Talking Business – Catherine Harris

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On Talking Business is Catherine Harris, chair of Harris Market Farms. Catherine started the business with her husband back in 1971 and today they employ a thousand people in 20 stores, and have two butcher shops that have an annual turnover of $300 million. Family business makes up a large proportion of businesses in Australia. We’re going to discuss the challenges of the family businesses such as succession planning and competing with big business, as well as looking at the many benefits of this type of business. Welcome to Talking Business Catherine.

CH Great to be here.

PS Catherine, your story’s a great story, you and David kicked off this fantastic fruit and vegetable business, Harris Farm Markets. Tell us how it happened?

CH Well, David and I were both at university thinking about what we were going to do next. David was always going to go into his father’s business, and when his father sold his business and he said ‘well dad, what am I going to do now?’, and his father sort of thought about it for a minute and then he said, ‘well son, I’ll give you three hints’, and he said, ‘make sure it’s something that big boys don’t do well, make sure it doesn’t take a lot of capital to get into, and, son, make sure it’s a cash business.’

PS [laughter] And see, you think it’s always the Italians that say cash Is king. Alright but then the important thing is that both of you came from a small business background because your mum was...

CH Absolutely. My mother owned Mary Rossi Travel, and my father was also a manufacturer and...

PS Your brothers as well? It’s a great small business that becomes big business. Now, was it hard to go from being university students studying business type subjects, and all of a sudden running a fruit and vegetable business?

CH Well, we didn’t find it that hard only that we didn’t know anything. We didn’t have the expertise that the old Italians have that have been in there forever and ever, and so we’re there really learning all the time, and I think that’s one of the good things University gives you is an ability to just want to learn. However, the hard part was that they didn’t quite accept us. University students, you know, they’re not even Italian, and then they sort of found out that my name was Rossi, and they’d say ‘well at least she comes from an Italian background’. Little did they know I didn’t speak a word of Italian. [laughter]

PS So, Harris Farm Market, concept and the growth... If you look back on that, how did you grow the mega business which it has become?

CH Hard work, Peter. I think hard work and absolute dedication. I mean it’s been up and down. You know we went through a very bad time during the last recession and it went down, but it’s about really putting your head down and really focusing on the bigger business, and of course sometimes in a family business that means at the cost of family work-life balance, but I think also having a passion for the business is the other thing that is very important.

The passion for the business wasn’t just David - the passion for the business was all of us and our kids. Even when they were little and 14 and they’d go and work in the shops and they’d come home and boast who pushed the most trolleys or worked the most hours, and of course being in fruit and veg it’s a beautiful industry, you know you’re giving something good to the community, so that’s nice.

PS Without a doubt. You’ve also been happy and willing to learn from, say for example, things overseas, because you learnt the scanning technique from overseas?

CH Yes, we were. Maybe that was because we did have a university background but we were the first to introduce scales matching up with the cash register. So, you put three tomatoes on the scale and it automatically goes to the cash register, we saw that overseas in America. We both travelled a lot and love travel, but everywhere we go we’d go and look at markets and see what was happening, and, interestingly, you think that America is the most advanced retailer in the world, but in fact they did very badly in this area. We actually saw more things in Canada, for example, but the technology in America was what it was all about and we were very interested in the technology. I think that gave us and ability to analyse and assess our productivity and our margins better than our competitors, at that time even better than Coles and Woolworths.

PS Okay, you’ve also had the guts to expand and that always takes the willingness to borrow and back yourself, and along the way you said the recession was quite hard. How important was it having a network of people who supported you, gave you advice and showed you stuff that you couldn’t see by yourself?

CH Very important. It’s good to get out and belong to other organisations. You see things and get ideas and hear other people talking about ideas. I know David went out and he belonged to an organisation where they had things called Universities, which were not really universities but they were learning experiences for business people. Also, in the middle of building Harris Farm Markets, I actually went off and worked in other areas and I bought some of that expertise back into the company as well.

PS You were the Federal Director of the Affirmative Action Agency.

CH That’s correct.

PS So you were picking on blokes who were picking on women weren’t you?

CH [laughter] Well, a little bit of that. Really, what it was about was change in management, it was about using all of your workplace and selection on merit and all those really obvious good human resource practices which companies weren’t doing.

PS And do you think by introducing better work practices your productivity in your business has improved as a consequence?

CH Definitely, definitely. It was very interesting. People were very critical of unfair dismissal. We actually saw unfair dismissal as a real boom in our business, well for our particular business, because what we did is, we said to each manager, okay now if you dismiss somebody you are going to get into serious trouble and you have to go to court and defend yourself so you better learn about performance management and giving people feedback, and this was a huge change for the fruit and vegetable industry, to actually have managers managing people and developing people, and it really helped our company. You know it’s funny sometimes that stick makes you implement good work practices.

PS And you learn as a consequence of it.

CH And we learnt as a consequence of that.

PS If you look back on your experience, what have been the most important reasons why you as a husband and wife team, have been able to build a business of this size? Apart from hard work, we know hard work...

CH Apart from hard work. I think our love of learning has always been something, and I think the other thing, Peter, is being able to separate business and our own personal relationship and our family relationship. So David and I might argue about what we have for dinner or who used the toothpaste last, and things like that.

PS Oh really [laughter]

CH But interestingly, we don’t argue in our business because he has a role and I have a role and we learn from each other. It’s completely separate. I mean we could have a terrible time at home and then go into the business and be able to put that aside and I think that is something that has really helped, and now we’ve got three sons in the business. Again, it’s that distinguishing between family issues and business issues.

PS And have you, in a sense, created a code that if a son wants to have an argument with you he argues as an employee and not as a snotty-nosed brat kid who’s been leading you by the nose most of his life? [laughter]

CH [laughter] Yes definitely. In fact, we’ve had a very formal board meeting recently and I was quite angry about something and tried to sort of keep my cool as the Chairperson...

PS And not being mother angry.

CH And not being mother angry, and so all of a sudden in the middle of the board meeting I said, ‘look, we’re just going to have a 10 minute break in this board meeting, and now I’m taking off my company hat and putting on mother’s hat’ I went off at one of my children and then he had his say, we had a bit of an argument, and then we said ‘right, business hats back on’, and we just went back to a normal business meeting.

PS And did you have independent directors there as well?

CH We had independent advisors.

PS Who are used to you. [laughter]

CH Who are used to us, yes. [laughter] They all laughed and we moved on.

PS Cathy, is there a website if people want to learn what you guys are doing? Is there any other thing that you’d like to share with us before we wind up this interview?

CH Well, only that I think this is very tough financial times, we’re lucky we’re doing quite well because I think we’reseen as a value proposition. Yes we do have a website to see your local Harris Farm Market store, it’s

PS Great stuff, and thanks for joining us on Talking Business.

CH Thank you.

Talking Business airs on Qantas Inflight Radio. Click here to download complete Talking Business transcripts from the Qantas website.

Published: Thursday, July 16, 2009

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