Eating fresh from the farm is a common dream for many busy Australian city dwellers, that often have no idea where their food comes from, or how it is produced. Those who purchase Norco products can rest assured they are direct from passionate, hard-working farmers, says CEO Brett Kelly. “We are a 121-year-old farmer-owned co-op, and the last one of our kind in the Australian dairy industry. We are certainly not the cheapest, but we have the best quality. When a consumer purchases a Norco product they know that 100% of the profits made will go back to the farmers.”
Everything goes back to the farmers
The North Coast Fresh Food & Cold Storage Co-operative Company Ltd (now known as Norco) was established by a group of Byron Bay farmers in 1895 and is still entirely owned by its Australian farmer members. “Our transparency is one of our advantages because what happens in this industry is that the farmers live and die by the farm gate prices. The moment you bring in external shareholders, quite rightly, they are looking to better their yield and return. We have no external shareholders so our members know we need to make enough for an acceptable profit to reinvest, but that everything we make above that goes back to them,” says Brett.
An education in all things dairy
Norco’s product range encompasses milk, cream, custards, yoghurt, butter, cheese and spring water and the company is dedicated to educating its customers about where each product comes from and how it is produced. “We are in what we call the ‘route trade’, where we service all the cafés and smaller operators. That is an area that I am really pushing. When you look at the café market, there is a huge scene in Australia,” Brett says. “The coffee houses sell their products based on quality and the story behind the beans, however, you don’t hear anything about the milk. In a normal white coffee, a quarter of the cup is milk. We do a lot of that business, but the key difference again for Norco is that we have this great story to tell.”
Selling the story abroad
The company is also selling its story abroad, having made a splash with its fresh milk in Chinese markets overrun with long-life and UHT products. Brett explains this expansion was not without its problems. It took around three years for Norco to gets its milk into China’s stores. “We wanted to go in with a point of difference and marketing Australia as a clean and green country was a good place to start, combined with our long history as a farmers’ co-op,” he says. “Our Parallel Testing structure, which was approved by customs in China, meant we could get the milk from the farm to the supermarket in about eight days. So we broke into China and that has been quite successful so far. The fresh milk retails there for about [AU]$8 per litre.”
Although Norco is proud to be a commercially savvy business that is expanding its global footprint and maintaining profitable relationships with major brands, Brett is pleased that there is still a strong sense of respect for the co-operative’s values, which centre on its heritage, legacy and care for the environment. Norco’s employees are dedicated to the work that has gone before them, with over 80 of them having been a part of the team for more than 20 years.
Brett says honesty underpins all the work his employees do. “We have regular supplier–member meetings about four times a year and we have a huge turnout at those. We go through all of the financials, the strategies and answer any questions. I believe our members truly understand that we are a highly successful business but that it all belongs to them; they are the owners.”