Richard Longbottom had been in the fruit game for six or seven years including with Costas and a fruit exporter in Sydney, when he decided to give Sam Walker a call.
“Sam was then working for a large apple packer in the Adelaide Hills and I said, ‘Why don’t we start out own business’,” Mr Longbottom said.
“The fear of working for someone else for the rest of my life was far greater than the fear of starting my own business.”
They met in Melbourne and within a week they’d set up a company and rented an office. In Walker Longbottom Pty Ltd’s first year (2001), they had a turnover of $4-$5 million. Last year it was more than $27m.
Mr Longbottom grew up on a farm near Naracoorte and was acclimatised to the ups and downs of the family running its own business.
They export fresh fruit including table grapes out of Robinvale and Mildura; mandarins out of Gayndah and Mundubbera, Queensland; oranges out of Griffith, the South Australian Riverland, and Mildura; apples out of New Zealand; a bit of stone fruit out of Swan Hill; and cherries out of Tasmania.
Mr Longbottom and Mr Walker own the business and are also the sole traders.
He said he had been working with some buyers and growers for 18 years.
To maintain those supply chains, the traders work hard, be fair and deliver what’s promised.
“It’s a big wheel that goes around and around each year and the same people generally get on and off it at the same time of the year.
“From mid-January to the end of August, it goes ballistic and there are even more intense periods in February, March through to May.
“A lot of product comes off and as long as we continue selling the product for the grower, he’s less inclined to look for someone else and as long as we can keep working to fill the gaps in the customer’s order, he’s less inclined to go to someone else.”
Since fruit is perishable and markets volatile, they also do a lot of re-negotiation.
“At the same time fruit is leaving Australia, it’s also leaving South America and South Africa.
“Big boats race to get into the early market; if you miss the early market a container could lose $20,000 worth of value between the time it leaves Australia until it gets to market.”
Mr Longbottom said technology had improved packing and storage.
“In the past 18 months, business has picked up 50 or 60 per cent because the dollar has come back,” he said.
Mr Longbottom did a Bachelor of Farm Business Management at Marcus Oldham and up to that point, he had done a lot of work in the wool industry. In his practical year, he worked with a Melbourne wool broker.
“But in the late 1990s, wool was in a great depression and that’s why got into fruit.
“Marcus got us to look at things differently and believe anything was possible.
“(The course) focused on important things, real life skills for agriculture and probably every other business.”
Mr Longbottom is also transforming a dairy farm at Timboon into a prime lamb operation.
“Hopefully I learnt something from Marcus and I’m a good farmer – it’s yet to be proven,” he said with a smile.