Earlier this year, Scott Johnson joined NZX-listed company Blis Technologies as its chief executive. He talks to business editor Sally Rae about getting back to basics.

It is a Dunedin story that has not fully realised its potential — but that’s not through a lack of trying.

That’s how Scott Johnson describes Blis Technologies, the probiotics company which he has been chief executive of since January this year and which marks its 25th anniversary next year.

Now it was all about realising that potential “and taking it to the rest of the world from Dunedin”. It also had to be sustainably profitable to ensure it was around for the next quarter century.

“If I had a dollar for every time I said ‘sustainable profitable base’, I’d be quite rich by now,” he quipped.

Blis, which posted its maiden profit in 2019, was founded by Emeritus Professor John Tagg who suffered from strep throat as a child and was determined to find a much better way to prevent it.

His research at the University of Otago led to the discovery of Blis K12, a probiotic that could prevent strep throat by inhibiting the growth of bad bacteria. That breakthrough became the foundation for the company.

Mr Johnson, who replaced Brian Watson as chief executive, has spent most of his career in fast-moving consumer goods both in New Zealand and offshore. About half of that time was spent with Frucor Suntory, which took him and his family to Amsterdam for more than four years.

As chief executive international, he was responsible for the company’s international business outside Australia and New Zealand. Returning to New Zealand, he continued in the position but knowing it had a “life span” on it.

From there, he became group chief executive of the The Better Health Company Group, which was known for its Go Healthy consumer brand. The brief was to grow the business three to five times in three to five years, which was achieved, before it was sold to Nestle Health Science.

Mr Johnson was aware of Blis and was keen to join the company, saying the industry did a lot of positive things in the world and Blis had a winning value proposition.

There were consumer tailwinds behind it with an ageing population, a more proactive approach to health, developing countries in South East Asia embracing what the business did, some leveraging of the NZ Inc credentials — “and then you want to make a difference, as we all want to do when we get out of bed in the morning, right?”

He also liked the fact it was a listed company and it had a good team, including Prof Tagg who still worked there part-time.

Last month, a refreshed strategic plan was presented to Blis’ board and then to the wider team; it was about keeping very focused and deliberate around what were the right markets to play in.

It was not a strategy rewrite, rather a refresh based on a tighter focus on some key things. Now it was a matter of executing that strategy, Mr Johnson said.

In 2021, Blis entered into a long-term strategic partnership with Swedish global probiotics company Probi — listed on Nasdaq Stockholm — which took a 13% shareholding in the company. Blis was able to leverage off its capability.

Blis knew it had a winning value proposition with K12 — its hero probiotic strain — and M18. It just needed to scale that up. A recent white paper released by Blis highlighted K12’s ability to boost the immune system against Covid-19 as well as alleviate its symptoms faster.

In April, Blis upgraded its full-year earnings, citing its full-year earnings guidance, favourable timing of several major orders, increased sales across its business-to-business channels and an underspend in some planned research and development expenditure this year.

Its guidance for the year ended March 31 was for revenue of $11.5 million and ebitda of $0.8m.

Among its KPIs, one of the most important was to deliver an acceptable profit and there were a “whole lot of building blocks” associated with that, but off the back of a “back to basics” philosophy, Mr Johnson said.

Next month he is going to the International Probiotics Association World Congress in Salt Lake City where representatives from Probi will also be attending, including chief executive Anita Johansen who was appointed to Blis’ board of directors in January this year. While he had been in online meetings with Probi, “you can’t beat face to face”, he said.

Mr Johnson felt fortunate to have experience around him, including chief technology officer Dr John Hale who did his PhD studying bacteriocins under the supervision of Prof Tagg at the University of Otago and who was able “to break down something very complex into simple messages”.

He was conscious of the about 30 staff, customers, “very patient” shareholders, suppliers and the community Blis lived and worked in. Each year, interns from the university were brought in.

As chief executive, there was a sense of responsibility that came with the role, not just financial metrics but ensuring the livelihoods of those people who turned up every day to work for Blis. The board, chaired by Geoff Plunket, was very supportive and held management to account.

“It’s a buzz. It’s playing in a sector I love. I’ve got a good team down here; they are all up for it. It has a winning value proposition. We’re just making sure we do our numbers and everything’s consumer driven and everything’s got a commercial rationale — and focus, focus, focus.”

Mr Johnson still lived in Auckland and commuted regularly to Dunedin, saying the flight south was sometimes quicker than driving across the northern city. He was enjoying his time in Dunedin, saying it was a “cool city to be part of”.

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