George Koreman’s break in business began with a chance meeting with a girl in bar in Bali. Photo / Brett Phibbs
George Koreman’s rapid rise in business has been marked by good luck, bad luck and a lot of making his own luck.
The good luck involved a chance meeting with a girl in a bar
Koreman, now 26, was still doing his BCom at Otago and on holiday with some mates.
The girl said her boyfriend – one Nick Mowbray – worked for a company called Zuru and was in the midst of negotiating a deal with a big retailer.
At the time, Zuru’s co-founders Nick, Anna and Mat Mowbray were a lot less well known than they are today. “Now they’re massive, but they were a lot more undercover then,” Koreman says.
But the siblings soon hit the headlines as they bought the Coatesville property known as Dotcom mansion, just as Koreman was graduating.
“I had a job offer at Mainfreight and a couple of other places, but I was like, ‘No, I don’t really want to do that’,” Koreman says.
So he got in touch with Nick Mowbray’s (now-ex) girlfriend and asked for an introduction.
That led to a meeting with the Mowbrays at their mansion; a couple of trial tasks “and then they flew me out to Hong Kong for a six-month internship”.
Koreman was just 20 when he arrived at Zuru’s small Hong Kong office (the toy giant has most of its operations in China). He knew no-one, having only ever visited once, on a stopover. He lived in a room a little wider than his bed. He made contacts by joining a local rugby team.
“I learned a hell of a lot,” he says. He still keeps in touch with the Mowbrays.
After finishing his internship, Koreman went looking for his own business opportunity.
He settled on the auto-accessories market, including car seat covers and phone holders, in part because it was so pedestrian, which meant there was an opportunity to pep it up.
A buyer for a major retailer suggested an expansion into the “boring” category of air fresheners, which needed some spicing up, so to speak.
“I was like,” Why don’t we take the trends that are happening in toys, and bring them over to air fresheners, add some excitement. The googly eyes and all that type of thing. “
Today, Koreman’s company – Ignite Innovations – is selling millions of car air fresheners each month to clients that include Walmart, 7Eleven and Walgreens in the US, Big W in Australia and The Warehouse, Repco and Super Cheap Auto here – who sell them to punters. for around $ 6 a pop.
More recently, he’s expanded into a white-label business, where major retailers put their own brand on products made by Ignite.
He estimates Ignite, which now has around 60 full-time-equivalent staff, is in the top six or seven companies in the car air freshener market worldwide.
How did he get in a foot in the door at the likes of Walmart? In part, just through sheer persistence. Koreman says he would search for the name of a buyer, then find their email address through trial-and-error repetition of possible combinations of their name or initials. Once he found a valid address, he’d keep sending them product updates, over and over, regardless of whether he heard anything back.
He would also share snippets of information, such as how well a product was selling for a competitor.
“You’ve just got to keep knocking,” he says. “It’s a tough road, but eventually it pays off.”
These days, he has close personal relationships with buyers at major retailers, and at some 30 different factories in China – which has proved crucial amid the pandemic chaos that’s gripped the world for the past two and a half years.
The virus has meant an unintentionally long exile from his Hong Kong base, from which he used to visit factories in China at least every two weeks.
He remembers a moment in March 2020 when he learned someone in his boxing class in Hong Kong had caught Covid.
“Jacinda announced that same day that New Zealand was going into level 4, so I literally within six hours was on a flight home to New Zealand.”
But what he thought would be a brief return to the relative safety of his home country became an extended stay as borders remained shut. He still hasn’t been back to his apartment in Hong Kong.
As travel restrictions eased in 2021, Koreman headed to the US to meet buyers, only to find himself stranded outside New Zealand for eight months as Delta and then Omicron hit.
His latest headache is the new wave of lockdowns and border closures in China, which he says has him working “24/7” to keep Ignite’s business on track.
The way things work in his business, once a retailer places an order for, say, a million car air fresheners, Ignite has to have the product manufactured on time or it faces big penalties – and that’s after wearing all the manufacturing costs up-front .
If the retailer can’t organize pickup and freight, that’s on them – but Koreman still tries to help out on that front to keep relations smooth.
Smells like keen spirit
One recent scrape involved Ignite’s fragrance supplier – a Swiss firm that had closed its factor in China after a lockdown. Koreman sourced fragrance from an alternative supplier in Taiwan but, even though he was willing to stump for the extra cost of air freight, “We couldn’t fly it into Shanghai, because Shanghai is in complete lockdown. So we had to fly it into Shenzen, then get it to Shanghai. It was really tight. “
Then Ignite’s cardboard manufacturer went into a snap lockdown, just days before Koreman’s firm needed to fill a big order.
“We had one week to find another supplier who could supply us with over 1.2 million cardboard header cards for the air fresheners. And ships were being booked out due to them being unable to enter the Shanghai port, causing delays.
“Every other cardboard maker had a full production schedule, but after negotiations with multiple plants, one was found that could squeeze the order in.
“You just have to find a way. Because if you don’t, you lose money.”
The order was back on track for its manufacturing deadline, but Koreman would still not have product to display during a key meeting with a buyer for Walmart in the US, as an urgent freight delivery stretched to 25 days. Undeterred, the Kiwi went to a local printer “and then I had to hand-cut it, and I glued on the air fresheners. It did the trick.”
Koreman says he’s currently scrambling “24/7” to keep orders on track.
“You have to get really creative,” he says. And just do a lot of graft. The young entrepreneur met with the Herald on Monday – a brief respite because it was Sunday for buyers in the US – after spending the weekend working. At 11.30pm on Saturday night – when some of his peers would have been partying – Koreman was on a call to China.
The entrepreneur knows things won’t get a lot easier when he finally makes it back to Hong Kong.
On top of the endless pandemic, there’s the political unrest. Before departing for NZ before the first lockdown here, Koreman managed to get tear-gassed as he ventured too close to a protest. He says some of his friends in areas like finance have now left the city-state. But for fast-moving consumer goods, Hong Kong is still the place to be, Koreman says.
He plans to return. He doesn’t give up easily.