Fresh Thinking

Barden Produce

Barden Produce is a grower with a wealth of experience, supplying supermarkets, food processors, and independent grocers across Australia with a variety of specialist herbs, vegetables, and salads in a range of retail ready formats. Innovation is at the heart of the company’s strategy, driving its continuous evolution and its plans for future growth. Able to flourish even in this struggling economy, it is this willingness to adapt and change that has been behind the company’s ongoing success.

Barden was founded in 1989 by John Drummond and Nino Caltabiano. The company started life as a market wholesaler, but quickly grew from there, making inroads with major retailers. Realising that it could benefit by playing a greater role in every step of the supply chain, the company developed a network of growers, enhanced its packaging offerings, and sought to add value at every step along the way. As the retailers began to mature throughout the 90s, Barden kept pace, implementing its “retail ready” concept and tightening up the chain between production and distribution.

All of this work was done in Barden’s own facilities. Handling so many operations in-house served as a catalyst for the business to grow and develop its offering. Progressively over the years, the company expanded into diverse retailers, outlets and concepts, and grew to offer a broad selection of products to meet the requirements of the retailers. Expansion was also driven by changes in the industry, says General Manager Allan Dall. “The growers have moved into the market and taken their supply direct to the retailers, which cut out a lot of businesses like us,” Allan explains. “We recognised what was happening, and as a result we did the reverse, and diversified into the vertically integrated supply chain.” Barden began to build its own farming operations, and established relationships with key growers. This made the company a far more competitive business in the marketplace than it had been just five years prior.

In addition to this winning business model, Barden knew that it needed a host of competent employees at the helm. The company needed fresh ideas and strategies relevant to today’s market. Allan Dall was only 14 years old when he started working in retail nurseries. “I always had a love for gardening and plants,” he reflects, “and decided to further my career after a few years by developing my horticultural skills.” His first interest was in landscape design, so he applied and gained a place at the University of Western Sydney. Within the first two weeks of the course, scholarships were made available in order to grow the pool of horticulturalists in Australia. Allan applied and received one from John Drummond who was with Barden at the time. John approached Allan to work in the produce industry, but he had no interest and politely declined. After graduation, he worked as a landscape designer, but only six months later a persistent owner came back and made Allan an offer he couldn’t refuse. He took the job at the age of 22.

Allan Dall has worn many hats in his lengthy tenure with Barden. He started as a Quality Assurance Manager, where he worked with growers to develop their food safety, quality standards, and skill sets. He also served as Business Manager and IT manager before moving into his present position as General Manager for NSW. “The executive team [at Barden Produce] recognises talent, and develops it from within,” Allan says. “I appreciate that they put their trust in me to deliver results – to give them exactly what they are looking for.”

Around 2007 the industry was becoming very competitive, so the Directors of Barden decided that it was time to evolve once more. Another graduate of the University of Western Sydney, by the name of Nathan Clackson, joined the team. Hydroponics had not been implemented before in Barden’s product ranges, but it became obvious that the technology was the next logical step for the company to take in order to remain ahead of the curve. The first 12 months was, “a rapid learning curve for Nathan,” recalls Allan. Through trial and error, it was determined that hydroponic technology could greatly benefit the company’s Asian vegetable line, enabling it to use far fewer chemicals and maximise yields. Barden now leads the industry in this realm, and its hydroponic Asian vegetable range represents the best of the best. Nathan is now General Manager of Farming Operations, having developed his own skill set along with the company’s expertise.

This new line of hydroponics has grown to include fresh herbs, and greater diversity is coming. “We were the only ones using this technology at the time,” Allan says. “It was unheard of to spend the kind of money we were spending, investing in capital to develop such a system for such a low price/high volume product.” But it turned out to worth the investment. The initial hydroponics system covered three acres. Now the same system encompasses 15 acres across two sites, and the company is considering expansion of these systems for other product lines.

Other quality service offerings are part and parcel of the Barden strategy. Value added services have become a staple of the company’s business plan, and this is where “contract packing” comes into play. Growers need to offer a value added product to their customers, but don’t always have the capability to do it themselves. So, they deliver their product to Barden who takes it through the value chain before delivering the finished product to the retailer. Growers are able to maintain their direct relationship with the consumer, with the additional value added by Barden.

Barden also markets product on behalf of growers. Growers want to focus on growing quality produce, not necessarily on engaging with the retailer and marketing the product. “So they grow it, pick it and deliver it to us,” Allan explains. “Then we will find an outlet for the product and caretake it right through the rest of the process for them.” Barden’s efforts to this end include a focus on quality as well as marketing. The company will package items such as iceberg lettuce, for example, in a plastic film to minimise spoilage and waste, ensuring that the product that hits store shelves is of the highest quality and is appealing to consumers.

When Barden puts all its diverse elements together, the result is a vertically integrated produce operation that can service the needs of growers, retailers and its own in-house farming operations to deliver ideal solutions to the marketplace, and ultimately, to the consumer.

The final piece of the puzzle, of course, is safety. As with any food operation, safety is always top of mind at Barden. Industry accreditations play an important role, and Barden maintains HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points), WQA (Woolworths Quality Assured), BRC (British Retail Consortium Code), Coles Supplier Accreditations, ALDI Supplier Requirements, and Freshcare V3 accreditations. These are independent third party certification bodies that visit each location every six months to audit the operations.

Barden’s aim is to be a true market leader in its field. “From our perspective,” explains Allan, “we want to deliver on those customer expectations (both consumer and retailer), and the only way we can do that is to be innovative and give a better experience every time.” That doesn’t mean the company will switch out its Asian vegetables every 12 months; that product line has reached a peak of quality, variety, and desirability, but, as Allan puts it, “that is when we look to other areas that we can improve on, innovate in another area.”

Despite difficult economic times industry-wide, Barden is continuing to grow and expand, but it does have to overcome certain obstacles along the way. “We are under constant pressure from imports that are cheaper due to low labour costs and government subsidies. It is the globalisation of the industry and we have to be competitive globally,” explains Allan. Across the industry, two major Australian tomato growers have recently gone into liquidation, and a lot of farming operations are exiting the industry as the farmers age and retire. “We have all dealt with the pressures associated with the global financial crisis,” says Allan, and in response Barden has carefully examined its own business practices and expenses.

What Barden has found is that, with its advanced level of technology and expertise, it is able to deliver cost effective solutions that still achieve the desired outcome. The company’s vertical integration strategy has helped it retain profitability, “by improving efficiencies in our production sites through our management teams, and putting the right people in the right positions with the right expertise.”

Allan Dall has a positive outlook toward the future prospects for Barden and the industry as a whole. “The industry in Australia has a lot of opportunity, and the produce industry specifically has seen some tough times of late, but we have seen the light at the end of the tunnel. We are actively seeking out like minded individuals to work with us in developing solutions. We are more than happy to talk with anyone that would like to take that opportunity.”

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December 19, 2018, 9:22 AM AEDT