Healthy snack business ripens

Wendy and Garry Visontay took an inspired idea and grew a thriving business with a healthy bottom line.

Plenty of people claim to have started their business after a seismic shift in their lives, but in the case of Fruit At Work owners Wendy and Garry Visontay it’s actually true.

The husband and wife team were working in Japan for Procter & Gamble in 1995 when a killer earthquake struck. The couple and their two-year-old daughter headed home to Sydney and began to re-evaluate their lives.

 

“It was life changing for us. We probably would still be working as corporates, and we might still be in Japan,” Garry says.

 

Seven years after leaving Japan, Wendy started Fruit At Work, and instantly became one of the pioneers of the booming corporate fruit delivery industry. Today their business delivers fruit to more than 3000 companies each week, and has enjoyed 100% compound growth each year of operations. While the pair will not reveal revenue figures, industry estimates put annual sales at around $5 million.

 

But becoming a successful leader in an industry has one big drawback; copycats. Now Fruit at Work must work to stay ahead of its competition.

 

Wendy Visontay founded Fruit At Work in 2002. Previously she had run a small vending business with a friend, selling potato chips and lollies via honesty boxes placed in offices. As Wendy travelled around Sydney and replenished stocks, workers kept asking the same question; why aren’t there any healthy snack foods? To test the market, Vistonay placed a few fruit baskets in the offices of her key clients. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

 

In August 2002, Wendy had a chance meeting with John Antico, a well-known fruiterer from the Sydney Produce Market. Antico loved the idea, and Wendy knew she had her key supplier. When she roped Garry in to set up and then run the IT systems, the business was off and running.

 

In the early days, Wendy and Garry ran Fruit At Work from their Sydney home. It gave them a certain flexibility and freedom, but when staff were crammed into various bedrooms around the house they realised they had hung on at home for too long.

 

“We didn’t feed the business the way we could have in terms of expanding,” Garry admits. “We’ve learnt from that in catering for the growth of the business.”

 

One early challenge for the business was educating the market about what was then a fairly novel concept. “We had to explain we’re not selling fruit, we are actually providing a cost-effective employee benefit that employers should take advantage of,” Garry says. Wendy says the “cool” companies – advertising and technology firms – were the early adopters.

 

The next big challenge – and one that continues – is logistics. To guarantee the quality and freshness of its product, the company has built a just-in-time supply chain, where fruit goes from supplier to customer within hours and Fruit At Work does not actually hold any stock.

 

The system relies on careful planning and strong IT systems. But the short turnaround times can lead to problems. Wendy says public holidays can be a nightmare as many customers shut down for the day but forget to cancel their fruit order. “When you’ve got a just-in-time system and people don’t tell you what’s happening, it makes it pretty hard.”

 

Another issue for Fruit At Work is a constantly changing product range, as fruits come in and out of season or supply is constrained by weather or other factors. Customers who look forward to receiving kiwi fruit each week might be disappointed to find the fruit is in their basket one week and gone the next.

 

Communication is the key. When the great banana crisis hit in 2006 (after Cyclone Larry tore through Queensland) the company sent regular bulletins to customers letting them know how the contents of their fruit basket would change. That communication method continues. “Each week we tell people what they are going to get in the mix and why. We communicate very well with our customers and set expectations with them,” Wendy says.

 

While Fruit At Work was one of the pioneers of the fruit game, the company’s turf has been invaded by a host of competitors in recent years, from national groceries to suburban green grocers.

 

To differentiate itself, the company is emphasising its national network, which means companies that work across states (particularly large businesses) only need to order from one centralised location. “We recognised early on that we needed to be a national company. Pretty much all of the copycats are people who have just got one van and can only deliver in their local area,” Garry says.

 

The competition has also had the benefit of educating the market much faster than Fruit at Work could have hoped to do on its own. Now when its sales people go into a business they are spending less time explaining the concept to the office manager and more time talking with the HR manager about where fruit deliveries fit in to their health and wellbeing strategy.

 

The great temptation for Garry and Wendy is to expand their offering – given they are going inside these companies every week, surely it would be possible to sell them another type of product?

 

Garry admits the pair have been approached by countless companies keen for some sort of joint venture. While he doesn’t rule out doing something in the future, there are no plans to start offering other products at present. “It’s been something that has been tempting, but we’ve just focused on fruit.”

 

One expansion opportunity the company has taken up is a merger with a company called Snowgoose, which sells gift boxes containing wine, food and fruit. The two companies will offer gift products that will allow companies to give timber fruit boxes as gifts, complete with the company’s brand.

 

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