Self-confessed “stubborn old bugger” Phil Rasmussen has spent almost 20 years switching people onto the health benefits of herbs. The business he founded, Kiwiherb, now has bold plans to take our herbs to the world.
When Phil Rasmussen’s mum and dad encouraged him to get stuck into the gardening as a kid, they had no idea they were sowing the seeds of a lifelong obsession with herbs for health.
Phil is founder and technical director of Kiwiherb, which produces herbal remedies for health issues such as immunity, digestion, skincare, stress and sleep.
Kiwiherb preferentially uses New Zealand-grown herbs, either sourced organically from local growers or ‘wildcrafted’ – collected from nature – in environmentally-sustainable ways.Phil says Kiwiherb products combine the wisdom of rongoā (traditional Māori medicine) with rigorous modern research.
His own background is in traditional medicine: he was working as a pharmacist when he became increasingly aware that some drugs weren’t sufficiently effective or caused unpleasant side effects.Phil started growing his own herbs and experimenting with ways they could be used to promote health, often in combination with mainstream medical treatments.
Phil became a medical herbalist and in 1998 set up his own company, Phytomed, to sell his herbal formulations to other health practitioners. The business operated from an Auckland backyard, with caravans and sheds as its offices. Medical herbalist and naturopath Noeline Jonkers was Phil’s third employee and is still part of the team today.
Sixteen years ago, Phil launched Kiwiherb to take his products to a wider audience by selling them online and through pharmacies and health food shops.
Tenacity leads to success
It hasn’t been an easy journey – like many start-ups, Kiwiherb struggled with limited cash and not enough staff in its early years.
“You need tenacity and endurance and stamina to succeed. I’m a stubborn old bugger from old-fashioned Kiwi stock,and I never minded working hard,” says Phil.
Another challenge was finding directors who shared Phil’s commitment to a manufacturing system that was just as robust as it would be for the pharmaceutical industry.
“This isn’t like the Jamie Oliver system of just chucking in a bit of this and a bit of that. If you’re going to be giving a product to children, you want to know it contains exactly what it says on the label.”
Phil has brought other shareholders into the business to position it for global expansion. Kiwiherb now has a General Manager, Matt Stanish, and a Regulatory Affairs Manager, and has appointed new board members to support the next stage of growth. It has a team of almost 50 people in New Zealand and Australia.
The business is also currently investigating the viability of starting its own herb farm and is actively working to improve its supply chains through both Māori shareholders and local growers.
Great for growers
Kiwiherb has a huge number of herb suppliers around the country, ranging from wildcrafters to organic growers.Phil believes good business relationships are essential, not only with suppliers but with partners like Kiwibank.
“Banking is the cornerstone of a good economy, and I’m proud that we’re banking with a Kiwi-owned bank,” he says.
Phil believes New Zealand is the perfect country to develop a medicinal herb industry because it has:
- a huge range of microclimates, which enables many species to be grown
- many excellent horticultural scientists who can help produce premium herbs
- a reputation offshore for its clean, green environment
- an innovative culture.
For Phil, one of the business’s greatest successes is that it has remained true to its founding vision of preferentially using New Zealand-grown herbs, even though imported products can be up to four times cheaper. Kiwiherb’s stance on using locally-grown herbs has also helped provide work for small-scale organic horticulturalists and wildcrafters.
Phil continues to work as a medical herbalist as well as leading Kiwiherb’s product development team. “New product sare my passion – I’m always thinking of ideas for herbal products that might be helpful to people,” he says.
“It’s a different world out there –attitudes to health products derived from herbs are very different to how they were 20 years ago, when I started out. It’s a much sexier industry now.”
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