Starting up a new business is tough. Ask anyone.
Starting up a business in an industry you have little previous experience of… Well, folks looking to poop on your parade might just say that right there is crazy-talk.
But that’s exactly what Australian Fresh Leaf Herb (AFLH) founders Jan Vydra (pronounced Yarn) and William Pham did, shedding their corporate careers in the process.
Vydra, formerly chief operations officer at Yarra Valley Farms, and Pham, an ex-bank manager, identified a gap in the herb market way back in 2007. At the time, the Australian fresh herb industry was highly fragmented, an issue that Vydra and Pham would mulch over whenever Vydra bought basil from the farm Pham had purchased.
“We could see herbs increasingly getting more interest due to the rising popularity of reality cooking shows, such as MasterChef and My Kitchen Rules, with a focus on cooking with fresh produce,” Vydra says.
“We often discussed the farming industry and supply chain operations, and identified an opportunity to consolidate the fragmented fresh herb industry.”
In April 2008 the intrepid pair started out with a hydroponic operation producing 2,000 bunches of herbs per week, learning the farming processes along the way. Since then AFLH has developed into a varied business with 100,000+ bunches of herbs now delivered to more than 400 retailers, and 1,000 cafes and restaurants per week.
“We had to learn the farming processes along the way and also consult with other farmers, who were originally sceptical about our vision,” Vydra says.
“However, we were determined to succeed, and whilst we made several mistakes by losing several basil crops and money along the way, we learnt how to develop our own innovative supply chain model that has changed the industry.”
“We now support other growers nationally and our key stakeholders, including major retailers and independent supermarkets, appreciate our quality products.”
Innovation in farming practices
With AFLH’s eye firmly on the prize in terms of innovation in farming practices and business development, today the company has expanded its operations to include 40 contributing growers nationally. AFLH has also developed the brand Garnished Flavours.
“Our plan is to continue to expand our national farming operations and be recognised as Australia’s leading herb grower amongst end consumers,” Vydra says.
“We want them to identify with our product and recognise our herb brand, Garnished Flavours, as delivering exceptionally fresh herbs with additional offerings – including serving suggestions, engaging information and recipes.”
In keeping with its ethos of challenging the status quo, AFLH has designed and developed its very own IT system, Freshweb, with the goal of eliminating issues with the management and delivery of raw, highly perishable products.
According to Vydra: “Our first step was implementing change to the traditional supply chain process.”
“While traditionally distributors had to pack and sort the herbs, which led to the products becoming damaged, mishandled, or misplaced, we allow retailers and distributors to order directly from our farm via online or phone and receive orders tailor packed in boxes; individually sleeved and labelled; and sent directly to them.”
“Our IT system Freshweb is an essential tool for our key stakeholders to use when ordering product, checking invoices, and forecasting.”
“Developing and designing Freshweb was important to assist in the change of the supply chain process. It has allowed us to communicate more effectively with our growers, distributors, major retailers, and independent supermarkets. They have seen a noticeable improvement in processes with a reduction in time and cost.”
Vydra believes the corporate experience he and Pham brought to the business of herbs has been nothing but beneficial.
“Once we learned the farming processes we realised how we could bring our business expertise to the industry and create a positive change.”
“Instead of viewing the herbs as produce, we treat each herb as a product (unlike many of our competitors).”
“We are recognised for not just selling herbs, but a food experience. We get involved in every part of the process, from the initial picking and packing to in-store merchandising, training and marketing. We are continually researching new, innovative garnishing products.”
Vydra is full of encouragement for other businesses looking to enter the specialised market.
“They should go for it if they believe they have something to offer the industry.”
“We’re living proof that there is an opportunity to bring change to the market. It’s a rewarding and satisfying career and whilst there may be people who will be sceptical, it’s important to back yourself and follow it through.”
“I’d suggest having a clear vision from the outset and not to lose focus even if mistakes are made along the way.”