Heath Wilkins, who has died aged 54, started Golden Bay Fruit after New Zealand’s apple and pear industry was deregulated, and built it into one of the country’s top exporters

Heath Wilkins Golden Bay Fruit

Heath Wilkins founded Golden Bay Fruit in 2000 (Photo: Golden Bay Fruit)

The fresh produce trade has reacted with shock and sadness to the news that Heath Wilkins, founder and managing director of New Zealand cooperative Golden Bay Fruit, has died unexpectedly at the age of 54.

From his family farm in Motueka, South Island, Wilkins started Golden Bay Fruit following the deregulation of New Zealand’s apple and pear industry in 2000.

No longer obliged to sell their fruit through the NZ Apple and Pear Marketing Board, growers suddenly had a chance to become exporters in their own right, and it was an opportunity that he seized with both hands.

From that moment on, and with support from other apple-producing families, Wilkins managed to grow the Golden Bay brand and to build an impressive export business – not just to traditional destinations in Europe, but also in emerging Asian and Middle Eastern markets.

In April 2022, the company refreshed its brand to underline the spirit of partnership and empowerment among growers, something that remained at its core during those first two decades.

“Heath’s loss is deeply felt across Golden Bay Fruit, the industry and the community, affecting us not only as a dedicated leader but also as a close friend and colleague,” the company said in a statement.

“Our thoughts and heartfelt condolences go out to his wife Lisa, his kids Tasmyn, Sydnee & Connor, and his entire family during this incredibly difficult time. At Golden Bay Fruit, we are a close-knit family, and now, more than ever, we stand united to navigate through this challenging period.”

Martin O’Sullivan, a former Tesco buyer and now commercial and operations director at UK-based importer Richard Hochfeld Group, wrote on LinkedIn: “An absolute gentleman, a leader in so many ways. I knew him both from the retail side and the supply side, [he was a] great guy. Always great company, always thinking ahead.”

Ben Bardsley, former CEO of fruit supplier Bardsley England and now head of climate tech business Bx, described Wilkins as “a legend of the global fresh produce industry,” before adding: “Gone but never forgotten. His spirit will live on.”