From sheep farmer to fruit exporter

Ever since his days studying at Marcus Oldham in Geelong, Richard Longbottom had a hankering for a career in exporting.

After leaving school at 16 he became a shearer, working around the sheds of South Australia, western Victoria and the Riverina. By the time he was 18, Richard was shearing 200 sheep a day.

He then quit shearing and got a job on a Merino stud in western Victoria. There he met a Marcus student in his practical year and decided he wanted to enrol because he was “bored chasing sheep around” and was ready for a change.

It was at Marcus when he was studying Farm Business Management he realised there were easier ways to make a living than on the small family sheep farm at Naracoorte in South Australia, which he also didn’t own.

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Richard Longbottom

After graduating from Marcus in 1994 he embarked on an apprenticeship to learn about exporting, an industry he wanted to get involved in. His first job was sweeping floors for Geelong based Costa Group, Australia’s biggest fruit and vegetable grower and exporter.

“Frank Costa (the proprietor) shoved a broom in my hand and said you can have it (a job),” he told Marcus students at a forum where he and three other graduates spoke of their success earlier this year.

From there Richard took on various jobs within the company and after 18 months was promoted to the position of fruit buyer.

Then in 1998, six years after deciding on a career in exporting, he joined Costa’s export division, which involved traveling around Australia consulting and buying from grower suppliers and getting involved in some trading.

Two years later Richard was approached by a Sydney fruit exporting business to manage their export division, which he did for a year.

“At the end of that year …10 years since I retired from shearing I started making the same amount of money I did as a shearer,” he said.

By January 2001, Richard was back in Melbourne and with Sam Walker, an ag economics graduate from the University of New England, started a fresh fruit exporting business, Walker Longbottom.

“The first year we put in $20,000 each”, he said. “Within eight weeks we pulled our money back out. Within four months we made what we normally would as a wage and in the first year we turned over $5 million.” The timing was helped with the Australian dollar then trading at about 48 cents to the $US.

Fifteen years on Walker Longbottom exports 600 containers annually of fresh grapes, mandarins, oranges, apples, stone fruit and pears sourced from around Australia, New Zealand, the US and Canada to 35 countries throughout Asia, the Middle East, Canada and Russia to name a few. “This year we should crack $27m in sales,” Richard said.

The business employs just three people, Richard and Sam and a Chinese woman, who oversees all the documentation required.

“Basically for 365 days a year we are on call,” Richard said. “We are constantly responding to stuff.

“Timing and quality is crucial and our relationship with our suppliers and customers is everything.”

Richard said the key components to the business were maintaining relationships, trust and an ability to resolve problems which often arose with shipping and trucking.

He regarded the pressure of the business and the risks involved as important motivators to “fire you up”. “If you don’t take on risk you’re never going to get ahead but it has to be calculated risk.”

With some of the spare funds made from the business, Richard has been buying farms. Earlier this year he bought a 275 hectare run-down dairy farm at Timboon in Victoria.

“It has no fences, the pastures are knackered, no yards, no shearing shed; it’s just a blank canvas. I’m having a lot of fun restoring that and turning it into a beef and sheep property.”

Richard told the forum the first thing to learn if you enter another industry unfamiliar to you was that you had to start from scratch.

“If I had gone into the (export) industry without having a background with Costa’s I would have gone broke. You have to get the skills and knowledge first …. off someone else and build on it.”

– JOHN CARSON

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