(Aug. 29) VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Until May 2001, Auckland-based Enza Ltd. had a monopoly on virtually all apples and pears exported out of New Zealand.

Now, nearly a year after the New Zealand government stepped in and broke up Enza’s stranglehold on the business, the latter is heading in a new direction that may result in a wider variety of commodities that it sends to the U.S. and elsewhere.

Auckland-based investment conglomerate Guinness Peat Group, which owns a 100% stake in Enza and a 46% share of fruit and vegetable producer Turners & Growers Ltd., announced Aug. 25 its intentions to merge the two companies and list the still-to-be-named new company on the New Zealand Stock Exchange in early 2003.

That could mean a sizable increase in business opportunities for Vancouver-based The Oppenheimer Group, Enza’s exclusive distributor in the U.S. and Canada.

“They’re looking to use Enza’s worldwide marketing arm for other lines — berries, apricots, peaches, avocados,” said John Anderson, president, chairman and chief executive officer of Oppenheimer. “So it’s a positive. It’s a chance for us to increase the amount of products they bring in. It allows us more products and to expand some products.”

Oppenheimer brings about 2.8 million cartons of apples and pears into North America each year, Anderson said, adding that he could not estimate how much more product the merger would enable his company to bring in.

“Certainly, hundreds of thousands of extra packs are possible,” he said.

Oppenheimer already brings in a variety of fruits, including kiwifruit and berries, from several sources.

“So, we’re in that arena as it is,” Anderson said. “But this allows for more products and expansion of some products.”

Enza had owned virtually all export rights to apples and pears until the New Zealand government deregulated exports from its $630 million apple and pear industry in October.

“This (new company) will be a big contributor to the national economy and will add value for shareholders, suppliers and customers,” said Tony Gibbs, chief executive officer of the Guinness Peat Group, which will own 80% of the new enterprise.

Ecuador’s Noboa Corp., a banana supplier, is the second-largest shareholder in Turners & Growers, with a 25% stake.

Existing major shareholders in both unlisted companies are not expected to sell down their stakes, Gibbs said. Before its official launch, “sometime in the first quarter” of 2003, the new entity will try to raise as much as $100 million in capital from retail and institutional investors, Gibbs said.

“This merger should work because Enza has a very large off-shore infrastructure that allows it to sell fruit and apples,” Gibbs said.

“Turners & Growers has a large on-shore infrastructure. So, you’ll have a very large on-shore infrastructure able to feed a large off-shore infrastructure.”

Gibbs said GPG intended to remain a significant shareholder in the new company. Details have yet to be worked out, but sources quoted in the New Zealand Herald expect a newly floated company to have shareholders funds of $300 million to $400 million and to immediately take its place in the NZSE-40 Capital Index.

The new company will be exporting produce from pumpkins to peas, with annual sales of $1.2 billion, Gibbs said.

Gibbs said he hopes the company would, at some point, export kiwifruit. However, Zespri International, the exporting arm of Zespri, New Zealand’s former Kiwifruit Marketing Board, continues to hold a monopoly on kiwifruit exports.

“I doubt that will change anytime soon,” Gibbs said. “But, I dare say, the opportunity to export kiwifruit will arise.”

Enza, after all, lost its hold on New Zealand’s $700 million-a-year apple and pear export industry in a deregulatory move that opened the door for exporters to bypass Enza.