Catching up with Tim Ryan of Otis Oat M!lk

Last week, we were fortunate to have the opportunity to chat with Tim Ryan - founder of New Zealand’s first oat milk brand Otis Oat M!lk. Otis is doing the hard yards in the super-competitive Oat Milk market with their sustainability ambitions and their strong focus on supporting rural communities.

 

Stoked to be having a chat with you, Tim! In light of the current climate I think it would be nice to start off on a positive note: What is something that you’re really optimistic about right now?

 

Lovely to be invited to chat Dane, love the work you and the team do at Goodlids, big fans.

 

Yikes, yeah the ‘O’ word, we are certainly living in unprecedented times aren’t we?! At the end of the day the big old elephant in the room is still our ever-changing climate. You can't help but feel that with the additional global challenges of Covid, World Wars and Will Smith slapping Chris Rock, our elected decision makers & media aren’t giving our climate crisis the urgency & air time it deserves. 

 

Really there is so much to be optimistic about though aye… the rise of a new generation of climate conscious school kids who are all conditioned to engage and problem solve the design failures of yesteryear, such as single use plastics, is pretty cool to watch (I’m a child of the 80’s you see...)

 

A band called Idles touring NZ in October, I am certainly optimistic about that going down; and Darcy, my 18 month old, she’s added a new lens as to why I get out of bed in the morning (and at what time).

 

 

It seems fair to say that Oats have well and truly changed the landscape of plant-based milks. How is Otis going above and beyond as a brand in this competitive market?

 

Yeah it’s oat wars out here Dane, it’s too much fun!

 

This humble cropping plant, whom many saw as a sunset industry (evident in there now only being one NZ mill left - Dunedin’s Harraways) is now thrust firmly into the spotlight. It’s super exciting, but there’s so much more to come, the oat beverage industry is still in its absolute infancy here and new entrants are still learning how to make a milk that stands up to the high standards overseas. Looking at the supermarket shelf when we launched way back in 2019, there was maybe one oat milk brand, fast forward to today and we have whole bays dedicated to oat, with brands telling a huge range of colourful stories, with an array of product qualities and varying packaging types. How rad is that? I’m just thankful we got to market first and can watch the madness from the side-lines!

 

What sets us apart is being a brand built on purpose and steadfast commitment to our cause. We don’t see ourselves as a flash in the pan fad, we’re here to change the game for the long term.  Our north star is to disrupt intensive dairy practices and drive sustainable change from within the 'big ag' machine. Plain and simple that’s what we did from day dot, and we go to work every day to continue that mission. However we can’t truly deliver on that north star until we can produce hundreds of millions of litres of premium grade, healthy oat milk from a factory setup with the correct equipment and production expertise. This was the journey we set forth on 4 years ago, and we are still on it, good things take time particularly when big dollars are involved, but we are happy and content in our values as a company that we haven’t taken any shortcuts in rushing production back. We owe it to our hard working oat growing group, and thirsty plant based oat milk lovers, we’re here for a long time not a good time.

 

As the market leader in New Zealand, we have built strong relationships with the mill, Harraways, and with our oat growers group. Knowing how farmers tick and the trust needed to build lasting relationships, we have committed 1% of all our sales to furthering the development of oat growing in NZ. We have an amazing grower group and luckily don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but challenging the status quo and investigating alternate growing methods is something we as a company hold in the highest regard. The entire primary industry sector of NZ has committed to this challenge, so we only see fit that we start to drive that change as a group.

 

 

Has sustainability always been something important for you personally?

 

Growing up on a farm and having an education set in the mountains, I was taught from a young age (thanks Mum and Dad) how and why the natural world goes around. Weather systems, snow, rain, rivers, soil, life and death, birds bees yada yada. You know, that classic Kiwi farm kid life. As I am sure you guys know well at Goodlids, I think once you’re enchanted with the natural world, it’s very hard to forget it. Layer in growing up skiing in the hills and surfing our coastlines and you’d be mad not to notice the environmental degradation ever so slowly happening to some of our delicate ecosystems. I guess it wasn’t until I put two and two together when I first tried oat milk back in 2011 that I knew I had an opportunity to create a platform that stood up for what was close to me.

 

 

Let’s take it back to the beginning. What would you say was the formative experience that planted the seed of Otis?

 

Good question. Growing up in and around rural communities and knowing what a gold rush dairy was for many farmers back in the nineties, knowing how that changed generations of farmers and their families, it was incredible to watch. However as you grow a bit longer in the tooth and start to see through the BS, questioning ‘how can we always expect higher yields and bigger profits every year?’, ‘how can these farming families be leant more and more money, need to service more and more debt?’. It’s not hard to look back at the world and understand seasons come and seasons go, and I truly believe dairy as we currently know it, will not exist in my kids future. So as a country let’s prepare for that now.

 

In 2016 I came home from Europe for a family holiday, I hadn’t been home for years, we made the drive down to Lake Ohau and I was gobsmacked how intensive dairy had taken over the delicate alpine environment of the McKenzie Country. That’s tussock land, grass doesn’t grow there! That was it, that was the proverbial seed, and it was then I knew the idea I had sat on for years had its place. Rest is history I guess.

 

 

 

Outside of your work with Otis, what are you passionate about?

 

We are blessed in that our family has a bach down at Lake Ohau (well we did but it was burnt down in the fires, so its nearly rebuilt!) so Ohau is somewhere I have grown up skiing, hunting, fishing and exploring. Getting into the mountains now with an extremely curious 18 month old at my side gives everything new meaning. So spending time exploring the back blocks, treasuring the beauty we have at our fingertips and how lucky we are as humans to be able to share it.

 

What does a typical day look like for Tim Ryan?

 

Yikes tough one, thankfully every day is different. My partner is a doctor so she’s away early, its usually playtime with Darcy over a steamy bowl of porridge, followed by day care drop off, and then into it.

 

Nowadays I spend most of my day on calls but I always try block a day a week to meet with growers, millers and stakeholders, I see this as a really important part of what we do to ensure we stay in step. I’ll also often be on calls with our Swedish techs as they are heavily involved in factory planning and product development. We really are so lucky to have over 50 years of knowledge at our fingertips. But in all honesty, we have the most bad arse little team that really run the business day to day, so all credit to them.

 

Somewhere amongst it all, I usually try sneak a wee surf or run in but that doesn’t always work out nowadays. Pretty standard dad life really innit?

 

 

 

Favourite Goodlids product?

 

I mean it has to be the Otis Oat M!lk hemp caps you guys made for us, I can’t live without mine, they are like hens teeth and I always end up giving mine away to baristas!

 

But you can’t go past the Goodlids Sig Tee either, staple.

 

  

 

Finally, what does 2022 hold for you and Otis?

 

2022 is another big year for the brand, we literally have so many balls in the air but without giving away too much…

 

Bringing production home to NZ – we will not sleep until this is sorted, and we have some pretty big announcements hopefully shortly. Covid has really set this project back for us, we would have had it done much sooner, but hey ho. Our vision for the Plant Plant (as we affectionately call it) is it will change the game for so many NZ brands (not just us) and be the first of its kind for NZ.

 

New product development – we just dropped choc oat m!lk which we are super proud of (name a better choc milk, I’ll wait). We will have four more oat based products dropping throughout the year, stay tuned. Our food techs have had a super busy 12 months developing these products. We’re fussy as hell when it comes to flavour so we have really taken our time and perfected the heck out of them. Taste, performance and health qualities are non-negotiable in the Otis world.

 

The Otis One Percent Fund – as I mentioned we are really putting our money where our mouth is by donating 1% of sales to helping farmers grow oats.  People see Otis and think oh they’re just an oat milk brand, whereas in reality we live and breathe sustainable change. This mahi is the over and above we put in to cement ourselves as a brand that will be around for decades to come, to one day be a plant based dairy company that rivals that of big dairy. We are six months into our first year of collecting funds from sales, and in October will announce the projects where we want to have impact.

 

Being a Dad – as I am sure for every parent juggling a lot, just trying to be the best Dad and partner I can be, whilst running this Otis circus. It really is so much fun, but maintaining a healthy balance and switching off to be present with the fam is something I will always be trying to perfect.

 

Kia ora!