If making a handmade, high quality, highly perishable product, on an island south of Tasmania – with your marketplace being the whole of Australia – sounds like a challenge, well you’d be right.
But this is a business that doesn’t take the easy route.
Nick Haddow is the owner and founder of the award-winning Bruny Island Cheese Co. and has been making cheese for the past 10 years in the beautiful, and highly regional location.
A lot has changed since the day in November 2003, when the Bruny Island Cheese Co. produced its first batch.
“If I reflect on the first day we made cheese – we carried the milk in 20 litre buckets. We transported it in the back of our Kombi. It was very, very small scale, but I can remember getting to the end of that day, and looking at the table full of fresh cheeses that were ageing, and I quickly calculated what we could sell them all for, and I said out loud to my partner Leonie, ‘We might be able to make a dollar here’.”
Haddow had worked and trained under some of the most premier cheese makers in the world before founding his own business, but quickly found the experience to be a massive learning curve.
“Even though I’d been working in cheese around the world, when you’re doing it for someone else, there’s not much pressure – but as soon as you start doing it for yourself there’s just a huge amount of pressure!” Haddow says.
The heart of the Bruny Island Cheese Co. story really lies in the name. When Haddow and his partner returned to Australia after living overseas, and settled in Tasmania, a day trip to Bruny Island changed their lives. “I can remember getting off the ferry onto Bruny Island for the first time and just feeling absolutely enchanted by the place,” he says.
The list of challenges that run alongside operating in the location is a long one, and Haddow says just staying true to his ideals is a constant challenge as well.
“As you grow there’s the temptation to manipulate your business so that it’s easier, as it were. But we live and die on the quality of our products, so that informs every decision that we make: that question of what’s going to be best for the cheese. And what’s best for the cheese is best for our consumers.”
The business changed direction in 2008, when the decision was made to shift the operational model completely. Haddow says that the traditional model of making a product and relying on supply chain partners – wholesalers, distributers, exporters – got them to the point where 40% of their product was being shipped to America.
“It was a low margin sale at the expense of higher margin, local demand. And you know I guess that model just didn’t stack up for us, and in about 2008/09 we really had to look at the business and make some crucial decisions around the sustainability, and in doing so we literally turned the business model upside down – and said ‘what does it look like if we aim for a business model which is structured towards direct to consumer sale, almost exclusively?”
Since then the Bruny Island Cheese Co. has done exactly that, and it’s a decision that led Haddow down a path of extraordinary success – this year the business was named the Telstra Australian Business of the Year, the first Tasmanian business ever to win.
Haddow says the win was incredibly humbling, and attributes the accolade to a few things the business does particularly well.
“First of all, we’re pretty progressive and innovative in the way we market our cheese. We use a lot of new media and the way we market directly to our consumers kind of goes against the standard model for a business such as ours,” Haddow says. “About 90% of what we make now is sold direct to consumer, either through our cheese club, our busy cellar door, our shop in Hobart, farmers markets, and also through quite a lot of participation in consumer events around Australia.”
Haddow believes this operational model is likely to be what made them attractive to the Telstra judges. “We’re in an environment which is heavily dominated by multi-national food production and distribution, and big supermarkets. To have a dialogue directly with the people who are consuming your product is just so valuable. And it’s not just valuable to you as a business owner, it’s also valuable to the consumer,” Haddow says.
There’s a lot in store for the Bruny Island Cheese Co. and one thing is for sure – the business will continue to operate in its namesake location.
“There’s every argument in the world that says we should move out close to the airport in Hobart, where the logistics are just so much simpler. But when we think about what kind of business we want to be, we want to be a regional business. So we’re putting money onto Bruny Island, which is going to really commit ourselves there forever really.”
Personally for Haddow – this is a business which leaves work-life balance by the wayside. “A small business is something that you live and breathe, absolutely. And there would be plenty of people that would think that’s a resentment, but I love what I do. I love my business. I want it to be my life, and I choose it to be my life. To me, my life doesn’t stop and my business starts. It’s all the same thing to me.”