The Great Australian Pie

Sunday, July 1, 2012 - 12:26

Few products are as symbolically Australian as the meat pie. Gerard McManus looks at the key ingredients behind Four'N Twenty's success

Great Australian iconic brands seem to go mostly in one direction these days - overseas. Vegemite, Arnott's, Victa and, more recently, VB and Foster's, are among dozens of cherished native brands that have fallen into foreign hands.

So it is reassuring in a globalised economy dominated by transnational behemoths when one brand comes back the other way.

Greg Bourke, CEO of Patties Foods, which now owns the Four'N Twenty pie brand, attributes the company's underlying success to the values that were instilled in the days of its origins as a family-owned country town bakery.

"I believe there has been a continuation of a culture that was embedded into the company before I arrived," he says.

"We've worked hard to remain true to that culture as a publicly listed company.

"I quickly discovered there was a 'can do' focus and that was a great way to start in a business."

For five consecutive half-year periods, Patties Foods has achieved continuous growth under Bourke's stewardship despite a tough retail market and pressure on brands.

Last financial year Patties Foods Ltd made annual sales of almost $217 million and a net profit after tax of $18.4 million.

Four'N Twenty grew into an Australian icon over five decades since the first pie was created in Bendigo, Victoria, in 1947, and today it is almost synonymous with football matches. Four'N Twenty is the pie of choice at major sporting stadia throughout the country, including the SCG, MCG, Gabba and Subiaco Oval.

However, this great Australian pie was swallowed up by US food giant Simplot in 1995. Just eight years later Simplot had second thoughts about its international food strategy.

As a result of that change of heart, the Four'N Twenty pie was repatriated by Victorian food company Patties Foods along with other brands such as Herbert Adams and Nanna's range of frozen dessert products.

Dutch immigrant couple Peter and Annie Rijs (pronounced Rees) first opened their Lakes Entrance cake shop in 1966 and all their six sons have worked in the business.

The family expanded into food manufacturing and moved to float the business as a public company in 2006, while still retaining a major equity stake in the business. Today, Patties Foods products include Creative Gourmet frozen berries and Chef's Pride frozen fruits and vegetables for the food service sector.

Over time, the founding family has stepped back from the centre of the business, installing experienced food people into key management roles, while retaining an operational and boardroom presence. Two Rijs brothers, Harry and Richard, are on the board.

Bourke, who formerly worked as a senior executive with George Weston Foods, says there is an important benefit in working for an Australian-owned company rather than a multi-national multi-divisional conglomerate with all the resultant politics.

"In a big company you have business managers competing with each other for resources and staff - it's often more about internal competition rather than focusing externally," he says.

"There's none of that at Patties, the focus here is on the customer, so 100 per cent of the energy and effort goes into satisfying the customer."

Statistically, Patties Foods rolls out some arresting numbers.

Each week more than 190 tonnes of flour, 115 tonnes of meat and 50 tonnes of margarine are trucked into its Bairnsdale factory, while 4.5 million pies and millions of other products are trucked out.

Staff has doubled in four to five years and there are now 600 people working for the company.

Bourke says while food quality is paramount, and the company has invested heavily in state-of-the-art European equipment to that end, that same emphasis on quality is placed on every aspect of the business.

"We take a very broad definition of quality," Bourke says.

"For example, the quality of information is essential. We try to involve ourselves in getting to know our [wholesale] customer, to ensure they are profitable and growing and how we can fit into that," he says.

"So if we are to do that successfully, we have to understand their business very well."

And growth puts pressure on quality control.

"As we expand our product range, we have to make sure our quality does not suffer."

There is also a tradition of staff longevity at Patties Foods. One Rijs brother, who started out as an apprentice baker, has been working with the company for 40 years. It is not uncommon for other staff to have worked at the company for up to two decades.

As part of the company's "out-of-home" strategy, it aims to make eating a Four'N Twenty pie synonymous with enjoying a hot meal on the go.

Product innovations such as the Traveller pie, and the Legendary Angus Beef pie, have helped increase market share in the important convenience market.

Bourke says he reads a lot of management books, but is also conscious of businesses that claim excellence and total quality but later fall by the wayside.

He says his philosophy of management is to acknowledge leaders in their field.

"We have a lot of people working for us and I may not know technically what a person does. For example, someone may be an expert in food ingredients, which I don't know a lot about, but it is my job to encourage them to be experts in what they do," he says.

"I think it is important to encourage, and support and develop our people so they get better at what they are good at."

Bourke's backyard tips

  • Seek and obtain agreement with key people in the business on the values that will drive high performance.
  • Recruit and regularly manage performance on these values.
  • Drive innovation and continuous improvement throughout the business.
  • Understand consumers' needs and develop products and services to meet those needs.