Innovate or die
Officially formed in 2001 as Oz Berries, the co-operative started as a partnership between four banana-growing families in the Coffs Harbour region of the NSW mid-north coast. Beset by a number of ‘banana gluts’ (periods of oversupply that drive prices for the commodity below their cost of production), farmers in the region were beginning to worry that the banana trade, which operated on small margins already, had become volatile.
A move to berries saw the group expand to 18 growers, open their first purpose-built packing facility and, in 2013, launch Oz Group Co-operative. Today, they’re the largest producer and grower of blueberries in Australia with over 150 growers and a turnover of roughly $160 million.
How did they go from almost defeat to king of the mountain? Oz Group CEO, Brett Kelly, says it’s a result of non-stop commitment to innovation. “While quality standards – from the farm through to the finished product – are important, the biggest driver for us at Oz Group is the front-end of the business.”
He goes on to describe an oft-told tale of farmers investing all their energy and resources into the back-end of the business – that is, the actual growing and harvesting of the fruit. This can often leave businesses vulnerable to the pesky winds of industry change.
“It goes without saying that a lot of thought needs to go into best practice and the quality of your product, but if you don’t sell, you could end up in a situation where you have too much and the price is affected,” says Kelly.
This motivation has seen the company invest roughly $5 million in state-of-the-art processing machines, plant technology, agronomists and field officers. It also encouraged them to partner with industry experts like Driscoll, to help them access new markets in Australia and offshore.
As a result, Oz Group now exports berries to Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia, with plans to add Japan and China to the list in the near future. “We’re developing export channels so we can grow – and sell – as much as we want,” explains Kelly.
Fruit or furnishings: Innovation is the same
Kelly, who was previously the CEO of Norco, an Australian-owned dairy co-operative, argues that milk or fruit, the same principles apply when it comes to promoting business innovation. He recommends following these five basic principles, and innovative thinking is sure to follow:
1. Find your experts: Employ people who are specialists in their field and who can bring fresh thinking to your organisation.
2. Establish partnerships: The right partnerships are the gateway to opportunity and understanding your industry.
3. Train your teams: Training is an investment in better practice, improved efficiency and quality of your product and service.
4. Have a strategy: A clear understanding of who you are in the market and what your point of difference is will help you focus your efforts on improvements that promise a capital return.
Stay knowledgeable: Make a commitment to understanding your customer and the market and you’ll soon be able to make predictions about the future of your industry – and innovate accordingly.