Memories worth preserving
Former Ardmona chief executive officer David Taylor may have it right in his published comments about the fruit industry:
‘‘You don’t start with fixed quality inputs, you start with a bit of fruit. You don’t know what the quality is or how the size mix is arranged within a bin, so you start with chaos.’’
He also speaks of the requirement for a massive amount of experience in managing a fruit processor.
Of course Mr Taylor was the chief of the merged company, Ardmona Fruit Products, which became part of the modern-day SPC.
And his remarks, published in the new book, Worth Preserving: 100 years of SPC, may well be salient for the current owner of SPC, Coca-Cola Amatil, as it prepares to sell the company after not being able to make it profitable.
SPC had a rocky start. After opening the factory in 1918, the business faced the costly purchase of overseas-made equipment, a cynical market suspicious of Australia’s record in fruit production and a shortage of capital as all shares offered had not been taken up.
The Ardmona cannery, built around the same time, also faced a couple of difficult years in the early 1920s.
SPC’s history seems littered with a series of crises, as it was vulnerable to the vagaries of international markets and changing weather conditions.
In some years the company had to borrow money to pay its grower-shareholders for their fruit, and often the company could not take all the fruit that was offered.
Matching supply and demand seems to be an annual conundrum for the company, which plagues it to the present day.
Worth Preserving details the SPC history and peppers the timeline with some stories about the misadventures and experiments tried by the co-operative, some of which people might not know about.
A former general manager, Jim Hutton — who was by all accounts a colourful character — was responsible for a few of the forays in the 1960s.
Mr Hutton, known for his ambitious plans and frequent declarations of ‘‘why can’t it be done?’’, had the use of a chauffeur-driven car with a uniformed driver.
SPC got involved in running a cannery at Manjimup in Western Australia and, in 1969, Mr Hutton convinced the board to buy a farm property in east Shepparton so the company could expand. The property was sold off at a loss after Mr Hutton resigned.
SPC also bought land near Orange with the aim of setting up a cherry processing plant to replace its reliance on imported cherries. The company abandoned the project in 1970.
The book also recounts the story of the ‘SPC siege’ from 1971 when a troubled grower, upset at the cannery’s decision to limit its fruit intake, took staff hostage in a weighbridge office with a gun.
The disgruntled grower actually fired off a warning shot and the place was soon surrounded by police and emergency services.
The siege ended peacefully after 15 hours and also after SPC chairman John Cornish had promised the man he would get extra tonnage into the cannery.
The book represents a massive amount of work, pulling together the two threads of Ardmona’s and SPC’s history, and should be a useful addition to the Goulburn Valley’s history.
It does miss a few of the tougher stories that the locals still talk about; like the former chairman who was voted out, demanded a retirement payment the next day, and then sued the company in the courts.
But with many of the players still around today, we may have to wait for the expiration of time before a few of these harder tales are told.
Worth Preserving: 100 years of SPC is by Jenny Mountstephen.
Milestone . . . A celebration of the millionth case of canned fruit produced by Australian factories.