Like many children born into a family business, Conga Foods’ David Valmorbida did anything but follow in his father’s footsteps in his early professional career. A double degree in Aerospace Engineering and Business Management from Melbourne’s RMIT University, followed by two years in production and product strategy at DaimlerChrysler in Germany and three years as a consultant for Boston Consulting Group, on return to Australia had him set on a path leading away from the company responsible for bringing some of the finest global ingredients to Australian kitchens, founded by his father and uncles.

Completing his MBA at INSEAD in France in 2010, however, he found himself contemplating his next steps. “I realised I had 3 choices,” he explains. “One was to go back to consulting and make a career out of it. The other was to return to industry, not necessarily automotive, and start putting to work what I had done in the consulting area.”

Then there was option 3, the family business. His father was ready to retire and, complementing 2 of his 5 siblings who were involved in various areas of the business, David offered much-needed management and strategy experience. “We all recognised that the business hadn’t benefited from a good renovation for quite a while. Recognising structural changes in the marketplace, we needed to think about preparing the business for the future.” says David.

The right ingredients

He joined Conga Foods in 2011 and in 2014 became Executive Chairman and Group CEO of Corval Group, which operates the three family businesses — Conga Foods, dc Specialty Coffee Roasters, and Pakval, all of which he achieved by the age of 30.

David Valmorbida gets behind the coffee machine. dc Specialty Coffee Roasters is one of the three family businesses run by the Corval Group.   Image: Elke Meitzel

“It was a big chance, and that excited me. At the time, I was still quite young. To have the opportunity to lead a group of companies at that age is rare,” he says. He also appreciated the freedom afforded to him by the company’s Board of Directors. “I was fortunate to have a Board who were prepared to try new things, change things around, and start planning for the long-term future.”

Bold steps

This willingness to experiment is a characteristic that has flavoured Conga Foods’ success story. “My family has always been open to trying new things, even when others said it would be too difficult.” He recalls one such example: “My father and his brothers started bottling water in Australia at a time when there was no commercially available bottled water. They had actually engaged a market research firm at the time who famously told them there was no future for bottled water in Australia. Despite the fact that Australia has a plentiful supply of beautiful tap water, the family had seen bottled water do well overseas, so they started a local operation. It was the first commercially available mineral water in Australia.”

The lesson learned is one that is still applicable today. “You have to be inspired to follow your vision. Part of that is doing the hard projects because, if the project is tough, there’s less competition and therefore a greater opportunity.”

Perfect pairings

As befits the family’s Italian heritage, Conga Foods’ portfolio includes some of the most recognisable imported brands in the grocery section of the supermarket, including Val Verde, Zanetti, Moro and Saclà. Many of these companies are themselves family businesses and the partnerships have endured for 40 years or more, almost since Conga Foods was established.

Image: Elke Meitzel

“We build relationships that last a lifetime, or even longer in some cases,” says David. “I’m continuing relationships today that my father or uncles started. “That’s critical, because when you have close relationships, you have better information and a more efficient business. It gives you a point of difference. You build trust in the people you’re working with rather than wasting time second guessing them. It leaves you free to focus on competing against your adversaries in the market.” He concedes that the importer and distributor is fundamentally a business model under threat.

Increased sophistication of technology and global connectivity is allowing the middleman to be cut out — unless he is providing unique value and unique composition.– David Valmorbida

The winning recipe

In response, Conga Foods has expanded to encompass a national sales force, a warehouse and logistics team, and a dedicated marketing department to build and manage brands. “There are a number of innovative, young companies who are making beautiful products with high potential, but they need someone with our expertise to help them plan and expand their business and facilitate distribution when they may not have the infrastructure to do so themselves,” he explains.

Under his direction, the company is working towards creating a larger portfolio of locally crafted Australian products, and recently launched its first: Squeaky Gate Australian olive oil. “It’s sourced around the country from farmers who want to concentrate on what they’re good at, which is agriculture and producing a beautiful product. Our role is to take that to the market and package it up in a way that’s good for customers.”

David acknowledges that “You can’t survive on good ideas; you need people to execute them.” He has been fortunate enough to surround himself with people who share his enthusiasm for top-quality produce. “We’ve always had a strong team of people who are very committed and passionate about our products and brands.

“There are 3 things that are going to be really critical for our business and businesses like us in the future,” says David. “Complex relationships that are hard to replicate and give you knowledge and trust is one. The other is competitive advantage. If you’re making a product that anyone else can copy within 2 calls and an email, that’s not going to cut it. The third is the people and service levels which uphold the reputation of the company so that customers continue to partner with us.”