Jane Bennett’s family farming background taught her the value of hard work.
JANE Bennett played a key role in the development of her family’s business, Ashgrove, and is now at the helm of one of Tasmania’s biggest businesses. The TasFoods Managing Director and CEO has grown to become a significant player in the agricultural landscape leading the company with brands including; Nichols Poultry, Shima Wasabi, Meander Valley Dairy and its recent acquisition, dairy giant Betta Milk. Jane says the company is planning even more investment in the state.
What was your first job and what did it teach you?
My first paid job was picking strawberries on my uncle’s farm when I was 11. It taught me the value of reward for effort (we were paid by the kilo picked). My first job not working for my family farming business was as a cheesemaker at United Milk Tasmania in Wynyard. It taught me that I didn’t like shift work.
How long have you been in your current role and what has tested you the most?
I have been in my current role as Managing Director and CEO of TasFoods for three and a half years. There have been many challenges in that time as we have been a start-up business that needs to meet the requirements of an ASX listed business.
Can you provide a brief overview of TasFoods’ current situation?
TasFoods is a diversified food business leveraging Tasmania’s unique environment to create premium food products for sale to Tasmanian, Australian and export customers.
TasFoods has a strong and loyal customer base in Tasmania and continues to focus on its long-term vision to showcase the state’s finest produce to the world. Nichols Poultry is the largest operation of the business, employing more than 100 people across the site at Sassafras. Since purchasing this business in 2016, more than $6 million has been invested in a new Ethical Free Range growing system for chickens, new processing equipment, upgrading services such as power and water to allow for growth, a new air chiller to enable 50 per cent growth in processing capacity, and construction of new chicken growing sheds. Since acquiring the Meander Valley Dairy and Pyengana Dairy businesses, TasFoods has invested more than $2 million in dairy processing capacity, mostly at Kings Meadows.
Sales revenue for the first half of 2019 grew 13 per cent YOY to $20.3 million – this does not include Betta Milk which was acquired on August 1, 2019. Dairy sales grew in H1 2019 by 46 per cent to $3.612 million while poultry sales grew 8 per cent to $17.043 million. Annualised sales revenue inclusive of Betta Milk will be circa $60 million with Betta Milk having achieved sales revenue for FY 2019 of $16.7 million.
What is the breakdown of your local and export markets?
Tasmanian sales represented 83 per cent of total sales prior to the acquisition of Betta Milk. This percentage will increase with the inclusion of Betta Milk because all the sales revenue of Betta Milk is derived from Tasmanian customers. Interstate sales grew by 22 per cent for the TasFoods Group in H1 2019. Poultry growth was driven by significant growth in the Nichols Ethical Free Range Chicken to premium restaurants and butchers in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.
Dairy growth was derived from national listing in Coles for Meander Valley Dairy Double Cream and expanded distribution to independent retailers of all dairy brands. Shima Wasabi growth came from an improved distribution channel to premium restaurants. The Kings Meadows dairy processing site is export accredited with small volumes of product being exported to Singapore and Hong Kong. The newly acquired Betta Milk facility is also export accredited but has no export markets at present.
How big was it for your company to successfully complete the Betta acquisition and what does that mean for the dairy industry?
The Betta Milk acquisition has enabled TasFoods to have a scaled dairy business operation. One of the key assets of the business for TasFoods was the Betta Milk distribution network that includes distribution centres in Launceston and Hobart, coolrooms in Ulverstone, Smithton and Zeehan along with a fleet of 15 owned trucks and 17 Milk Vendors providing a refrigerated distribution network servicing all of Tasmania.
Betta Milk has the largest share of branded milk sales in Tasmania and is the second largest milk bottling operation. Fresh milk sales in Tasmania utilise only 6 per cent of the total milk produced in Tasmania. Fresh milk bottling requires a consistent year round volume of milk supply to meet market demand. The majority of milk produced in Tasmania comes from seasonal production of spring calving herds which results in a 4 to 6 week peak of milk production that requires processing capacity to manage a 40 per cent uplift in milk supply for this period. For this reason Tasmanian milk processing will continue to require spray drying capacity to manage this peak.
Previous management of Betta Milk invested in recent years in new bottling equipment that provided a significant increase in processing capacity and extended shelf life.
TasFoods intends to grow the volume of milk processed on the site through new products and expansion of sales into interstate and export markets.
Will TasFoods seek to expand into other food/product sectors and are there any new developments on the horizon?
TasFoods will continue to explore opportunities to acquire additional businesses in Tasmania. Our focus remains on premium food brands that either tuck into our existing operating streams of poultry and dairy or are scalable/of scale to become a third pillar of the business.
Are there any impediments for business growth in Tasmania that need to be addressed by government?
Business growth in Tasmania, particularly in the agricultural sector, is reliant on capital that is sourced from outside the state. Current and proposed Government regulation that penalises capital sourced from investors that include foreign residents or place difficult reporting requirements on companies that may include foreign investors will see money flow to other parts of Australia where it is easier to do business instead of Tasmania.
What is the greatest challenge facing your business at present and how could that be addressed?
The greatest challenge faced by TasFoods in the first few years of operation has been in building a business of scale that can deliver a return on investment for shareholders. Building a scaled food business in Tasmania is challenging as there are many micro businesses operating in the food sector that are not suited to a corporate structure but very few medium sized operations available to acquire.
The acquisition of Betta Milk has provided TasFoods with the step up in revenue and contribution required to build a long-term sustainable business.
What would you say has been your greatest personal business achievement/award?
I was fortunate to have the opportunity from the age of 23 to work on building a business and brand from scratch with little professional help or guidance available in the early years. Having to do everything in a small business is a great way to build understanding of your operation then having to train people to fill these positions as the business grows enables you to grow as well.
What’s the best advice you have received over your journey?
I have been fortunate to have been offered many opportunities in my business and personal development. A number of these have been huge leaps where I have been on a steep learning curve. Being taught early in my life to never knock back an opportunity because I thought I was under qualified and to always back myself has assisted me greatly on my professional journey.