The former owners of one of Australia’s largest stone fruit farms launched legal proceedings yesterday against the forced sale of their business, Murrawee Farms, when it was in receivership last year.
Gaye and Tony Tripodi initiated proceedings in the Federal Court against National Australia Bank, Freshmax Farms, the Financial Services Ombudsman and receivers SellersMuldoonBenton.
The Swan Hill farm has since been purchased by the wholesale company used by the family to distribute its fruits through Coles, Freshmax Farms, trading as Holman Fresh.
The Tripodis are seeking order for the sale of the property to be declared null and void along with costs.
Murrawee Farms is a key supplier of stone fruits to Coles.
The business had debts of around $7.5 million and a forecast turnover of $6 million to $8 million a year when NAB called in Murrawee Farms’ loan.
This triggered the receivership and the Tripodi family lodged a complaint with the Financial Services Omubdsman challenging NAB’s decision to call in the loan.
They allege Murrawee Farm was sold to Freshmax Farms ahead of a ruling by the Ombudsman.
The Tripodis also claim they made an offer to buy the farm which they believe was higher than Freshmax Farms’ offer but it was rejected by the receivers.
Activist group Unhappy Banking is assisting the Tripodi family with the legal proceeding.
Geoff Shannon of Unhappy Banking told SmartCompany the offer the Tripois made was “the best offer on the table”.
“But then the bank turned up at their place and said ‘you’ve got an hour’ until the new owners take over.”
Shannon says the case has “wide ranging implications” for every bank in Australia.
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“If we succeed we could halt all receivers selling assets,” he says.
Shannon says Unhappy Banking is working with a lot of farmers at the moment and in particular with a lot of NAB customers.
“The NAB says it is ‘derisking’ its commercial loan book. We see that it doesn’t want to be a business bank anymore and just wants to be a retail bank,” Shannon says.
“They are just walking away from businesses.”
Shannon claims banks are pushing farmers to farm debt mediation which paves the way for the banks to appoint receivers.
“It’s quite sad what we are seeing.”
A spokesperson for NAB disputed Unhappy Banking’s claims.
“We have worked with the customers involved for a number of years to resolve this matter,” she says.
“We are committed to supporting good quality and sustainable agribusinesses and assess all lending on a case by case basis.”
The spokesperson says NAB is the largest business bank in Australia and lends more to business than any other bank.
The NAB is “100% committed” to supporting its business customers.
SmartCompany contacted the Tripodis, Freshmax Farms, SellersMuldoonBenton and the Financial Services Ombudsman but did not receive responses prior to publication.