Many family businesses don’t survive past the first generation; it’s no secret. But Tom Montalto, Owner of Melbourne-based Floridia Cheese, one of Australia’s longest running family owned and operated cheese manufacturers, has shown that with the right approach, these firms can truly thrive.
Despite having no formal business training, over time, Tom learned how to run a business from his parents, who started Floridia Cheese in 1955 after migrating from Sicily, Italy in 1952.
“We led a largely self-sufficient way of life, which included the cheesemaking skills handed down from generations in our hometown of Floridia in Sicily while settling into life in Melbourne,” he says.
After being involved in the on-the-ground operations of the business, having worked in the family factory from a very young age, Tom has developed an old-school, hands-on business philosophy.
“I have high expectations of my family and the people that work for me, and I appreciate the loyal staff that have worked tirelessly over the years to produce the quality products we are known for,” he shares.
“I have learned that the three most important things for running a successful business come down to having good staff, loyal milk suppliers and the ability to build strong relationships with customers.”
With the business still going strong after more than 65 years, Tom believes in the importance of regularly updating operations, including their plant and equipment, to improve efficiency. Technology has clearly changed a lot since the business was founded, with a new system that provides real-time data to monitor and adjust business needs as required playing a central role in the ongoing modernisation initiatives.
After initial success in Malaysia, Floridia Cheese currently delivers to customers in countries including Indonesia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Mauritius. “Exports account for approximately 45 per cent of Floridia Cheese’s sales, and its success has been based around sourcing business partners to represent the brand, which is vital to the company’s expansion strategy,” Tom says.
“Technological advancement has allowed the business to implement digitisation of its operations,” he says. “We’re constantly looking at what’s happening in the non-dairy or plant-based space and whether or not there is an opportunity to add products like that to our range, to cater to changing consumer tastes and demand.”
Like with many other companies, the COVID-19 pandemic forced Floridia Cheese to shift its business model. During lockdown restrictions, customers in Melbourne could access an online ordering service. Throughout the pandemic, Floridia Cheese has stayed open as an essential manufacturer, supplying a range of food businesses, mainly restaurants and pizza shops, with its products.
“Many of them are family businesses just like us, so we try to help them keep afloat through changes to delivery patterns and by offering extended trading terms,” Tom says.
Running a family business brings some additional responsibilities, as it’s not just family members and employees who need to be supported but also the countless other stakeholders that play crucial roles in making the company a success.
“We are responsible for supporting our farmers and taking their milk on a daily basis, as well as supporting our customers and walking that fine line between continuing to supply and not losing money in the process,” Tom says.
Throughout all of the challenges Tom has faced, he has worked on the basis that relationships are vital, especially when it comes to suppliers and long-term customers. By remaining authentic and offering a “what you see is what you get” approach with its employees, farmers and customers, Floridia Cheese has been able to maintain good relationships that have stood the test of time.
As can be expected with a leading cheese manufacturer, maintaining a solid relationship with milk suppliers is one of the most important parts of day-to-day operations.
Technological advancement has allowed the business to implement digitisation of its operations.
“We maintain relationships with dairy farmers through regular communications and, importantly, setting the milk price in advance for each financial year, so that they can plan their income and expenses,” Tom says. Other key suppliers such as packaging and ingredients firms are equally important to help keep Floridia Cheese going. The business invests in these relationships and rarely changes suppliers, even if they can purchase the same item for a better price.
“This guarantees excellence in quality and consistency in supply,” Tom points out. Thanks to the combination of quality products and a forward-thinking mindset, Floridia Cheese has maintained longstanding supply arrangements with some of Melbourne’s most well-known food outlets, including Mediterranean Wholesalers and Papa Ginos Restaurant, which have been loyal customers for over 40 years. “I still keep in touch with customers and if there’s a problem, I want to know about it and deal with it,” Tom concludes.