Justine Ross

Founder, 42 Below
Education, Speech and Language Therapy, 1989

Justine Ross

Dare To Be Different.

From early days making vodka in a garage on Oriental Parade to helping grow 42 Below into one of New Zealand's most successful brands, Justine Ross’s diverse career has been fuelled by an innate sense of ambition. Now busy writing her second book, managing a sheep and beef station and promoting beloved NZ beer brand Moa, Justine still has plenty of spark left. “I’ve always had a real hunger to create things that are different and unique, that build a genuine sense of pride in our country.”

Tell us about 42 Below and what inspired you to start it.

My husband was travelling in the States and he saw an ad for an American vodka. It made him realise that our New Zealand values of clean and pure could really resonate with an international audience. He came home and our idea started with a simple question over the kitchen bench: “What do you think?” So we bought a still and started making vodka in a garage on Oriental Parade. It was a true, old-fashioned start-up!

How did it grow from there?

Our dream evolved in increments. We went from believing that we would be the best vodka in New Zealand, to the best in Australasia, to the best in the world. There had never been a vodka from New Zealand before. We went to the government and the stalwarts in the liquor industry at the time who said, “Don’t bother, the sector’s all sewn up. There’s no room for a boutique brand from New Zealand.” Fortunately we ignored all that well-meaning advice!

What’s the most exciting thing about starting a business?

The small milestones you celebrate along the way. Most of it is just awful, especially when you have no growth capital. You drain your bank account and fritter away your mortgage. There’s nothing good about that. Good moments come when you hear someone say something great about you, or a friend says “Hey, I know a bar who will stock a couple of cases.” It’s the small moments that encourage you to keep going.

What do you think was key to the success of 42 Below?

We were brave and irreverent at a time when that was unusual. Swimming against the tide was 42 Below’s great strength. Sure, it's a super premium vodka but everyone loves a laugh. We were naughty and risky and people loved it.

You studied Speech and Language Therapy at UC. How did you end up as an entrepreneur?

Coming out of Year 13 I had no idea what I wanted to do. I know I was good at speeches and debating, and Speech and Language Therapy was my very literal interpretation of that. From there I spent my 20’s finding what I was great at and it turns out it was building relationships. I worked in advertising and journalism which I loved, but all the while in the background was this idea that our vodka needed to take on the world.

What motivates you as a person?

I grew up with a very ambitious mother so that spark was in me from the very beginning. I’ve always had a real hunger to create something different and unique, that contributes to our country. I think identifying those character traits in yourself early and harnessing them is really useful.

What advice would you give to a young person today?

Firstly, get the very best qualification you can. Don't just get an undergraduate, get your Masters, get your PhD. Become an expert in what you do. Secondly, remember that EQ is as critical as IQ in the growth of anything. And thirdly, don't waste your 20s. Harder, faster, sooner. If you believe in something, get on with it.

How do you think your experience at UC has shaped who you are today?

Moving to a new city at age 18 and becoming independent, with the support of a great campus, was really the making of me. It gave me confidence and made me capable of running my own life. The proximity of nature was huge to me as well. My greatest memories are of a carload of mates heading off to the mountains, the rivers or the sea. University was a coming-of-age for me.