Raglan’s ‘popcorn guy’ bags markets, third factory and Rising Star honour

Life really is sweet as for Raglan popcorn-maker Bill Neal.

Five years on from setting up business at his Wainui Road home, in a basement that once housed a couple of horses, he’s now basking in the success of being named one of the top five businesses – from a field of 200 major players – in a category of this month’s Deloitte Rising Star Awards.

And with the business having long outgrown the basement, he’s looking forward to opening his third Hamilton popcorn factory in just a couple more weeks.

“It’s going crazy,” he says of his ‘Sweet As’ brand of kettle corn which quickly went from being sold on Saturdays at Frankton Market and through several stores in Raglan to being stocked in supermarkets nationwide – then on to international success with exports to Australia, Asia and America.

Come February or March next year Bill’s also moving into franchising, much he says like the ‘Cookie Time’ brand which has been an iconic Kiwi company for 30-odd years.

Keeping it Kiwi – from growing the sweetcorn to staffing the business – is hugely important to “American Bill”, as he was first known around Raglan when surfing here back 14 years ago. Now he’s just called “the popcorn guy” whose product proudly claims it’s both NZ grown and established in Raglan.

“I’m the only one (in the business) who’s not a Kiwi,” he reckons, although that’s about to be rectified as 59-year-old Bill is soon to become a New Zealand citizen.

Bill believes he’s giving back to the Kiwis who supported him through a back injury which forced him to put his local excavation business on hold and consider other options. “ACC saved my life,” he says of a health system that’s not available in America.

He’s now employing ACC interns himself in the factories and at the office, he adds, as a means of repaying that debt of gratitude.

While making ‘Sweet As’ popcorn began as a one-man operation, Bill now has more than 40 staff involved and says others are soon to come on board.

“It’s real exciting but very challenging to run that many people,” he told the Chronicle last week. Bill calls himself the company director, referring light-heartedly to six-year-old son Ryan as the vice president. Ryan apparently uttered the single word “popcorn” when the pair of them were looking for something else to do.

“He comes in and packages,” says Bill. “It’s neat to see him involved.”

Bill says he has a great management team behind his sweet success, and that it’s a pleasure to go to work like never before. He’s also grateful for the support of locals like artist Tracy Brechelt who designs the logos and Raglan Roast which carries the brand.

He’s gone from popping corn at home – using a large cauldron-style cooker or kettle to turn out 35 bags per hour of the stuff – to a current production of about 500 bags per hour.

There are now five flavours on the market, both sweet and savoury, and bags of coconut-flavoured corn will be launched on January 1. “Coconut’s the hot deal right now, everyone’s going for it.”

The company already produces coconut popcorn bars and they’re a hit, he says ahead of a trip to present them to the American market.

Bill believes he’s been lucky finding his way into a niche market, but was mortgaged to the hilt to make it happen. “It was scary for a while,” he admits.

He does no advertising, relying on people simply tasting and talking. “Word of mouth by Kiwis is phenomenal.”

‘Sweet As’ is sold in more than 1000 stores nationwide – including BP, Mobil and Z service stations – and has also found its way into 350 schools, as a healthier dairy and gluten-free alternative to potato chips.

And Bill reckons he still gets time to surf. “I love Raglan, it’s a great place to think,” he adds.

Edith Symes

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