Mary and Chris Georgopoulos
GV Indepentent Packers Pty Ltd
Location: Shepparton, Victoria
Fruit grown: Pears (‘Packhams’, ‘Williams’, ‘Corella’, ‘Buerre Bosc’ and ‘Josephine’), Apples (Pink Lady™, ‘Granny Smith’ and ‘Sundowner’), and stone fruit.
Chris and Mary Georgopoulos have seen the full cycle of fresh fruit exports and believe that the current enthusiasm for exports could be converted into a stable and sustainable venture by developing long-term relationships with Asian buyers and supplying premium fruit.
“In the late 1980s and early 1990s the export industry was strong and vibrant with 13 containers of pears leaving every week,” says Chris Georgopoulos, owner and manager of GV Independent Packers Pty Ltd with his wife and business partner Mary Georgopoulos.
But, as the Australian dollar got stronger and South African pears came into the market, exports to Asia started to drop off. The industry had taken an ad hoc, opportunistic approach to exporting and the situation was no longer to Australia’s benefit.
“What we didn’t do was fight fire with fire – we just gave up,” says Chris. “We went local, which is OK, but it has caught up with us now because the domestic market can only handle so much fruit.
“For the last 10-15 years we’ve grown more fruit than we can sell. And that’s why a lot of growers and regional areas have found financial difficulty and dropped out of the industry.”
An export approach that focuses on quality
Both Chris and Mary recognise that developing relationships with buyers and understanding their international customers is key to the growth of their exports and ongoing success in the global market-place. And that rather than treating the export market as a place to offload excess or low grade fruit, it should be fostered as a long term venture and outlet for premium quality fruit, so that it can better weather the ups and downs of a fluctuating Australian dollar.
“It used to be that we sold our Class 2 fruit to the export markets and Class 1 to the domestic market, now it is the other way around,” says Chris. “It’s no good offloading product that is not in demand locally and trying to flog it off overseas. We have to understand what they want and then we will have a chance to work towards that.”
“So I think that you are better off getting the relationship going – get your Class 1 in there, get your premiums in there, and once you’ve done that then you can start showing different packaging and different products.”
Chris acknowledges that price could be an issue, but emphasizes that by delivering a premium product they are not competing on price anyway.
Mary agrees. “South Africa can’t compete against our product quality,” she says. “Our customers in Indonesia may try and nudge us on price sometimes, but they know what they are getting from us and they know the quality they are getting is superior to their other suppliers.”
She adds that the other benefit of working with international customers is that you have more bargaining powers because you deal with them directly and they are willing to negotiate.
Increase value and grower returns
Mary is from a fourth generation fruit growing family and brought Chris to Shepparton after his stint in hospitality in Melbourne left him looking for a better opportunity.
“When I started in fruit with Chris, he was already looking at something different, something better, something new,” says Mary. “We looked for cost effective ways of doing things to get the best outcomes and were always about quality not quantity.
“My dad’s generation and the generation before were always taught from their parents and would often simply stick to what they knew. Many thought that the more you grew the better off you were and a lot of growers in the district relied on canning alone.”
Chris and Mary started off with just an orchard as growers and it is clear Chris still gets a lot of joy from looking at his trees and nurturing them to produce good fruit. They currently grow ‘Packhams’, ‘Williams’, ‘Corella’, ‘Buerre Bosc’ and ‘Josephine’ pears; Pink Lady™, ‘Granny Smith’ and ‘Sundowner’ apples; and a mix of stone fruit.
But after realising they needed a home for their own fruit, they decided to get into packing as well. Now, aside from being one of the biggest pear producers in the country, they are also one of the biggest pear packers with a capacity of 47,000 bins and have plans for more sheds too. They produce about 80% of their own fruit and work with other growers to supply the rest.
Their priority is getting a good return to growers, which means getting the highest value out of all the fruit they pack.
“We try and get everything out of our fruit from first grade all the way down to third grade even before it goes to the cannery or for juicing,” says Mary.
Under their own Sunpick brand of pears, their first grade fruit goes to Coles, Woolworths and for export, but they think finding a good market for their second grade fruit is critical to their success.
“It’s great to have Aldi as a customer,” says Chris. “They are price-driven, which has given us that opportunity to sell our different products. We want to work with them more, to help build our reputation and to demonstrate that we’re only working on margins and that we’re not making huge profits.”
“Building these relationships so that our customers have faith in us and what we are doing, and the consistency of our products, is the same whether you are working with local or international customers.”
Rediscover the…. ‘Williams’ Pear
Chris’s commitment to meeting international customers and building those relationships is evident. He joined APAL’s pear export study tour in April 2014 to Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand and has previously been to China with APAL too.
“Right now they love our Australian pears and apples and the promotions will help even more,” says Chris. “It’s very exciting to see the price of our ‘Williams’ pears over there.”
“In our pear promotional work in Indonesia we got really good feedback on the quality of the Australian pears we showcased. Consumers were receptive to our ‘Williams’ pears, saying “that’s sweet”, when they tried them. When we talk about ‘Rediscover the Pear’ in our promotions, we need to rediscover the pears we are currently growing.”
Critical to the success of any pear exports, including particularly ‘Williams’ pears because they have a shorter shelf life, are technologies and practices that help keep the pears fresh and firm for longer. Mushy, yellowing pears are not desirable to Asian consumers and could turn them away from Australian pears.
Controlled Atmosphere (CA) storage and the use of SmartFresh™ are part of Chris’s strategy to ensure his pears arrive in Asia in good condition. At the time of the interview he was preparing a container of SmartFresh pears for shipment to Indonesia.
“Indonesia is getting bigger as a market for us,” he says. “We can get our pears directly to Jakarta within 8 to 10 days, which is a huge advantage over South Africa. Pears from Chile and Argentina also have a long way to travel. This transit time is one of our advantages, and you have to concentrate on your strengths.”
“But in my eyes, Thailand has probably the most potential because I love it when I don’t see a competitor – and I don’t see a competitor there for our premium product.”
But he doesn’t think that we need to grow more pears to export more pears.
Stable and safe production
“I think what we need to do is keep production stable, not encourage more production,” says Chris. “We need to get profitable with what we are growing and once we do that then we can look at those relationships and build the business to suit that relationships.”
“It is all about promoting what we have now and putting our Australian pears in front of our Asian customers’ eyes and once we have done that I believe we will be successful there.”
Important to this relationship building with customers is the idea of building trust in the safety of the product, and using Australia’s high health and safety standards as a marketable asset for Australian fruit.
“I want our customers to know that we would never ever put their health at risk – this is a high priority for us,” says Chris.