Finance

Family-owned strawberry farm collapses into voluntary administration

Eloise Keating /

A family-owned strawberry producer that has supplied fresh berries to Coles supermarkets for more than 40 years has collapsed into voluntary administration.

Victorian-based Oz Fresh Farms called in administrators Ernst & Young on February 24, with Philip Campbell-Wilson and Adam Nikitins appointed to manage the administration process.

Campbell-Wilson told SmartCompany Oz Fresh Farms is still trading and he intends to keep trading the business throughout EY’s appointment.

A combination of “climatic conditions affecting crops at an unfortunate period of time” as well as investment in infrastructure that “hasn’t produced yields” prompted the business to enter voluntary administration, says Campbell-Wilson.

Oz Fresh Farms has always been a family affair, with founder Rocco Pignataro and sons Joe and Mick growing the business together from its home in Victoria’s Yarra Valley. Rocco Pignataro founded the business in the 1970s.

Campbell-Wilson says the Pignataro family still owns a 50% stake in the company, with the remaining 50% owned by a Dutch investor. Joe Pignataro took over as chief executive when his father died a few years ago, while Mike Pignataro is the company’s production director.

Campbell-Wilson says Oz Fresh Farms was turning over somewhere between $25-30 million at the time of his appointment. The majority of the company’s fruit is sold to Coles, with some orders also going to independent green grocers.

According to BDO’s Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper, Oz Fresh Farms was the largest strawberry producer in Australia as of April 2014, with a 15% share of the market.

Campbell-Wilson says the business largely operates on casual labour, with the Weekly Times reporting in early 2014 the company’s Victorian operations employed up to 300 employees during harvest season

But Campbell-Wilson says the number of employees is now closer to 10% of that figure, with the company’s demand for labour also reduced since closing its stone fruit and mango farms at Caboolture on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.

Campbell-Wilson says the administrators will “consider all options” for the future of Oz Fresh Farms but says he believes the company’s investors and directors are intending to propose a Deed of Company Arrangement to restructure the business.

The first meeting of Oz Fresh Farms creditors is scheduled to be held in Melbourne on March 6.

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Eloise Keating

Eloise Keating is the editor of SmartCompany. Previously, Eloise was news editor at Books+Publishing, the trade press for the Australian book industry.

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