners and Growers, Fruit World, MG Marketing and Fresh Direct.

“They’re all encouraging,” he said. “It’s not something we’re doing for ourselves, it’s for all in the industry. We all want consumers to grab a bag of potatoes because they’re a multi-use vegetable and they can get a lot fromeating them. Rugby players fuel up on potatoes.”

The Blues sponsorship deal kicked off at a “Meet the Blues” function at North Harbour Stadium in Albany in mid- February, where the Bhanas proudly parked their truck with its curtains printed with an image of a paddock of potatoes as well as the Blues’ logo sign-written on the back of their truck. It will be a regular sight on Auckland motorways, delivering the Bhanas’ potatoes to the Foodstuffs distribution centre and other markets.

The Albany event, which drew thousands of Blues fans to buy their favourite team’s merchandise as well as to get the chance to secure players’ signatures, was also a great opportunity for the Bhanas to get some of the Blues players to give away four tonnes of Moonlight potatoes in 5kg bags.

The variety was chosen so fans receiving them had a good cooking experience whether they wanted to put boiled, mashed, chipped or baked potatoes on their table. The Bhanas mainly grow the Agria variety but also Moonlight, Rua and Ilam Hardy and others to supply to customers year round.

Nadine is grown strictly for washing as it looks good. “We’ve got to cater for those shoppers so we get the tick from them,” Woodsy said.

The family grows potatoes for fresh market sales, not for processing, and only exports a small percentage of their crop. They also grow onions, “another old vegetable” which Woodsy said could well benefit from the sort of promotion they are now giving potatoes. “Maybe onion growers should be doing more and giving it that extra bit,” he said.

And asked what the money now going into the Blues sponsorship would have been earmarked for if the deal hadn’t got off the ground, he had a simple answer: “Tractors”.

By Glenys Christian, Photos Nigle Marple

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