Steve Plarre is the CEO of Plarre Foods, including the Fergusson Plarre Bakehouses and is part of a family dynasty. A fourth generation business leader, Steve shared some thoughts with us on what being part of a dynasty means to him.
When you were growing up, how much did the family business impact your life?
Being part of a baking family, where lots of people knew the business, it was kind of exciting as a young kid. All of my friends thought it was great because of course we made delicious stuff like birthday cakes. There was a lot of envy and it made me feel good that we sold products to make people happy. My family have always been passionate about baking so it was as early as eight my brother and I started wanting to work and help Dad out. Most of the time it included just cleaning but we didn't care, we were part of the team. It's also worth noting that we never felt any pressure to have to learn the trade or carry on the business for the family. We were encouraged to do well at school and constantly reminded baking was hard work and there were lots of other ways to make a living that we should genuinely consider. Regardless, by the time we had both finished secondary school we felt like we had a degree in the family business so it's probably no surprise we both went on to work in it. I completed a commerce degree at Melbourne Uni to genuinely explore if there were other things I might like to do in life but found myself constantly applying my studies to the family business and loved it.
What lessons did you learn from your father about business?
Being part of a multi generational business, it was very clear to me my father had worked hard and my grandfather had worked hard and this was the secret to our success. To do well in life, it is rare you don't need to work hard. You often hear stories about multi generational businesses where it was the hardship of the first generation which drove them to be so innovative and courageous but then the business fell over in the second generation because the first generation wanted to make it easier for their kids. Working at anything requires a balance of privilege and responsibility. To be paid well is our privilege and the responsibility is to work hard. Disrespecting this balance often leaves a trail of financial devastation and my parents taught us that philosophy, and we are now teaching it to our children. The opportunity of being a Plarre in our business is you get to learn about the family business every day and it is a big enough head start in life to do well. Dad also taught us to be grateful and generous. I remember every year him calling the family together and inviting us all into decisions around what charities the family should donate to. We had a real passion for sustainability and trying to use our energy more effectively in the business. When you think about it, a bakery is very energy intensive because we spend a lot of time heating things up and then trying to cool it down. Thinking about this creatively has resulted in us building one of Australia's most sustainable bakeries and being recognised for it in 2009 when we were awarded the Gold Banksia Award For Business Sustainability.
What does the future look like, given the challenges the industry is facing with COVID?
As much as the lockdowns and pandemic have been incredibly tough, it's also been a validation of the resilience of our business model. We have been able to trade through, albeit with impacted turnover. What I have observed is an acceleration and a validation of the key global trends around food and innovation. The pandemic had us move very quickly to embrace delivery aggregators like UberEats and Deliveroo which now deliver meaningful revenue to the business we did not have before. As much as we are a fresh food business, we have invested significantly in our digital platforms and they continue to deliver growth in excess of the physical High Street type growth. I do think the industry will continue to see consolidation where bakers need to either be super premium or drive profit and price through scale and automation. Our business is a genuine mix of both.
What core values of the business have changed through the generations or do they remain the same... and do you find they limit you?
Does it make it easier or harder? We have always had strong moral values and I think every business likes to say they do. For a long time the values we spoke about in the business were the usual ones around accountability, care, honesty, passion etc. We've only recently reframed all of our values though to better highlight the things that stand out about our specific business. Underneath these is an acknowledgement we have values to ensure we are an organisation acting responsibly. The ones adorning our hallways are now the following: Courageous, Proud, Fun Loving, Optimistic, Customer Obsessed and Sustainable.
Is there extra pressure on you to succeed because of the family connection and reputation?
I think there is but it's only the pressure you put on yourself. I remember going to work as a kid and everyone saying “oh you are the boss’s son” and all it really meant to me was I needed to work twice as hard to get their respect because they always thought I had a silver spoon in my mouth. When you're in a multi generational business, now in its fourth generation, the pressure is on to make sure the business does not go down on your watch! Essentially the business is in a relay race and my brother and I are busy making sure not only do we pass the baton on “well” but the baton we pass on is in greater condition than it has ever been in
What would you hand over to your own children about the business and is there a succession plan in place for when that happens?
I think the number one thing is what was passed on to my brother and I is don't take anything for granted and earn your place in this world. Nothing comes easy and the best things often come as a result of hardship. This doesn't mean we will go out of our way to make things hard for our kids but it certainly means we will not go out of our way to make things easy. Just like our parents, we are making it very clear to our children there are many options in life for them and working in the family business may be one of those but only if they’re willing, hardworking and able. We’ve got an internal family process to ensure if the children want to work in the business, they will be able to do so in a way that, if they succeed they will feel proud of their achievements because of what they have done, not because of who they are.
Who do you go to for advice when you have to make big decisions?
We've had a formal board for over nine years now. Half of the board is family and the other half are independent non executive directors. As a leader, I have incredible support from my brother, my father, my Chairman and one other director, all of whom have had incredible experience across a range of industries and a range of roles. They have been a fundamental part of my support structure during the pandemic. I am also on the council of the Australian Retailers Association where I get fantastic exposure to senior retail leaders in the Australian retail market and I'm also part of a CEO roundtable that meets monthly to discuss business issues & share ideas.