Of seahorses, eczema and organic food

After growing up on a property in Tasmania’s Tamar Valley and being involved in growing food from a very young age, Emma Greenhatch’s career was always going to involve food. How a nominee for Social Leader of the Year at the 2019 Women in Industry Awards came to be working in the Sunshine Coast after nearly a decade working for the Victorian Government in a range of food industry-related roles, is a compelling story.

“My daughter had severe eczema since she was a baby,” explained Greenhatch. “We had a holiday on the Sunshine Coast four Christmases ago and after a week in Mooloolaba, her skin was completely clear for the first time in her life. Despite having just moved from Gippsland to Central Victoria, the prospect of her not having to battle this condition made it an easy decision and off to the Sunshine Coast we headed.”

And it wasn’t as if there was a job waiting for Greenhatch when she arrived in sub-tropical South East Queensland.

“I was completely open to what I would be doing up here,” she said. “Before the Victorian Government, I had been involved in micro businesses, developing export markets for live seahorses believe it or not – so I have an affinity for small businesses and start-ups.”

After spending the first few months exploring the beautiful beaches and hinterland, Greenhatch was engaged by Food Innovation Australia (FIAL) to write their inaugural Celebrating Australian Food and Agribusiness Innovations book. One of the companies she interviewed was Gourmet Garden for their lightly dried herbs and their head of Innovation – Jacqui Wilson-Smith, who is a founder of the Food and Agribusiness Network (FAN) and the current chairperson – invited Greenhatch along to a FAN networking event in March 2016.

“I was amazed by the openness in the room that night. There was an energy that’s hard to describe until you attend a FAN event. Collaboration has become such a buzz word but here it was happening right in front of me and it was real. I was so inspired that I joined the FAN board as a director for six months, before moving into an operational role and being appointed general manager,” said Greenhatch.

Established by the industry for the industry, FAN is a not-for-profit food industry cluster that has been operating for 3.5 years. It was founded on the basis of larger food companies “giving back” by sharing their knowledge, experience and resources with small businesses.

FAN’s mission is to empower the food industry to grow together, and today, they have 280 members from across the Greater Sunshine Coast including input suppliers, growers, manufacturers, retailers and service providers. Greenhatch said that this is purposeful because if the industry is growing, then the whole value chain is growing. This has a positive ripple effect throughout the wider economy. On clusters, Greenhatch says that they can address opportunities and develop solutions to problems that individual businesses may not be able to solve on their own. They foster a culture of co-opetition, where businesses simultaneously compete and collaborate in non-threatening areas.
Europe has a long history of businesses clustering, in Australia it is relatively new.

Greenhatch is excited about the prospect of FAN creating a sustainable cluster model that can be used as a benchmark for new clusters starting out.

“For the first two years, we focussed on building a culture of collaboration by bringing members together as much as possible to learn and share. As relationships and trust developed among members, they started working together and coming up with ideas for FAN programs and services. An example of this is 10 of our members share a national relationship manager who helps them to increase their sales and distribution.”

There have been hundreds of member collaborations – everything from developing new products and utilising each other’s waste, to sharing freight and supporting each other at trade shows.

This time last year FAN was very much in start-up phase, with the majority of FAN’s revenue coming from FAN’s members, sponsors and partners. It was fortunate to receive matched industry funding under FIAL’s Cluster Programme, which has transformed the business. It has gone from a team of two to six and expanded its member services.

One of these was Meet the Makers, FAN’s own mini tradeshow that was held in March this year. More than 400 people attended this event to sample products from 65 FAN members and hear their stories.

Although FAN is not-for-profit, Greenhatch sees it as an entity similar to an SME. And it’s not just because of the size of the cluster, but also the similar dynamics that both it and small businesses share.

“We are a small business like 85 per cent of our members. It is a rewarding job going on the journey together because we really understand the challenges of running and growing a small business,” she said.

FAN has had a strong community of supporters from the outset including local councils, corporates and research organisations.

“We are led by our industry members but those relationships with different levels of government and other industry stakeholders is vital,” said Greenhatch. Not only do they contribute funding that helps FAN to grow, they offer many programs and services that are relevant to our members. And because we work so closely with our members, we can provide valuable insights into the challenges and opportunities that our food and agribusiness industry is facing and play an important advocacy role.”

Greenhatch says that critical to FAN’s success has been retaining an industry-led focus, consistently engaging with members and being very agile to quickly respond to an opportunity or member need. “We have a whiteboard wall in our office that’s covered in ideas from our members and we always have members popping in to our office at the Big Pineapple to share their news and ask for help.”

When asked what she loves most about her role, Greenhatch was quick to respond. “The people. The food industry is so diverse and full of incredible businesses and individuals with stories that most people never get to hear. We do and it’s such a privilege to be in a position to share these. We also have a unique opportunity to influence how the industry grows. We have recently formed a partnership with EPIC Assist to support more people with disabilities to work in the food and agribusiness industry.

“I believe that clusters like FAN are key to ensuring that we have a healthy, competitive and sustainable food industry into the future. In the words of Helen Keller: ‘Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.’”