Jonathan Jackson: Making the grade

Making the gradeIn an economy currently struggling with its manufacturing output, there are fewer success stories than once existed through Australia’s last golden era of manufacturing from 1998 through to 2006. So when GP Graders, a leading supplier of fresh produce grading machinery, took out the Exporter of the Year award in 2014, Australian manufacturers had something to aspire to. GP Graders MD Stuart Payne speaks with Ellen Vale about success in manufacturing as well as the importance of innovation in the evolution of a business.

GP Graders is a shining example that the unlikeliest of businesses can have a huge impact on industry and economy. The key is to create previously non-existent efficiencies that change a business sector’s landscape.

In GP Graders’ case the industry is horticulture and they have achieved a value proposition that is sought by many, but accomplished by few. GP Graders commitment to innovation is a lesson for us all.

Innovate or fold
The key to business success is to constantly innovate, evolve and continue to create new experiences for industry. Geoff Payne realised this when he founded the business and his son Stuart has carried on the innovation tradition.

“Better technology means better results; it is as simple as that,” Stuart says referring to the advancements in vision technology that GP Graders has made that has revolutionised the way produce is graded.

“The higher the camera quality, the more refined the software algorithms, the greater detail that fruit can be inspected and therefore the more stringent grading becomes. Quality and consistency of product is therefore forever improving.  We’ve removed the element of arbitrary human decisions.”

An inevitable consequence of these technological advancements within the analysis of fruit has been a rise in the standard of quality and consistency of produce expected by the consumer. Before such technologies existed, a supplier may have gotten away with a few less-than-perfect items, but those days are now long gone.

It is not just technological innovation that evolves an industry or business, it is program origination as well. Throughout Australia, North and South America, GP Graders has implemented an after care support program to ensure that customers are being well looked after in terms of maintenance and support availability. GP Graders has people on the ground, and on call, to look after all clients’ needs.

“We had the potential to transfer our skills and expertise in offering turnkey operational solutions across each region that we are embedded in. The success of this program in the US has made it possible to package our skills in a way that they could be applied universally—by systemising our operations and implementing them in North America, South America, Europe and here at home.”

Cherry ripe for foreign expansion
When innovation is undertaken well, it generally lifts an entire industry. This is no more evident than in the cherry growing industry, which is experiencing unprecedented success.

At the end of January 2015 18,000 tonnes of cherries had been produced in Australia at an incredible growth rate of 1,000 tonne per year and this figure is expected to double within five years. Stuart says the Australian cherry industry is a story of quiet achievers.

“Whilst there are state based grower associations, each packer grows, packs and markets under their own brand in Australia and to foreign markets. And they have achieved great success leveraging off Australia’s reputation as a clean, fresh and premium source of fresh produce and food in general.  This is becoming the esteemed reputation of ‘Brand Australia’.”

However breaking into foreign markets takes time, effort and creativity.

“When GP Graders first considered exporting manufacturing equipment as a business strategy we already had some pull through for our cherry grading equipment via our Italian customers who had met with existing local clients,’ Stuart says.

The first website the company built, centred on GP Graders as an exporter, despite very little presence in international markets. Rather than seeing this as a challenge, they saw an opportunity.

“Better utilising the Internet made the company seem much larger and widely spread than it was at the time.”

They developed a multi-lingual website and brochures. They recorded voice-overs in foreign languages on VHS cassettes that were posted to enquiries received online.

This was particularly successful in Italy. One high profile Italian customer, who later became a key contact was so impressed he purchased three complete machines to sort and grade cherries. This client also became an excellent reference when emerging into European and Turkish markets. Over the next eight years over 30 lines were sold and the same thing happened in Greece and Chile.

Expansion into Europe set GP Graders up for expansion into North and South America. The key takeaway from their international ventures was to build relationships.

“I can’t state enough how important relationships are. My advice is to play a more active role in your relationships with partners. If you have built strong relationships, approaching customers directly shouldn’t be an issue.”

With machinery in 18 countries and with the development of new products, GP Graders is continuing to grow by targeting niche markets and introducing technology and processes that continue to push the industry forward.

“We have an exciting future ahead of us, and we see endless opportunities in the most obscure and exotic products and places,” says Stuart, when discussing what is next for the company.

Through further development of their product mix, they hope to gain even more traction, which only seems inevitable for such a forward thinking company.

Jonathan Jackson

Jonathan Jackson is an experienced editor and writer who has worked in print and digital media for almost 20 years. Jonathan has edited titles across a range of industries including sports and lifestyle, health, trade and business and finance. He is currently the editor of Business First magazine, Marketing Eye magazine and executive and has written two books: Offside – The Wild Side of Soccer and Australia’s Wealth Creators.

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