Worker co-op takes balms to the world

Worker co-op takes balms to the world

Based in Nelson’s Golden Bay, Tui Balms is a 100% staff-owned co-operative which began in 1984 when Colin Iles, a beekeeper and a founding member of the Tui Community, gifted his Bee Balm recipe to the community to create a business.

Back in the early days, production took place in the community house kitchen and Tui Bee Balm was the only product.  Eventually a purpose-built building was built and, over the years, many more balms were added to the range.

Tui Balms now supplies more than 450 retailers throughout New Zealand with a full range of skin and body care products. The co-op also sells online directly to massage and physiotherapy businesses in New Zealand and Australia, and has a licensed franchisee, Songbird Naturals, in Britain which sells throughout the European Union.

Cooperative Business NZ Chief Executive Craig Presland met Tui Balms’ Accounts Manager John Black while presenting to around 50 “co-operators” in Nelson in February 2017.

“This group included people who were either considering setting up a new co-op, moving their businesses over to the co-op business model with its clearly understood principles, otherwise those who owned or worked within mature and well-established co-ops,” says Craig.

“One of the co-ops present, Tui Balms with 12 staff based in Golden Bay, was 100% staff-owned which provides us with a different type of co-op from what we normally see here in New Zealand

“After learning more about Tui Balms it got me thinking about the benefits in belonging to a staff-owned co-operative, some of these being very large organisations overseas including those in the USA and Canada.

“I thought to myself: ‘How can we create an employment framework that builds trust and that sense of motivated co-operative effort whilst also retaining the positive aspects of free enterprise and the potential of wealth creation for entrepreneurs?’

“I think the answer lies with creating a framework that provides a common bond, a focal point in which all employees participate equally.”

Craig believes that the benefits of a common bond, such as that seen in many staff-owned co-operatives, would most likely include the following:

  1. Reduction in costs
  • Reduced supervisory staff
  • Reduced staff turnover, reduced hiring and training
  • More regard to the cost-benefit relationship within the business
  • Less pilfering and abuse of company property
  • Reduction in absenteeism and sick days
  • Reduction in accident rates
  • Elimination of unnecessary work
  • Reduction in non-work related activity.


  1. Improved attitudes and behaviours
  • Increased self-responsibility to colleagues
  • More adaptable towards changing market conditions, otherwise change in general
  • More employee engagement fosters creative ideas on improving systems and operations
  • Willingness to meet deadlines
  • Employee promotion of the business to others
  • Avoiding problems before they arise (better proactive thinking)
  • Improved workplace morale and ethics
  • Creative a work environment that is fulfilling and rewarding
  • Attracting and retaining highly motivated employees who usually see a positive.


  1. Non- tangible benefits
  • Positive public perception towards the business
  • A greater sense of purpose in contributing to an ‘era of co-operation’, otherwise greater collaboration.


Craig says these benefits should improve efficiencies and performance flowing directly to the bottom line.

“This would result in additional remuneration to employees through cash and / or more shares in the co-operative, and influence future contributions from employees, in effect a positive snowball effect,” he says.

“Employees who go to work each day knowing that their effort and contributions will have a direct impact on the benefits which they will receive. Each staff member having strong level of intrinsic job satisfaction, and who believe in the company and where it is heading as a part-owner.

“I’m now wondering why we do not have more 100% staff-owned co-operatives operating here in NZ as I think this type of co-operative is potentially very powerful.

“Well done to Tui Balms for your successes and impressive growth since 1984 operating within your 100% staff-owned co-operative business model!”