Joy in a jar

7 minutes read
Posted 11 June, 2024
Pics profiles web 9437

Aimee and Pic

Pic’s Peanut Butter CEO Aimee McCammon knows the power of a feel-good business with a great product and an authentic origin story.

McCammon is one of the speakers at the annual Westpac Women in Business Conference this month, organised by the Queenstown Business Chamber of Commerce. After a 20-year career as a strategist working with some of the world’s heavyweight brands, and a decade on Pic’s advisory board, she took the reins about 18 months ago, becoming the company’s first female CEO.

It’s her family’s business. McCammon is step daughter of founder Bruce ‘Pic’ Picot, who created the product and the company in one of those classic Kiwi entrepreneur stories. In 2007, semi-retired after selling a sailing business and laundromat, and with failing eyesight, Pic decided to make some jars of peanut butter the way his mum and aunty used to make it; simply roasting peanuts and squashing them. Back then, commercial peanut butters were chocked full of sugar, emulsifiers and other nasties.

When one of his son Louis’ friends offered him $5 for a jar, he figured there might be a market so spent $10,000 on stock and machinery, including a stainless-steel concrete mixer, a grinder, a laser printer for labelling and half a tonne of peanuts. His goal was to make 50 jars a week and sell them at the local market.

By 2009, you could buy Pic’s in supermarkets across New Zealand and it has grown to become the country’s best selling peanut butter brand, on the Deloitte’s Fast 50 every year from 2015 to 2019, employing 50 people and exporting to Australia, the UK, the US, China and Singapore, from its Nelson factory.

“Kiwis love an underdog, David verses Goliath, the little guy takes on the world and becomes a success,” McCammon says. “It’s the same with TradeMe, a couple of guys in a room with a computer become bigger than the newspaper classifieds industry.

“Dad rigged up a concrete mixer in his garage and now we’re the number one selling brand in New Zealand. We’re proud of the company’s origins and we have a lot of people still working here from the early days, when we were really small, so you still get that vibe, that feeling it’s a special place to work.”

Don’t ask for permission

McCammon cut her teeth with Mojo and then Saatchi & Saatchi, before going on to work with brands including Whittaker’s, Toyota, Lotto, 42 Below and Tourism NZ, while holding senior roles at Augusto Group, Assignment Group, Sir Peter Jackson’s Park Road Post Production and Trade Me.

And the differences between a start up company and some of the world’s biggest brands and agencies isn’t as pronounced as you might think.
“Saatchi & Saatchi is a massive global company but the training there is really good. They don’t train you to think corporate, they train you to get the job done. We had five golden rules and the first is ‘nothing is impossible’.

“They gave you permission to do whatever you needed to do. When I worked in New York, they said to us ‘it’s better to ask for forgiveness, than permission’, which is the sort of entrepreneurial spirit Pic has got. And it was a great place to work because you got exposure to really good businesses and their practices. I got to work with Procter and Gamble, for instance, who basically wrote the marketing textbooks.”

Pic’s is not the first owner operator company McCammon has worked in.

“After I left Saatchi, I then went to work with owner operators, including Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh at Park Road Post Production. It’s a different dynamic because you have two incredibly talented but quite quirky owners. I also worked with Partridge Jewellers, a fourth generation company, and Grant Partridge is another very unique character, and in agency land worked with Whittaker’s another multigenerational company.

“I think I got the best of both worlds. Even though Saatchi is a big corporate environment, they had a good independent spirit. Then in family owned companies, you really get to take advantage of that, making faster decisions, which I love because I like to move quite quickly. I’ve worked with a cast of characters who could fill a circus. And I love the randomness. You can be on a path, going well, and someone comes in with such a wildcard. That’s what actually makes it exciting.”

The main ingredient

McCammon says the one word that links it all is ‘enthusiasm’.

“In advertising you meet all different types of people and have to win them over with your enthusiasm, because you’re selling ideas too them.

“And the most important thing about Pic is his enthusiasm. He knows how to make a business work, he’s pretty savvy, but he also just really gets excited about peanut butter, and gets other people excited by it. That’s how he got into the supermarkets.”

It’s something that runs through the company, probably through most successful companies, through owners, management, the workforce and customers.
“We built this new factory and it has become one of the leading tourist attractions in Nelson. We run three tours a day, with 40 people on them, and they are booked out. We tell the story, how it all started, have tastings and let them loose in the store and cafe.

“I’d had a factory tour from dad but my first week on the job, I went on the consumer tour. People get so excited, they’re just fizzing, and honestly, it just made me really excited too.

“When I came off that tour and did my first staff meeting, I reminded everyone that if they’re having a tricky day, and there are always tricky days with problems to solve, to book themselves on one of the tours and you will get excited again about what we do.”

Work and life mentors

McCammon has been taught the independent spirit from an early age. Her first job, aged 12, was working for Pic, packing cannabis fertilizer into bottles.

“It sounds illegal but I promise you it wasn’t. It was the most pungent, filthy smelling horrible brown liquid, made of seaweed. I was taking it out of these big oil drums in an old concrete factory and putting it into bottles with a spray gun, for $5 a hour.”

She also credits her mum with giving her the psychological tools needed.

“I think one of the smartest things my mum did was teaching me to have agency over my own life, teaching me that I should make the decisions. Even though my mother is very strong, very feminist, quite bossy, that was the upbringing I had. She gave me and my sister the room to make our own decisions and we’ve both gone on to have quite strong careers.

“From an early age, we were making decisions, and so we needed to be confident about backing our decisions.”

McCammon has also had strong female mentors in her professional life. “At Mojo Partners we had a very strong female leadership, so early on in my career I saw a company being run mostly by women.

“The MD there was an incredible woman, Sandy Burgham, fiercely intelligent, really high energy and full of ideas. She mentored me for a while and I’m still in touch with her today. I was probably 25 and she was 35/40, and would have been one of the only female managing directors in the country at that time, and I was working with her. She was a fantastic influence and it didn’t seem odd to me at all that a woman would run a company.”

What’s next?

Looking to the future, for the company, McCammon says the goal is to continue to be a brand that people get excited about.

“Being a brand that feels part of the fabric of being Kiwi, that’s such an honour. We’re trying to grow peanuts in Northland right now. We spend close to $10 million a year buying peanuts from overseas, and one of Pic’s thoughts a few years ago was ‘ah, why do we send $10m overseas? Surely we could grow peanuts somewhere in NZ’. So we’re trialling that at the moment, which is very interesting because I’ve never worked with the agricultural sector before.”

As a woman in business, the goal is to pave the way for the next generation.

“It’s still a tougher road for women, there are still barriers, and the most important thing it to have visible female leadership. I look at what my mum did and those amazing feminists in the 70s. They were vocal, they protested, burned their bras and brought their daughters up to be stroppy. And the generation before them, our grandmothers, who went to work during the Second World War. They broke barriers.

“So now, we’re modelling behaviour and breaking barriers for our daughters. My daughter got made head girl this year and I was so proud because she’s grown up with a female Prime Minister and a mum who had been a CEO while she was young, and now she’s taking on that leadership mantel.

“I keep saying she should be Prime Minister but she doesn’t want to be, because it can be a pretty awful job, but I think you have to exercise your responsibility of leadership for other people, because being a leader is just all about service.”

The 12th Annual Westpac Women in Business Conference takes place on Friday, 14 June, with the theme of Walk Tall, Stand Strong.

Paula Bennett will MC. Speakers are Aimee McCammon, Kelsey Waghorn, Natalie Ferguson and Kristen Lunman from Powrsuit, Venice Qin and Kelly Evans.

Tickets are sold out.


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