03 Dec 2018

An Australian glasshouse pioneer

Sitting in an accountant’s office, Mark and Gabrielle Millis were told their tomato business wasn’t viable. They were juggling five young sons, multiple bank loans and while they weren’t losing money, they weren’t making much either. But, luckily for the Australian hydroponic vegetable industry, Mark had a dogged determination and a fierce belief in quality produce, and so began the foundations of Flavorite Tomatoes, the country’s largest, family owned glasshouse fresh produce business.

The leafy and affluent suburb of Beaumaris is a 40 minutes from the city of Melbourne, Victoria. It’s the suburb where Mark and Gabrielle have spent most of their lives and where their sons Will, Chris, James, Tom and Ed have grown up. From their warm and modest family home, Gabrielle pulls photo albums and a book from a console hidden behind a timber dining table. Ignoring Mark’s protests of “that’s enough, that’s enough”, she flicks through the pages, stopping to admire a photo of Will and Chris standing in front of a row of plastic tunnels. The tunnels were the first built at their Tynong farm, an hour east of Beaumaris. She pulls a few photos from their sleeves, revealing family barbecues had while the family was picking tomatoes on weekends and snapshots of a young Mark and Gabrielle, who have known each other since they were 12. This year they celebrated their 46th wedding anniversary.

Gabrielle thumbs the pages of a seed industry commemorative book to a four-page spread on Mark and the Flavorite Empire. When asked what year the photos were taken, she playfully refers to the amount of hair left on Mark’s head.

“Well this must have been taken before that one,” Gabrielle says, comparing two photos, “Because you’ve got more hair on your head.”  

Mark Millis in the Victorian markets, Mark and Gabrielle Millis, Will and Chris Millis at the family's Tynong farm

Mark pads around the house in a checkered blue and black shirt. He smiles at the jest and settles in to a fabric red couch with mismatched cushions. He alternates between holding a cup of white tea and sitting it on a rattan coffee table. The 71-year-old kicks a leg up on the couch and twiddles a foot as he speaks; he has a deep, gravelly voice and considers each word carefully. 

After a heart attack at age 40, Mark began a quest to live a less stressful but fulfilling life, giving up his job at the wholesale fruit markets in Victoria where he’d mainly sold bananas, and on occasion, tomatoes. Tired of some tomato offerings that were “like cricket balls”, he purchased a small farm in Tynong and tried his hand with open field tomatoes.

“It was a pretty rocky road and I didn’t like growing out in the paddock,” Mark says.

He battled with inclement weather for five years before building a small greenhouse.

“I had five sons and I wanted them to be part of it, so I handed my seven-year-old a bag of nuts and bolts and said to him to fit the shed together. The two older boys put the gutters on and we went from there.”

Mark says there were many learnings in the beginning and they contracted every disease and insect imaginable.

He used his contacts in the markets to sell tomatoes and over time, it became clear that there was a demand for his product and he needed to increase production to increase profits. In 1993, he approached a long-time friend and fresh produce marketer, Warren Nichol, to go into partnership.

“Even though he’d never sold tomatoes, glasshouse tomatoes in Victoria were a new business so it was a very appealing product. I said to him straight out, ‘I think you can sell these Warren, we can create a new market for them’.”

Warren had a farm at Warragul and with their own money bravely backing the venture the duo built more greenhouses. By 1994, they were picking 120 tonnes of tomatoes a year on 3,000 square metres, while working with 30 smaller growers who utilised their packing shed. Since they already had connections with the supermarkets, they were able to supply Coles and Safeway with truss tomatoes, sold as singles. In 1999, Mark and Warren began packing smaller fruit on a truss, a move that revolutionised their business.

“I was very surprised when we started growing trusses because the demand was so strong,” Mark says.

“I wouldn't say I was a perfectionist but I like things to be really good and we did have a fantastic product.”

Mark Millis and Warren Nicol, co-founders of Flavorite, Australia

Mark perches on the edge of the couch and takes a sip of tea. He has become reflective since being recognised for his contribution to the industry at a recent Flavorite Christmas party. In front of more than 300 Flavorite colleagues, the Hydroponic Farmers Federation (HFF) surprised him with an appreciation award.

“If I’ve analysed myself over time, I figure I was a go-getter. I was a hard trier. I wasn’t so concerned about being second best, but that was about as low down the scale as I’d go. And of course most of the time I preferred to be number one.”

He picks up the award that Gabrielle has fetched from his office and takes a moment to absorb some words that his colleague and confidant of nearly 25 years, Arie Baelde, has taped to the back of the frame.

“Arie said my ‘real contribution to the industry is that he pushed the industry past the life style and niche supply stage by investing your own money’,” Mark reads and then light-heartedly adds, “My wife would say her money.”

He continues: “‘You networked with growers and industry people throughout Australia and abroad, shared information freely with other serious growers… He still gets fired up by a substandard products’. Yeah. It's does annoy me, I must admit.”

Mark holds the award in his hands, hands that illustrate a lifetime of hard work, and while staring at it, says, “It a very proud moment to get acknowledgement in front of many in the industry.”

It’s a rare glimpse into his emotional and vulnerable side.

Much of the HFF’s appreciation extends to Mark being a vocal supporter of the industry and a mentor to others. With an articulate nature and no-nonsense approach, Mark thrived in the spotlight.

“I had the network through market committees and other ventures, and I had knowledge to share, so I started to make a lot more speeches and became an advocator for our industry. I really enjoyed it.”

Believing in sharing best practice, Mark was never one to keep cards close to his chest. When he learnt new practices in Europe, such as picking leaves off the bottom of tomato plants to encourage a microclimate and reduce overwatering, he shared this with other growers. He invited fellow growers to his farm and coordinated farm tours and meetings in New South Wales and Queensland.

When asked why he would go to so much trouble to educate others, his reasoning is simple: “It's important because you want everyone to be performing at a high level.”

Mark acknowledges that sharing goes both ways and is quick to recognise Arie, the founder of seed company, Rijk Zwaan, in Australia, as one of the few people he could rely on for trusted information, and another Dutchman and former tomato grower, Toon Oomen, who became an integral part of his business as a consultant.  

“He came out to Australia and he and I struck it off pretty quickly. I took him around the country, we met many other growers, and I could see that he would add real value to our business.”

“He is a great person and has been a wonderful guidance to my sons; he certainly taught my sons a whole lot.”

Hydroponic Farmers Federation presents Mark Millis with a recognition award

Gabriel busies herself in the background, tending to a beautiful garden that hides the house away from the street. It’s clear the Millis family have green thumbs. Gabrielle is the silent support unit who managed the family while Mark was working around the clock. They share memories of the early days when Gabrielle would help cart tomatoes and the whole family would prune and pick tomatoes on the weekends. After coming home, Mark and Gabrielle would pack the fruit in the garage, ready for market.

“We used to have to go over Westgate Bridge to the warehouse and I don’t know how we made it there and back some times,” Mark says with disbelief evident in his tone.

“I can remember some very frightening occurrences, like the time I put my foot on the brakes and nothing stopped. We went for a slide for about 50 metres with a fully loaded trailer and Ute, just waiting and waiting and waiting to stop.”

“We’d cart tomatoes into the market together at bloody midnight. I honestly don’t know how we did it. I really don’t… More sensible people would have given up.”

Mark says there was little downtime for the family, including Boxing Day when none of the staff would want to work so their army of sons helped share the load.

“The boys helped to pick tomatoes and then we’d have a barbecue for lunch. I had a couple of old cars, a Mini-Minor and a Toyota, so they’d jump in the cars and drive them around the farm. The boys enjoyed doing it; they were a part of it.”

Gabrielle interjects with a memory that brings a smile to both their lips: “They used to call it Alcatraz. They called the farm Alcatraz”.

Regardless of their teenage perceptions, it held the boys in good stead for the future.

“Things have worked out pretty well for them because many people tell us what terrific guys they are,” Mark says proudly.

Nowadays, Chris, Will and Ed are at the helm of Flavorite, along with Warren’s son, Mike. Mark says their involvement in 2007 was when the company started to make “real money” and become sustainable.

“As Warren and myself faded into the background, my boys ran the farm and Mike ran the marketing. It became a lot more professional in terms of selling. We also developed relationships with bigger growers around Victoria, which enabled us to stabilise our supply side – that made a huge difference.”

In its current operation, Flavorite has 190,000 square metres in production at Warragul and yields more than 13,000 tonnes of fruit a year. Its grower network throughout the east coast states of Australia encompasses 20ha of greenhouses to allow a continuous supply of high quality fruit all year round. Flavorite has also diversified into capsicums, Lebanese cucumbers and eggplant.

The operation uses state-of-the-art technology to reduce costs and increase production, but it wasn’t just modernisation that the next generation brought to the table.

“I enjoy working with my sons and one thing I particularly enjoyed was when Will took over the management of the staff – it used to drive me nuts,” Mark says.

“I remember one day I arrived at Warragul and immediately someone came up to me and said, ‘So-and-so decked Kevin’. It was a woman who actually decked him. I just thought, ‘Oh no what’s happening here?!’ Kevin’s wife came out and told me what had happened. Blimey teddy,” Mark says with a snicker and shaking his head. “So handballing that to Will was a great bonus.”

Will, Mark and Chris Millis, Modern day Flavorite operation

Mark is described by others as a straightshooter with no time for charlatans, but also as a gentleman who has pioneered the industry. He has a thirst for knowledge and a desire to be challenged and to experiment.

“I didn't know enough about growing tomatoes but I was willing to experiment. I’d talk to Arie and we’d look at the plants and he’d explained to me why they were like they were. So I would immediately go and try something else.”

Not all of his trials and experiments were smooth sailing, however.

“In about 2000, the big thing that changed our business was heating the tomatoes. We had a year when frost got to our tomatoes and seedlings; and we had some bacterial diseases that affected the seedlings. We had to start the season all over again. Arie said, ‘If you had heating, you wouldn't have that problem’.”

At the time Mark wasn’t flush with cash so he sold his Westpac shares and bought a waste oil heater.

“That was a saga in its own right. They were terrible, terrible, terrible and initially the quality of the oil was shocking. The bloody things were always breaking down.”

He starts his next story with a pre-emptive chuckle: “My small farm is about 2.9km from the highway and we were gleefully traveling down the highway and as we came up to the turn off, you could see this black smoke in the sky and I just thought, ‘Oh no’. Bits and pieces in the waste oil caused the heater to block up.”

Despite the challenges, heating helped as it meant they could grow out of season and didn’t have the disease problems associated with the cold. Later, Mark moved to LPG gas bottles, which incurred a price hike from $15 - $40 a gigajoule in what seemed overnight. After five years, they embarked on natural gas, which radically changed the business because it was maintenance free.

Another public incident might have sent other, less thick-skinned people running for the hills.

“It did get a bit nasty there for a while between the hydroponic and open field growers. They started a ‘Condemn the Stem’ campaign and whoever thought that name up was clever, it was a good one.”

Mark was challenged to go on ABC radio and in a blind test, choose whether an open field tomato or glasshouse-grown tomato tasted better.

“They had these two samples and I picked an open field tomato as the better tasting tomato. That was a real disaster! So I claimed that we needed a rematch and in that one I chose my own and the presenter agreed with me, thankfully.”

Savvy consumers put an end to the campaign by their willingness to purchase truss tomatoes, even at $6 a kilo. The rest is history.

“I personally think the greenhouse industry will keep growing. Nobody can stop it in Australia.”

“That’s what I like about Australia, the fact that you can start a business and make it work if that's what you want to do. Even at the moment, there are people who want to build greenhouses and I say ‘Good luck to them’. But it ain’t that easy. You can have the crops and do the same thing every year, but the management of the greenhouses is the most important aspect of the business. Anyone can crunch the numbers, but making a greenhouse work is another situation altogether.”

Despite ill health in recent years, Mark has stayed closely involved in the business and kept up a strong network in the grower community. These days he attends Board meetings and talks to his sons about where the business is heading and what they should and shouldn’t be doing. He was part of the decision to remove all remaining plastic tunnels and replace them with glass, and shares the company’s ambition to be completely self-sustainable.

While it’s easy to imagine Mark throwing himself into things at 100 percent, reflected in the stories of multiple injuries he’s incurred chasing sheep (broken ankle), playing football (broken elbow), falling off a Ute (broken arm), riding a pushbike (sliced open knee) and running over his foot with a lawnmower (plastic surgery), he’s still a man of surprises.

For example, he holds an Arts Degree and majored in Latin, and he’s a bit of a softie. A bossy but affectionate 15-year-old bichon frise x poodle nestles up to his legs over the course of the morning and each time he leans over to give Oscar, ‘Ozzy’ a scratch on the head. In the corner of their lounge room is a small blue plastic table and chair set, ready for any of their 14 grandchildren to come and play. Almost every inch of their living area is covered in family photos. It’s no wonder Mark says his sons are his greatest legacy.

“Will has turned out to be a really good manager and Ed only joined us two years ago but he’s a good grower. Who knows what he'll develop into as time goes on?”

“Chris amazes me with his capabilities; I don’t know where it comes from. I like to think that Chris is one of the best growers in Australia. He amazes me with his capacity to keep inquiring and curiosity is what I tell my sons is the most important thing, to be constantly curious about what you're doing and trying to improve all the time.”

Of course, there’s also the ‘trailblazing the industry’ thing to acknowledge too.

“There's probably two people who can legitimately lay claim to creating the greenhouse tomato industry and I claim to be one on them, the other guy is Godfrey Dol, who was up in Bundaberg,” Mark says, behind blue eyes that haven’t lost their sparkle.

“But I think actually I could stick my nose in front and say it was really about the product development and having a goal of really doing it properly.”

So how does the man who has devoted most of his life to perfecting tomatoes choose to eat them?

“I like big tomatoes just cut up and in a salad, and tomato sandwiches are hard to beat.”

Mark Millis building plastic tunnels

Photo captions: Image one: Mark Millis in the Victorian markets, Mark and Gabrielle Millis, Will and Chris at the family's Tynong farm. Image two: Mark Millis and the late Warren Nichol. Image 3: The Hydroponic Farmers Federation award presentation. Image 4: Will, Mark and Chris Millis and the Modern day Flavorite operation. Image 5: Mark Millis building plastic tunnels at Tynong.