Kalfresh is a multi-million-dollar business at Kalbar, an hour out of Brisbane in the fertile Scenic Rim. It grows, packs and markets carrots, pumpkins, onions and beans for domestic and export markets.
Managing director Richard Gorman changed hiring practices and the business culture after some questions about the diversity of his management team made him realise the company was being held back because of the lack of women at the senior level.
“Our management team, all men. Our board, all men. Anyone who had any say in anything, it was all men,” he said.
To address the problem he tapped into a pool of labour he had never considered; the tertiary-educated women married to Kalfresh’s managers and growers.
“We had some of the most talented people we could possibly ever hope for who in their professional world would be on enormous wages. We had it all right in front of us.”
Five wives agreed to work part time for the company on a special project. The team, which had decades of experience in corporate and government jobs, included a business consultant, a banker, a Walkley award-winning journalist, an events manager and a teacher.
They were asked to solve one of the company’s most vexing problems: vegetable waste.
“It’s extremely frustrating, you’re looking at a perfectly good item that might have been 10mm too short or it’s bent,” said Mr Gorman. Kalfresh grower Ed Windley said it was “not uncommon for the bottom 15 to 30 per cent of your crop at times to get the chop, and that just kills the whole economics of what you’re doing”.
“Feeding it to cows, which is worth just $50 a tonne, is the last resort so for us, so to be able to value add any of that is a big plus for the company. As a grower it means more money in your pocket,” said Kalfresh’s agricultural director Rob Hinrichsen.
The women proposed investing in a $3 million processing line to value add the seconds for the pre-cut bagged vegetable market. They researched consumer trends, designed the packaging, planned an advertising campaign and signed Woolworths up for a trial.
The trial was a success and Woolworths now stocks the Just Veg range of carrot shred, circles and sticks in QLD, NSW and Victoria, with plans to expand to other states.”The emergence of pre-packaged fruit and veg in the last five years has been phenomenal,” said Woolworths’ head of produce Scott Davidson.
Tracey Rieck, who runs a vegetable farm with her husband Mick, said many farmers would be surprised how much value can be added to what the industry now calls “ugly veg”.
“It’s a smaller part of our whole crop but the return is insane,” she said. The seconds, which were worth between $50 and $100 a tonne as stock food, are now worth $5,000 a tonne, five times more than the premium bagged carrots which are worth $1000 a tonne.
Mr Gorman’s wife Alice said the pre-cut vegetable market was booming. “15 per cent of Australians buy a ready-to-go meal twice a week,” she said. “They use the supermarket as their fridge so they have less stuff at home, and they shop for what they require on a daily basis.
“They don’t like waste so they buy smaller amounts, and they’re time poor so often they’re looking for an easy but healthy option.”
Rob Hinrichsen said he’d been involved in the company for over 20 years and “I’ve never actually seen that sort of smooth transition over a 6 or 8 month period. It’s been sensational.”
Mr Gorman said: “It’s just another way diversity fixes problems.”