Leading Questions: Just Water CEO Tony Falkenstein’s reveals his sugar secret

Entrepreneur Tony Falkenstein is back from his “lost decade” and driving his latest company, Just Life Group, toward $100 million turnover. He looks back at 2020, and earlier, and forward to the New Year.

What was the first job you ever had?

My first part-time job was as an 8-year-old, delivering the Herald. The Herald bag was strung over the bar of my bike, and I was hardly able to reach the pedals. For older customers, I had to get off my bike, and deliver the paper to their front door.

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My first full-time job was serving my apprenticeship as a baker pastry cook at Eve’s Epsom Pantry. I had to get up at midnight and be in the shop by 2am to work a 16-hour day.A few months in, my boss lost his licence and from then I was tasked with driving him to work in his Mercedes.Being 17, this was the ultimate in job satisfaction.

What’s the worst job you ever had?

I worked for New Zealand Sugar Company at Chelsea Works, and by the end of each day the floor was black and thick mud from people’s boots traipsing through the sticky syrup.I had to scrape the floor until it was clean and put all the scrapings into a bucket to be put back through the refining process the next day. They didn’t like any wastage!

How would you describe 2020 for your business?

It was a dramatic year. The lockdown gave our leadership team time and space to think through how the business would survive through turbulent times. We had to deal with a restructure where some of our long term employees, and personal friends, lost their jobs. We had to put together a budget for an uncertain future and, on the positive side, we searched for new acquisition opportunities, sealing one in September. (The Cylinder Guy).

How do you think the Government has handled the Covid-19 crisis?

Admirably – crises play to the Prime Minister’s strengths. She handled this one with aplomb, motivated the team of 5 million, and the result was one of the few countries where people were able to go about their daily life virtually as normal.

What are two key things the Government should do for economic recovery?

I think the Government lost the opportunity to increase taxes on a lower threshold, and the promise not to implement further taxes limits the opportunities from an income viewpoint.

From a cost viewpoint, Government needs to spend on infrastructure and income-producing projects, cancelling ‘nice to have’ plans.

How is your business planning to tackle 2021?

We are very positive about 2021. Our base infrastructure is ready to handle the various scenarios that could play out during the year. We see acquisition opportunities at a time when interest rates are at their lowest.

What will be the major challenges and/or opportunities for your industry?

Finding the right people is becoming tough, as good people are not changing jobs that easily. This applies at all levels.

What was the most interesting non-Covid story of 2020?

Touring around Rocket Lab with founder, Peter Beck. Wow, that guy is amazing, and what he has achieved is just mind-boggling!

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More Peter Becks in this country would make us formidable – my vote for Man of the Decade: Peter Beck!

What was your favourite binge-watch of 2020?

Sex Education – very light, but fun. Gillian Anderson as the mother/sex therapist makes the series.

Favourite TV series or movie of 2020?

Sour Grapes – a documentary about fine wine fraud. How were so many wine connoisseurs fooled?

Favourite summer drink?

I’m a beer drinker, but I can’t tell the difference between real beers and Heineken Zero, so I have been drinking the latter.

Where did you holiday this summer?

Our daughter came out of managed isolation on 1 January and we took off to Waiheke, where we rented a cottage at Enclosure Bay.

What are your predictions for 2021?

I think there’s a lot of positive momentum in the economy currently, and this will continue through the first 6 months of the year, and maybe start tapering off in the second half. It will be very tough for small and large retailers as well as the tourism industry. Domestic and industrial property prices will continue to rise; Apartments and commercial property will be flat at best. The sharemarket will be buoyant as money comes off term deposits at less than 1 per cent interest rates, while there are still opportunities to get yields of 3 – 4 per cent from well-run listed companies.

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