Tom-ay-to, tom-ar-to - however you say it, Simply Green Tomatoes are an Australian success story. From a family farm in Boort, Victoria, now exporting to the far reaches of the Middle East and beyond, Marilyn Lanyon’s green tomato business is growing exponentially thanks to the quality of the product and her relentless pursuit of identifying opportunities for new growth. Lanyon, together with her husband, Ian, own and manage the tomato farm with the help of 16 part-time casuals. At a time when the economy is in a slump and the drought is in its 10th year, Simply Green Tomatoes is expanding impressively, both into new products and new business ventures. With a new Indigenous product on the way and the recent acquisition of Aussie Wool Quilts, things have never looked better for the couple. The core of the Simply Green Tomatoes business is, of course, green tomatoes. Each summer they’re hand-picked for size and colour, triple washed, sliced and soaked in a salt and vinegar brine for two days, then drained and poured into a mix of garlic, oregano and olive oil and stored underground in a shipping container. Vacuum-packed in 100-gram, 250-gram and 700-gram packs, or five-kilo buckets for the food-service industry, the antipasto favourite is now available in more than 350 outlets throughout Australia, and in 22 countries around the world.
Opportunities and growth
With an uncanny knack for identifying new opportunities for growth, and with domestic sales having been steady for the better part of the decade, Lanyon has had time to focus on the export side of the business. With a major push occurring in the Middle East, especially Kuwait and Dubai, Simply Green Tomatoes are now available in the upscale Dean & De Luca gourmet stores in both cities. With plans for further expansion of the Dean & De Luca stores throughout the Middle East, taking with them the Simply Green Tomatoes brand, the partnership has been very fruitful for the Lanyons. Simply Green Tomatoes is also expanding their product lines and distribution by the day. With a new Indigenous product on its way, where Simply Green Tomatoes will be co-branded with another company, planned expansion into airlines and shipping companies, huge growth in the food-service industry, and the new wool bedding venture, the sky’s the limit for this little company from rural Victoria. "We’re also exploring tourism," explains Lanyon, who has partnered up with other local operators and Loddon Shire Council to conduct day tours of the farm, bringing in tourism dollars as well as operating as a marketing vehicle. "Each person that comes to the farm and tastes the products will go home and tell their family, neighbours, friends... it’s a great way to get our name out there into households." Busloads of tourists, greeted enthusiastically by the family dalmatian, Whiplash, as well as the talking pet cockatiel who says "hello and welcome", now come for a homemade morning tea of quiche, breads and dips under the lofty trees. They’re then given a tour of the factory, shown a DVD presentation and given an opportunity to buy the products, then taken along to other farms within the area to sample anything from olives to the Greek delicacy, spanakopita. Supporting and being supported by partnership with other local operators in the region, the tourism side is steadily growing and the local economy is blossoming, good for both residents and the businesses in the area. In acquiring small business Aussie Wool Quilts, the Lanyons have identified a completely different gap in the local market and are now branching out into wool manufacturing alongside tomato growing. Visitors to the farm can see for themselves how the chemical-free handmade quilts, underblankets and pillows are produced. With sales of both the tomato and wool products consistently high, Lanyon believes there is strong cross-selling because they are very different products that aren’t in competition with each other.
Recipe for success
With a burgeoning international business under her belt from a single antipasto recipe, Lanyon believes the key to their success was getting familiar with which markets have a need for a particular product. "Doing a lot of research is critical to anyone starting up a new venture, whether for domestic sales or export," she explains. "I’ve also had a lot of help from Government bodies, both federal and state. Austrade’s New Exporter program is a fantastic resource for getting to know overseas markets." From product packaging colours to shelf life in particular climates, a firm grasp on a product’s suitability for different areas should ideally equate to a firm grasp on the market share. Networking with other business owners and embracing new technology are the other two key aspects of creating growth and avoiding problems, explains Lanyon. "For anyone just starting up, or wanting to drive their existing venture further, attend as many learning and development courses and trade shows as you can. You can chat with other SME owners about the successes and pitfalls they’ve experienced and swap advice in a mutually beneficial setting." New technology has helped Simply Green Tomatoes expand throughout the world, as Lanyon has begun teleconferencing with potential traders and clients so that she can cut down on travel costs and time away from the day-to-day running of the company, and has even held remote trade shows online, furthering her global standing from home. This mother-of-five, with a grandchild on the way, who began the business at 55, has shown how much can be achieved just by having a simple idea, the determination to succeed and, of course, a passion for her product. As the American writer Lewis Grizzard famously said, "It's difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a home-grown tomato."