There’s no real farm to speak of in the Harris Farm Markets story, but how David and Cathy Harris stood firm against some harrowing winds that uprooted and lay bare their fields of business dreams is a tale of heroic proportions.
Like farmers facing floods, fire and drought, the Harris’ fought one of man’s greatest foes – debt – and won.
Theirs is the story of a business and personal relationship in which two people have married their complementary strengths to build a proud family legacy. The union, however, started in a typically adolescent, naïve way.
“Unlike the students of today, I didn’t take life so seriously,” Cathy admits of her experience at university. “I went to enrol in architecture and there was the architecture table on one side and the commerce table on the other. All the blokes in architecture had grey cardigans and beards and all the blokes in commerce looked really cool and they wanted girls to enrol, so they said, ‘Come over here and enrol in commerce’. So I changed the course of my whole life! It’s been the story of my life – opportunities come up and I take them.”
The pair met at university and were married in 1971 straight out of uni before David’s father made a decision that changed the newly-wed couple’s lives.
“When David was at university he was always going to go into his father’s business,” Cathy explains. “But then his father sold the business – a company called Table Talk chicken.”
David continues: “I said to my father, ‘Dad, what have you done?’ I had worked there on weekends and school holidays and fully expected to take it over. And he said, ‘Son, I don’t know what you are going to do, but I’ll give you some criteria to think about: make it something that the big fellas don’t do well, and make it something that you can get into with limited capital so I can help you'.”
They sat down and worked out what might fit this criteria and realised that Table Talk’s single biggest customer was a bloke in Sydney’s Chatswood with a fabulous fruit business.
“So I rushed back to Cathy and said, ‘I am either going to be a fruiterer or a funeral director’. And she said, ‘Well, actually, it’s a choice of one!'”
Business merit notwithstanding, Cathy found David’s decision confronting. “All our friends were doing the ‘smart things’ like going to work for PricewaterhouseCoopers and we were planning to run a fruit shop!” However, the Harris’ employed academic-inspired planning to redefine the way fruit and vegetables are sold. David developed a business model based on the Chatswood business, and Cathy worked at Grace Bros to learn the tricks of the retailing trade.
After about six months, during which David went without earning any income, the couple eventually opened their first site in 1972.
“It was a real shock – a real change for both of us,” Cathy admits. “The guy who owned the shop was closely connected to the underworld.”
Life was hectic. Their ‘normal’ existence involved David being at the markets by 2am while Cathy worked at Grace Bros during the week and pitched in at Harris Farm Markets on weekends. The business model was working, and soon they went from one to two to three stores.
David credits an unusual source, Gough Whitlam, with much of the growth of the business, in that the former prime minister’s policies prompted Harris Farm Markets to become an early adopter of new technology.
“The dramatic change was when equal pay for women came in under Whitlam. To make it work, we brought in computers. We saw these in America and it showed us what we could do here.”
For those wondering what the Harris Farm Markets business is like, imagine the best fruit and vegetable operation you have seen with all manner of produce, any other ingredients you may throw into your culinary pleasures, and anything you can store in a fridge or pantry.
Along the way, the business has led from the front: it was the first fruit and vegetable business to open a supermarket-style operation and it has introduced cutting-edge products that have been the envy of rivals.
In the genes
By the late 1980s, the business was on a roll and a publicly listed cashbox company, Panfida Foods – a company collector that was buying businesses willy nilly with other people’s money – convinced the Harris’ to give up equity in the company. At this stage there were 17 stores, which rocketed to 35 within two years … and then there were three.
“Panfida was in trouble,” Cathy explains. “However, the bank supported us, so we ended up running three stores for family and friends who put up their money on the understanding we would buy them back when the time was right.”
Looking back on their success, David always knew he was programmed to be an entrepreneur and Cathy suspects she was, too. “I never saw myself as a corporate person,” she says. “I fell into it through necessity when times turned tough in the early 1990s.”
Reflecting on the journey, David and Cathy admit to not having had a clear plan for Harris Farm Markets.
David says: “I remember Cathy saying that this is no life at all. ‘You get up at 1am. You come home dog-tired at night’. And I remember saying, ‘Don’t worry, I can see how this is going to work. We’re going to buy these stores one at a time, build them up and then each time we’ll sell them, have a year off, go to Greece, have a wonderful time and then we’ll buy another one’.”
The stores eventuated, but the annual holidays? Well, Cathy thinks they may still happen. Such planning on the hop has become a habit.
The problem is that they couldn’t ignore the opportunities that presented themselves. “It’s really important if you have a good opportunity to have plans that are flexible enough that you can take advantage of them,” Cathy explains. “I think that’s what people often don’t do – they become so focused down the path that they don’t see all the opportunities that are happening on the sidelines. Make sure that you can drive in a direction that every opportunity presents.”
On mistakes, the Harris’ know they should have spent more to bring in expert help such as an outside director.
“If we had an external director we might not have got into the position where we were looking for a Panfida and I think that is one thing that entrepreneurs don’t do – look for help – because they’re driven by their own belief in themselves.”
Cathy believes entrepreneurs often are A-type personalities. The very thing that makes things possible is, she argues, what stops them. “You have to have so much guts to do these things – putting yourself on the line every single day – and you have to be a certain personality type to do that.”
Belief and focus
On university training, David thinks it makes little difference having a degree in the first year or two, but it does pay off as you start to expand.
“It’s not that you learned anything at university that you could use in your business, but it does teach you structures and systems that help you to do that.”
David believes his university background gave him an edge at the right time. “Everyone said that you can’t run more than one shop. University made me damn sure that I could run three or four or five and when I got to seven, that’s when my university training came into swing, because at seven I was earning less money than when we had four.”
Like a true entrepreneur, he backed his idea with his own money, sinking a couple of million dollars into developing a package that enabled the Harris’ to run fruit markets in a revolutionary way.
The business journey has brought the trappings of a successful life and opened the couple’s eyes and minds.
“I learned that you really don’t know it all. It sounds glib, but every day I live business, I realise how valuable everyone in it really is,” Cathy reveals. “So I think that’s very humbling in a way when you realise that.”
Paving the way
Is there something special about David and Cathy that allowed them to fight back to recreate Harris Farm Markets after the Panfida debacle?
“No, just five kids at private schools,” David jokes. “I’ve always been a person who runs long-distance races and that’s just how I do business as well.”
On things that have given them an edge, David thanks an academic called Dexter Dunphy from the School of Management at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) for helping with management structures.
For Cathy, travel has helped. “We saw something in Canada that was really gutsy and innovative – rolling in bins and buckets of apples. We tried it here and it worked a treat,” she recalls.
If anyone is looking for a model of a family business that works, Harris Farm Markets is a great starting point.
Cathy does not believe, though, that the family ranks as the real hero of the business. “The product is the hero, for Harris Farm Markets is about product,” she says. “That apple has got to taste fabulous and it’s got to be at a reasonable price.”
So true, but someone has to get it to market. The Harrises are two business heroes who have shown Australia the best way to do it.