Interview with Mr.  Tony Falkenstein – Founder and CEO of Just Life Group

Just Life Group is a New Zealand-based provider of products and services focused on the homes market sectors. The Company provides filtered water solutions through Just Water and natural health supplements through About Health and Intenza. The story of Just Life Group begins in 1987. Founder and CEO, Tony Falkenstein had noticed water coolers in American sitcoms and came to see them as a symbol of healthy living – something he had always been passionate about…

“I built Just Life Group on trust and fair play, and I treat every customer and shareholder as though they were my own family.”

Tony Falkenstein

ASIA PACIFIC BUSINESS: Just Life Group is a respected company in New Zealand. Tony, can you tell us more about Just Life Group? And what’s the philosophy of Just life Group?

Tony Falkenstein: I actually founded Just Life Group as a renter of facsimile machines in 1987. A year later, having seen water coolers in a US Sitcom, I saw this as a good rental product to sell to businesses. That was the start of Just Water, and now we have about rental payments coming in each month from our 30,000 customers in both businesses and homes. I had previously been CEO of a public listed company, so decided to IPO the company in 2004 as Just Water International Ltd. The name changed to Just Life Group, as we expanded from Just Water to online dietary supplements, and entered the Healthy Homes segment with the purchase of a ventilation and daylighting business. So now there are 2 segments – Healthy Living and Healthy Homes. Basically I am an opportunist, and if the right opportunity I will take it. I still own over 70% of the listed company.

ASIA PACIFIC BUSINESS: Just Life now has a diverse portfolio of brands and products, can you tell us more about these businesses and how do you add value for your customers?

Tony Falkenstein: We have 10 brands, all incorporating our mission of ‘enhancing lives’.

The company started off as a pioneer in the ‘drinking’ water business, when it first started ‘Just Water’ as its first brand. I am very anti-sugar, in particular sugar loaded drinks. New Zealand is the third most obese country in the world after USA and Mexico, and this is costing the health system billions of dollars with the growth in Type 2 diabetes and heart conditions. We are consuming far too much sugar per person, so we feel proud that the millions of litres of drinking water that we supply might replaces millions of litres of sugary drinks.

The dietary supplement business was an add-on business, as although a lot of people get sufficient vitamins and minerals in their diet, a big proportion don’t, and this weakens their immune system resulting in the likelihood of various health problems. In addition, as we get older, our diet is not sufficient to provide all the vitamins and minerals required. Our dietary supplements are well researched, and again fulfil our mission of enhancing lives.

In our Healthy Homes segment, we provide daylighting systems into homes, businesses and schools. Solatube, which is our brand, provides a tubular system which allows light into dark places. There has been a lot of research that students will perform better if there is good light in the classroom, and Solatube provides that light, rather than fluorescent lighting, similarly in the workplace and home.

Our ‘enhancing lives’ mission is a great guide when we are looking at acquisitions – we would never buy a chocolate business or a cigarette company for example, but if we can provide a better, better light and better air to our customers, we feel we will be in line with our mission.

ASIA PACIFIC BUSINESS: We know you are very committed to sustainable development and the social responsibilities; can you share your stories and experience in this regard?

Tony Falkenstein: At Just Life Group our mission is “enhancing lives”, and we feel very proud of that mission. We would never contemplate selling sugary drinks or cigarettes – any product we introduce must be helpful to society, not just a way to make money. We are very environmentally conscious, and are continually looking for ways to use biodegradable packaging.
We introduced biodegradable and decompostable cups about 3 years ago, and stopped selling paper cups. The new cups cost about 10% more, but I received about 80 responses from customers congratulating us for moving to the new cups, and not one complaint about the price increase.

ASIA PACIFIC BUSINESS: Tony, you made some successful investments and acquisitions, can you talk about how M&A accelerate your business transformation? What is your vision for the next decade?

Tony Falkenstein: M&A is an extremely important part of our growth story – we have 10 very strict criteria on what an acquisition looks like, and don’t go outside that criteria. Obviously any acquisition must fit within our 2 segments of Healthy Living and Healthy Homes, and we are currently pursuing other online dietary supplement companies under the Healthy Living umbrella.

ASIA PACIFIC BUSINESS: Tony, you are a very senior leader with decades of entrepreneurial experience, what’s your philosophy of entrepreneurship? And can you share some personal experience or lessons?

Tony Falkenstein: I am one of those people with an “entrepreneurial mindset”, which means both being able to envisage the idea and then execute on that idea. Most people have ideas, but can’t execute, and many can execute, but don’t have any meaningful ideas.

I go back to the 4 ‘P’s – product, price, promotion and place. If I can find something unique about any or all of those, I probably have a concept worth investigating. If I am doing the same thing as everybody else, then I am just splitting the pie.

A few years ago, I launched a brand of sunglasses, Le Specs, into a crowded market.

All the product was made of crylon, a very flexible material, so they didn’t break easily. The Le Specs name gave them the connotation of French fashion flair, with the tri-colour on the arm of the frame. The sunglasses were all one price and sold in packs of 50, and individual retailers could swop frames that weren’t selling. We sold only in pharmacies and department stores, and not in supermarkets, and we had great TV advertising of “bums on seats”. So, in every aspect of the marketing mix, we were different from the competition. In the first year we expanded the market and took 50% market share. An absolute success story.