Sitting in an accountant’s office, Mark and Gabrielle Millis were told their tomato business wasn’t viable.
They were juggling five young sons, multiple bank loans and while they weren’t losing money, they weren’t making much either.
But, luckily for the Australian hydroponic vegetable industry, Mark had a dogged determination and a fierce belief in quality produce, and so began the foundations of Flavorite Tomatoes, the country’s largest, family owned glasshouse fresh produce business.
After a heart attack at age 40, Mark began a quest to live a less stressful but fulfilling life, giving up his job at the wholesale fruit markets in Victoria where he’d mainly sold bananas, and on occasion, tomatoes.
Tired of some tomato offerings that were ‘like cricket balls’, he purchased a small farm in Tynong and tried his hand with open field tomatoes.
“It was a pretty rocky road and I didn’t like growing out in the paddock,” Mark said.
He battled with inclement weather for five years before building a small greenhouse.
“I had five sons and I wanted them to be part of it, so I handed my seven-year-old a bag of nuts and bolts and said to him to fit the shed together. The two older boys put the gutters on and we went from there,” he said.
Mark said there were many learnings in the beginning and they contracted every disease and insect imaginable.
He used his contacts in the markets to sell tomatoes and over time, it became clear that there was a demand for his product and he needed to increase production to increase profits.
In 1993, he approached a long-time friend and fresh produce marketer, Warren Nichol, to go into partnership.
“Even though he’d never sold tomatoes, glasshouse tomatoes in Victoria were a new business so it was a very appealing product,” Mark said.
“I said to him straight out, ‘I think you can sell these Warren, we can create a new market for them’.”
Warren had a farm at Warragul and with their own money bravely backing the venture, the duo built more greenhouses.
By 1994, they were picking 120 tonnes of tomatoes a year on 3,000 square metres, while working with 30 smaller growers who utilised their packing shed.
Since they already had connections with the supermarkets, they were able to supply Coles and Safeway with truss tomatoes, sold as singles.
In 1999, Mark and Warren began packing smaller fruit on a truss, a move that revolutionised their business.
“I was very surprised when we started growing trusses because the demand was so strong,” Mark said.
“I wouldn't say I was a perfectionist but I like things to be really good and we did have a fantastic product.”
For his contribution to the industry, at a recent Flavorite Christmas party in front of more than 300 colleagues, the Hydroponic Farmers Federation (HFF) surprised Mark with an appreciation award.
“If I’ve analysed myself over time, I figure I was a go-getter,” Mark said.
“I was a hard trier. I wasn’t so concerned about being second best, but that was about as low down the scale as I’d go.
“And of course most of the time I preferred to be number one.
“Receiving the award was a very proud moment, getting such an acknowledgement in front of many in the industry.”