Horticulture

Ready for the next 100 years

By Geoff Adams

Struggling to make a profit, growers anxious about their fruit deliveries, competition from cheap imports — some things remain the same, as Coca Cola Amatil managing director Alison Watkins remarked last week.

Ms Watkins delivered the Fairley Foundation La Trobe Lecture in Shepparton last Wednesday.

‘‘Even back in the 1920s, SPC was fighting a battle against cheap imports,’’ she said.

‘‘It wasn’t Italian tomatoes or Chinese fruit back then, rather a flood of cheap, badly preserved American produce that undercut SPC sales and damaged the reputation of tinned fruit as a household staple.’’

SPC was hauled back into profit under the early guidance of Sir Andrew Fairley in the 1920s.

‘‘The founding of SPC was hailed across the nation as a sign of rural vitality and optimism,’’ Ms Watkins said.

She remarked on the achievements of Sir Andrew Fairley, one of the SPC founders, in whose name the Fairley Foundation was established.

Recalling the early struggles, she said things had often been a long way from peachy at SPC.

‘‘From a profitability and growth perspective, our iconic and popular brand has had to cope with a litany of political, environmental and social challenges, including a constantly changing consumer.

‘‘Some of the toughest times the organisation has faced has been over the last eight or 10 years, under our own ownership, as we have seen the demand for processed fruit fall away and a market flooded by cheap imports.’’

Ms Watkins outlined the $100million investment (supported by the Victorian Government) in the Shepparton factory and its importance in transforming the business. The upgrade has enabled the company to introduce innovative new products aimed at value rather than volume.

In her address, Ms Watkins described growing up on a farm in Tasmania and her education in accounting before moving to mainland Australia ‘‘and leaving my dreams of marrying a farmer behind’’.

She believes her rural background has influenced her roles with the ANZ bank, in Berri and as GrainCorp chief executive officer.

Ms Watkins said consumers were telling the industry they wanted food that was fresher, healthier and ‘‘I want it all now’’.

Processed foods were once seen as healthy and safe. But preserved and processed has now become something to be wary of.

‘‘SPC was built on quality, reliability and consistency,’’ Ms Watkins said.

‘‘The challenge for us in the next 100 years is how to convey the orchard-to-table goodness and the practical benefits of our comparatively long-life products.’’