At 101, Comvita's Claude is still a bee-liever
23 Aug 2011
He’s just ticked off his 101st birthday celebration, and New Zealand health pioneer, Claude Stratford, is still a walking advertisement for the natural bee products he’s made world famous.
With an interest that began as a child, Stratford has had a life-long affinity with bees and honey, and still takes an active interest in the international health product business he started 37 years ago at age 64
Today Comvita, which was meant to be a little retirement activity, is one of New Zealand’s most successful innovative technology companies with more than 200 staff, a NZ$82 million a year turnover, and exporting to 14 countries
Comvita is best known for its pioneering research into the antiseptic and healing properties of New Zealand manuka honey, and products that include everything from honey to specialist wound care and beauty creams.
It’s also a popular stopping off point for health-conscious visitors who find their way to the Comvita Visitor Centre just outside the Bay of Plenty town of Te Puke where they can sample and buy products, and hear the story of an inspirational Kiwi businessman.
Claude Stratford founded Comvita in 1974 when he started making and selling a range of bee products from the basement of his home in Paengaroa.
His idea was to help others - with a founding vision that included "caring for the community, producing natural products that work, and acting in a way which preserves the environment for generations to come".
Comvita’s natural honeybee products were alternative to other products available in the market at the time, and Stratford was regarded as bit of a mad scientist who spent hours with a blender and his honey.
His other products such as wholemeal flour and natural sea salt were also pioneering, and it was years before they became mainstream products in New Zealand.
Co-founder and director of Comvita, Alan Bougen, who approached Claude for a job in his 20s, said his business partner seemed to have been born a couple of generations too early.
"He was selling health foods when most people wouldn’t have even heard the term," said Bougen.
Stratford’s fascination with bees started early and, by age 11, he had left school to become a commercial beekeeper on his parents’ property near Picton, at the tip of the South Island - taking the ferry across Cook Strait to Wellington each day to sell his honey on the condition that he was home for dinner.
While bee-keeping was a constant in his career, Stratford had a variety of jobs including working on Auckland’s waterfont, driving taxis, selling insurance, growing comfrey, milling flour and working for Healtheries products.
He developed apiary businesses in the Waikato and Peria Valley in Northland, but moved to the Bay of Plenty in 1974 to be nearer family.
From the early beginnings of Comvita, Stratford recognised the importance of overseas markets. He began shipping products to Japan from day one, and exports took off in the late 1980s / early 1990s into Britain, Singapore, the United States, Hong Kong and Australia.
In 1992 at age 82, Stratford launched Total Value Health Foods - a small pollen processing firm that supplied Comvita.
At 95 he was a finalist for the 2005 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award, and Comvita also won the Environment Bay of Plenty Sustainable Business Supreme Award in 2006.
Awarded the Queen’s Service Medal (QSM) in 1999 for his service to the community, Stratford continues to support philanthropic projects in New Zealand and overseas, through his charitable trust and a scholarship supporting a PhD student studying natural health science at the University of Auckland.
As well as his phenomenal business achievements, Stratford has been married five times and has had his share of life tragedies, including losing both his first wife and fourth child during childbirth.
Stratford’s interest in the health-giving properties of bee pollen was inspired by ill-health during his early adulthood, and says that he didn't know what it was to be well until his mid-30s.
After reading a book on pollen remedies by Marjorie McCormick called The Golden Pollen, he started producing and consuming bee pollen which he has been taking "for the last 80 years".
At 96 he was still driving and working up to six days a week, but he’s now a true retiree who spends his days listening to the radio in his Te Puke retirement home.
The health pioneer celebrated his 101st birthday quietly with a morning tea for staff at the Comvita Visitor Centre.
Claude Stratford's 'Top 10 tips for living well'
- A tablespoon of bee pollen every day - Claude has been doing this since he was 26.
- A daily teaspoon of Comvita Manuka honey and a dose of Comvita Olive Leaf Extract (15 ml), two omega 3 fish oil capsules and a multivitamin tablet.
- Persistence and at times - dogged determination - if at first you don't succeed, then try, try, try again.
- A drive to help others is a strong motivator - Claude’s primary reason for developing Comvita.
- An unswerving belief in the power of nature to provide a source of healing.
- Dream big dreams and treat any setbacks as challenges to overcome.
- Accepting people as they are, and believing the best of them.
- Generosity of spirit.
- Faith and prayer.
- Read widely, keep up with the latest information about your interests, and have an open mind.
Background: Comvita Visitor Centre
Comvita’s headquarters today is a very different set up to the one Claude Stratford operated from the garage of his home in the same small town of Paengaroa near Te Puke, 30 years ago.
Today’s multi-million dollar operation is slick and streamlined with up-to-the-minute systems and modern premises that include a visitor centre.
As well as shopping and sampling from Comvita’s product collection, visitors can watch bees at work in their hives.
Educational tours explain the process from raw material to final product, covering Comvita’s story from the shipment overseas of the first jar of manuka honey.
Sampling honey and enjoying health foods from the centre’s café have become with locals and tourists - with many tour operators choosing the centre as a Bay of Plenty stop off.
The Comvita Visitor Centre achieved the prestigious Green Globe Benchmark Bronze status in 2008, recognising a commitment to operate to the world’s highest environmental standard.
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