When The CEO Magazine spoke with Brad Lee in June, he hadn’t even spent a year in the hot seat as managing director of leading Australian food-service procurement and marketing cooperative NAFDA. Despite being new to the role, he got straight down to business, declaring the organisation would improve its turnover from $750 million to $1 billion within one to three years. He clearly wasn’t overreaching, as NAFDA hit that mark in just 16 months.

“We’re very pleased with that result,” Brad says. “That’s come through not just organic growth but through the recruitment of new members into our organisation. So, obviously, they have individual turnovers as independent businesses, and those turnovers are then folded into our baseline turnover.”  

NAFDA, or the National Food Distributors Association, serves all segments of the food industry with frozen, chilled, and dry grocery products that it distributes through 63 shareholding outlets stretching from Darwin to the southern reaches of Tasmania. “We have a solid baseline, we’re profitable, and we’re in a really good position now to take the next steps of our new strategic plan, which involves continued recruitment, and gross and category expansion,” he explains.

Brad Lee aims for bigger & better

Category expansion is particularly high on Brad’s agenda, and he has identified the meat market as an opportunity for considerable growth. While the popularity of certain proteins may swing, a ‘centre of plate’ protein continues to form an essential component of the food-service industry.

Brad Lee CEO at NAFDA

“If you look at the hotel sector, one in every three meals served in a pub is a chicken schnitzel,” he says. “The red-meat movement in Australia was massive, but poultry has exploded in the last decade. There’s more value in that product. People talk about ‘centre of plate’: NAFDA’s always had ‘side of plate’ strengths, and that means fries, wedges and vegetables. But now we’re making the ‘centre of plate’ an integral part of the NAFDA product portfolio.”

Brad explains that the company has been guilty in the past of being apprehensive when it comes to taking risks. “We’ve danced around this for some time, but we are now prepared to take calculated risks and invest, and ‘centre of plate’ protein has been identified as one of our key strategic pillars,” he explains. “I’ve always maintained that we have enough customers; we just need to provide them with a more extensive menu.”

Taking NAFDA back to ground zero

The organisation’s newfound flexibility was achieved with a return to its core values and aspirations. “The other challenge we faced was with the people internally at NAFDA: just ensuring that everyone was ‘on the bus’, so to speak,” he continues. “Many of them were jaded by a fractured past and weren’t reaching their targets.

“I reaffirmed how important it is to recognise and acknowledge where we’ve come from and what we stand for, and really take it back to ground zero. By discussing why the cooperative formed in the first place and what our purpose was in the industry, we have been able to measure ourselves against that, and work out what we needed to do in order to not only meet that criteria but also surpass it. 

“We have also recruited really well, and I believe I have the most experienced and capable leadership team in the industry – not just because our people all have backgrounds in food, but they want to see us lead rather than follow. At the end of the day, our people are our greatest asset, with our suppliers second behind that.”

This progressive outlook Brad has instilled has also allowed the cooperative to “move with the times” through digitisation. “The generational differences bring changes, and the consumer now wants to order online,” he explains. “So we have developed a mobile ordering app, and we’re constantly tweaking and finetuning our bespoke IT products to deliver a food-service distribution model that reflects our organisation.”

Food for thought

With more than two decades of experience in the food-service sector, in which he’s worked in commercial roles for suppliers such as DonKRC and Simplot, Brad has gained invaluable insight into food trends and the evolving needs of the consumer. “Knowing what it’s like to be a supplier to NAFDA rather than just having a transactional relationship has been really invaluable,” he nods.

We rely heavily on our suppliers through collaboration and partnership, and we promote and support Australian manufacturing in the food industry. It’s the lifeblood of the country.

“We rely heavily on our suppliers through collaboration and partnership, and we promote and support Australian manufacturing in the food industry. It’s the lifeblood of the country and it’s a huge industry. So I worked really hard on that, given my background as an ex-supplier.”

Brad attributes his ingrained work ethic to the example set by his mother. “I grew up in commission homes. My mum was a single parent and did it tough, but she still managed to pay for private schooling,” he says.

“From starting out as a clean-up kid at local butcher shops when I was just 11, to where I am now, the one glaring consistency is that you have to invest and believe in what you do to be able to gain the rewards. There’s no such thing as a free lunch; success takes huge personal investment and sacrifice.”