Food has been at the centre of David Valmorbida’s life for as long as he can remember. He recalls evenings spent sampling and reviewing new food products brought home by his father, and being the only child at school with a “smelly tuna sandwich” for lunch. “No-one knew what tuna was back then!” he laughs.
Even from a very young age, David was aware that “food was really part of my whole family’s identity. Everything they did for so many decades revolved around the business and the people they met through it.”
When the Valmorbida family settled in Melbourne in 1950, when David’s father was a young boy, they brought with them a wealth of knowledge on all things food, especially products originating in Europe.
From their humble beginnings running a small shop called Frank Agostino in Carlton selling continental goods, the Valmorbida family built an empire. Today, many of the most recognisable quality brands in your pantry come from Conga Foods, including Moro, Sole Mare, Val Verde, Zanetti, Saclà, Squeaky Gate Growers Co and La Famiglia Rana.
Working in the business was almost a rite of passage for the Valmorbidas, so inevitably David earned his stripes with holiday jobs in the office, shop and warehouse. “My siblings and I would sometimes do a little bit of work with our dad at the office for pocket money,” he smiles.
“I remember my first day. I think the going rate was $3 an hour. He gave me the job of typing a letter on an old typewriter, where if you made a mistake you’d have to start all over again. It took me about three hours because I made so many mistakes!
“When I was older, my brother Marc and I spent summers unpacking shipping containers in the warehouse. I also worked in our marketing department at one point. It was so interesting getting to see all the different parts of the business from such a young age.”
However, when it came to his career, David had little inclination to follow in his father’s footsteps. Instead, he completed a double degree in aerospace engineering and business management at Melbourne’s RMIT University, followed by two years in production and product strategy at Mercedes Car Group in Germany, and three years at Boston Consulting Group.
We rely on our partners appreciating the nuances of our ecosystem, our industry, the way we work, even the culture of my family.
Call it destiny perhaps, but eventually David found himself drawn back to Conga Foods. “I never planned to work in the family business longer-term,” he admits.
“It was only later on when I was doing my MBA at INSEAD Business School in France that I realised I had a choice to make: head back to the automotive industry again or get back into consulting, or put my skills – the things I’d learned around strategy, efficiencies and culture – to use in the family business.”
David was welcomed back with open arms – in 2011, he joined two of his five siblings, Marc and Bianca, who were already involved in the business, and quickly stepped up to be Group CEO.
By the end of 2013, he had taken over leadership of the Board from the previous Chair and became Executive Chair of Corval Group, the parent company comprising Conga Foods as well as dc Specialty Coffee Roasters and the recently launched Pakval Business Solutions, which provides specialised third-party warehouse and distribution services to major brands, particularly in food and beverage products.
“My dad wanted to step back completely and let me take the reins,” David says. “My family afforded me great freedom to chart the way forward. There have been a lot of tangible projects – new brands, new products, new partnerships that we’ve worked on, but if I look back, really the biggest thing I changed was the culture and identity of the business.
It didn’t have a modern approach to management in terms of being collaborative, inclusive and empowering people. My father had stepped back from the operational management some 10 years earlier, and the culture that had evolved had become old-fashioned, hierarchical and had lost a lot of the family values it embodied previously.
Another key initiative David set to work implementing was a shift to focus on prioritising innovation. “When I came on board, the company had been concentrating on trading the same products that we’d sold for a long time,” he reveals.
“Some of those used to be specialty products but had become more commonplace and commoditised over the years, so it became harder to extract profitability – things like a can of Italian tomatoes, which once upon a time was a specialty, but now supermarkets sell for less than a dollar. We had to change our approach to be more brand-led and driven by insights, so we started investing and marketing our brands like we’d never done before.”
David explains that it was a particularly critical period of time, as smaller businesses like his were going head-to-head with supermarket giants for the first time. “It became very clear 10 years ago that if you were just an importer trader, the future was pretty bleak,” he says.
“If big companies have their own private label products, you have to provide different value. So we re-energised the culture, doubled down on innovation, brand equity building, operational technology and reinvestment into the modernisation of the business. Surviving in the future means you can’t have all your eggs in one basket. Diversification is essential – from that we can achieve growth, and if we achieve growth we can reinvest that back into our business and our people.”
A vital component of the entire operation is the reliance on strong supply partnerships, without which Conga Foods would be unable to function. “The commonality between all our partners is an interest in truly understanding each other’s businesses,” David shares.
“We’re not a cookie-cutter model, so standard products don’t work for us. We rely on our partners appreciating the nuances of our ecosystem, our industry, the way we work, even the culture of my family.
“Having that customised approach gives us a lot of competitive advantage. By ourselves, we’re only a medium-size business, but if you add in all our suppliers and partners, we’re a multinational, multibillion-dollar organisation. That’s the best way to articulate the strength we have as a collective.”
The principles of my father are still fundamentals for our path forward. We officially run four principles in our business: authenticity, service, passion and one team.
Unsurprisingly, David is a big believer in the power of sitting down and sharing a meal together, especially when it comes to professional partnerships. “You’ve got to like who you do business with,” he smiles.
“We’re all humans in the end, and if you don’t like who you’re doing business with, life is miserable, it’s always a battle. When I travel and meet with suppliers, we work during the day, but in the evening we might go out to dinner and have a great time, have some laughs. We might not talk about work at all!”
Attilio Zanetti, CEO of the renowned cheese company, Zanetti SpA, is just one example of the many family-owned product suppliers with whom David’s family have decades-long business and personal relationships.
Attilio fondly recounts many shared celebratory meals, but also his regular Friday night calls with David’s father, which could cover anything from debates about the price of milk to the joys of raising children.
“Beyond suppliers, you’ve also got to enjoy friendships with your other partners because that makes it easier to go to work every day. It makes it a delight,” says David. One such business partnership is with a. hartrodt, a freight forwarder and logistics partner that has worked with Conga Foods for decades now.
“Like all great partners, they seek to understand our business and try to create value for us. They ensure we have seamless service, get our products on time and when an issue arises, we have immediate support,” David says.
I’d like to think that my children won’t remember us as the generation that destroyed everything for an extra dollar in profit.
“ShineWing has also supported us year in and year out, providing our independent audits, but also being proactive with great service, professional, friendly staff, and helping us navigate through many changes that come from a regulatory perspective. And while they may be more recent additions, Minus 1 Refrigerated Transport and Western Union have quickly made themselves valued members of the Conga Foods family. Even before we started working with them, we’d heard a lot about Minus 1,” David continues.
“About their willingness to engage, to be entrepreneurial, to adapt their offering and service to best fit our needs. It’s a company that is hungry like us! “And Western Union is important to us because we do a lot of currency trading and they assist us with understanding our risk profile while remaining nimble and accommodating. Their support and flexibility has been amazing.”
Now, as the family business celebrates its 70th anniversary, David hopes to continue expanding and evolving while honouring its roots, smelly tuna sandwiches and all. “It’s important to reflect on where you’ve come from because it tells you how you got to today,” he says.
“The principles of my father are still fundamentals for our path forward. We officially run four principles in our business: authenticity, service, passion and one team. But if you go to the bare bones of it the message is to work hard to be the best and accomplish something that you and your team can be proud of. That’s how my father brought us up, and it’s a high bar to continue that legacy, to live up to the heritage.”
In order to ensure ultimate longevity and build on those core values, David is also working on making sure that Corval Group and all its businesses are as eco-friendly as possible.
Changes have already been implemented across the business, ensuring all warehouses and offices use LED lighting, and large solar plants have been installed at the head office in Victoria, as well as in the Queensland and South Australia premises, with more installations planned.
“If the business community doesn’t operate to sustain the environment, then it’ll be difficult to have a healthy business ecosystem in the future. We could wish the government would sort it all out, but they’re not going to. Businesses have a responsibility to protect the world. I’d like to think that my children won’t remember us as the generation that destroyed everything for an extra dollar in profit.”
In its food offerings, the company has achieved ‘best in class’ ratings across a number of areas, having guaranteed a commitment to cage-free eggs and the support of FairTrade initiatives, as well as confirming all canned tuna products are sustainably sourced and fished.
Conga Foods has also increased its involvement in ensuring the supply chain is entirely free of modern slavery. “As a family legacy, it’s important to pass on something that we’re proud of,” David says.
“There’s also a business imperative here because individuals, whether they’re consumers, employees or suppliers, want to be associated with companies that are doing the right thing. Our employees want to be proud of where they work, and to provide consumers with products that are contributing to the solution, not being part of the issue. Sustainability is also a way for us to attract the best talent and to retain our consumers, connect with new customers and engage them.”
To support the community, the company announced two charity collaborations in 2020. The first, a multi-year partnership with Feed Appeal, sees Conga Foods, via its brand Squeaky Gate Growers Co, directly support the Rural Grants Program, providing a minimum of 300,000 meals (with aspirations to double that number), as well as elevating and promoting its brands on a national scale.
“Our partnership with Feed Appeal is a critical one,” David explains. “It fits really well with Squeaky Gate, because we source our extra virgin olive oil from rural areas, and across Australia rural communities have been battered by droughts, bushfires and now COVID-19. So here we have an opportunity to give back to them because they support us by providing us with beautiful products.”
In addition, Corval Group has begun a new venture with the Intermunicipal Games for the Environment social project through its coffee company dc Specialty Coffee Roasters, which has led the premiumisation of the Australian retail coffee category during 2020 with its eye-catching specialty coffee products.
Based in Brazil and teaming up with the Minas Hill Foundation, the group will create a digital learning program that provides underprivileged children in remote coffee-growing communities with educational mobile devices and connectivity.
“These projects relate to the change in our approach to business and the fact that we aren’t only internally focused, but looking at our impact on the environment,” David says.
“As a family, we’re conscious that we’ve been very fortunate thanks to the hard work and success of our parents. We’ve never wanted for food, a home or a good education, so we’d like to help others have the same. We are committed to being part of something that is a positive force.”
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