Featured NBR Listers 2022: Tom and Heather Sturgess

Category: Agribusiness

Approx. $420 million

See all profiles, rankings and feature articles on The NBR List 2022 home page.

At age 71, Tom Sturgess still receives 40-plus emails a week from managers across his various farming, manufacturing, engineering, printing, and distribution business interests. Not to interfere, he says, but to stay across things.  

“The real point is that our organisations are able to get feedback from what’s going on in the real world, in the marketplace, and react on a timely basis.”  

A case in point is his 100%-owned Methane Mitigation Ventures (MMV), which is backing New Zealand trials of two methane-inhibiting feed supplements: asparagopsis seaweed and an orange and garlic-derived supplement developed by British-Swiss agritech Mootral.  

MMV has partnered with Anzco to trial Mootral in cows in the meat processor’s commercial feedlot in 2022. MMV is also trialling the supplement in farm settings. The two-year research programme has just under $1 million funding from MPI’s Sustainable Food and Fibre (SFF) Futures fund and just under $1.5m industry funding, chiefly from MMV.  

A joint venture between MMV and Mootral gives Sturgess the exclusive rights to import and distribute the supplement in Australia and New Zealand; a similar JV with CH4 Global gives Sturgess distribution rights for CH4-supplied asparagopsis in New Zealand if/when it becomes commercially viable.  

No time to ‘shag around’  

As well as being part of the farming community for 23 years through his Lone Star farm group, Sturgess has interests in several distribution businesses that he could use (he has a 42% stake in Blue Star Group and, through his Tiri Group, owns 62% of office supplies company NXP).  

Sturgess says MMV was a focus for him in 2021. “There’s some economic interest in it, obviously, but it’s primarily because we don’t have time to be shagging around.”  

As a “craven little entrepreneur in this space”, MMV can be nimble, he says.  

“We learn something, we test it, we vet it, we make a deal, and we move forward, and our cycle time is a week to 10 days; [not to be] critical … but the Crown [and] large corporates cannot iterate in a week. Sometimes we’re wrong, but we find out pretty darn fast. And nobody’s career is in jeopardy; nobody’s funding is in jeopardy … We just figure it out and get on with it.”  

Increased stake in NXP  

Mercury Capital, which invests in privately run businesses throughout Australasia, is a long-time investment partner of Sturgess, who’s a director but not shareholder. It quietly exited its investment in NXP in 2021 with a 10-times-plus money multiple according to the Australian Financial Times. Tiri Group, which is 85% owned by Sturgess, upped its stake in NXP to 91% from 55%.  

Meanwhile, label manufacturing group Hexagon, in which Sturgess and Mercury each had a stake, was sold to US label giant Multi-Color Corporation in October – “a very successful transaction”. The OIO valued the group at $188m.  

Sturgess says the companies in the Tiri group went “from strength to strength” in 2021.  

Lone Star Farms has a focus on lamb high in omega-3

Lone Star Farms is part of a breeding programme for lamb high in omega-3.

For Lone Star Farms, a continued focus was its involvement in the ‘Headwaters’ breeding programme for lamb high in omega-3, a partnership between 50 farmers, MPI, and Alliance Group. Last year, 42,000 Lone Star lambs went through the programme. This year, that number will rise to between 115,000 and 120,000, then to 200,000 lambs in 2023, and ultimately one million-plus. Lone Star also sold all of its high-omega-3 breeding rams.  

The farms experienced their first-ever workplace death in 2021: Philip Holt, a contractor who died from an incident at Puramāhoi, Takaka, where the Sturgesses also live. Sturgess says he was incredibly saddened by the “tragic accident”.  

Sturgess chairs the investment committee of Regeneration VC, a US$50m first fund based in Santa Barbara, California (his US base), focused on the circular economy and regeneration. It has made five direct investments so far and further investments with NZ science and deep-tech fund Pacific Channel.  

Sturgess chairs the finance committee of Direct Relief, also Santa Barbara-based, which last year distributed more than 90 million masks, PPE, and oxygen concentrators. He also started supporting African Women Rising, a women-run non-profit focused on the health and education of young girls.  

Marines to MBA  

US-born Tom Sturgess was always on the make: at school he’d swap his lunch money in search of collectable coins he could sell for a profit. Later, fighting in Vietnam as a marine, he was made acting platoon leader in charge of 48 men on his 20th birthday (there were no officers left). He lost no men.  

Back home, he drove fire trucks in California and did an MBA at Harvard. A stint as an accountant introduced him to private equity, and he became co-founder of private equity fund Wingate Partners, which favoured medium-sized, underperforming businesses in old industries that could be bought cheaply.  

Sturgess himself would take the reins, replace executive teams and, he says, give them whatever they asked for as long as they were transparent about risk. He became chair/CEO of, among others, United Stationers, Redman Industries, and RBP Holdings. Wingate Partners was ranked No 1 for rate of return over 20 years by Buyouts magazine.  

In 1996, Sturgess was treated for cancer – “a wake-up call” that prompted him, his first wife and their two children to emigrate to Golden Bay, New Zealand. Shortly after arriving, Tom was asked to coach an entrepreneur: Eric Watson.  

“I said: ‘I don’t think Eric will be coachable by me’.” Later, those investors called back asking if Tom would take over Blue Star (then four businesses, including a printer and bookseller Whitcoulls) if Watson retired, and he agreed.  

He sold Blue Star to Champ Private Equity in 2006, only to buy it back in 2013 in partnership with powerful Australian investor Mercury Capital. Blue Star bought its main competitor Geon months later. Today, Sturgess owns 42% and Mercury Capital 45% of the printer.  

Meanwhile, Sturgess started buying up beef and sheep farms mostly in the South Island, aggregating 35 into six. Today, five remain as part of Lone Star Farms (the North Island farm, Hadleigh, near Masterton, was sold for $13.4m to Austrian aristocrat Countess Veronika Leeb-Goess-Saurau in 2019). The farms run some 80,000 stock: about 80% sheep, 20% cattle.  

Sturgess also started buying ‘legacy companies’ under the umbrella of Tiri Group. In 2018, Tiri bought the New Zealand operations of office supplies company Winc (previously Staples), rebranded as NXP.  

Today, Tiri is a collection of independent manufacturing and distribution businesses with a $200m turnover and 600 staff, owned and chaired by Sturgess. (He has said: “If it’s glamorous or sexy, I have nothing to do with it. I like making stuff and distributing stuff.”)  

Motorcycle Mecca Museum

Motorcycle Mecca Museum.

Tom married second wife Heather in 2006 and the couple live between Puramāhoi, Golden Bay, and Santa Barbara, California. In 2016 he sold one of his Californian properties to US television star Ellen DeGeneres for a reported US$7.2m.  

The Sturgesses support charities in both places, including the Hospice of Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara-based Direct Relief, and wildlife conservation organisations in New Zealand, Africa, and the US (Heather’s passion).  

Tom’s non-work passion is motorbikes. At one point, his private collection numbered 400, but when illness forced him to sell it, its new owners turned it into Motorcycle Mecca Museum in Invercargill, run by fellow NBR Listers Scott and Joc (née Richardson) O’Donnell. 

2021: $395 million 

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