The Kalafatis Cold Stores, in the Goulburn Valley region of Victoria, is the largest pear producer and supplier in Australia. And the ‘crystal’ pears you buy from Woolworths supermarkets are supplied exclusively from the Kalafatis family business. The enormity of this small Greek Australian company is such that it also supplies pears to all the central markets of the major cities in Australia.
Over half a million trees are grown on the 5,000 acres of orchards owned by the Kalafatis family; a fact that allows us to pronounce them ‘the pear giant of Australia’.
Jimmy and Anthony Kalafatis, Jimmy’s wife Doreen and three of his nephews handle every aspect of the business from growing through to packing and delivery to marketing.
The permanent staff of the company exceeds 80 employees, and during harvesting the number of employees reaches 300.
And the golden green fruits that the Kalafatis family produce every year amount to thousands of tons and six different varieties. The diversified, in terms of varieties, approach ensures there is a steady production all through the year.
The Kalafatis Cold Stores story unravels with a great success in Australia but it didn’t start in the plains of Goulburn Valley. It started in a village outside Kastoria named Mavrohori, from a young man and his gift to dream big.
Vangelis Kalafatis, the father of Jimmy and Anthony Kalafatis, retired these days, migrated from Mavrohori to Australia in the early ’50s.
“He would always tell me that there were no words to describe the pain and the hardship that he experienced from the moment he decided to leave his village and during his first years in Australia,” says his son Jimmy, managing director of Kalafatis Cold Stores, today.
Vangelis was a stubborn and hard working young man. He did not allow the ineffable experience to hinder his future dreams. He kept his family back home in his heart and he tried to numb the pain with hard work. He understood the land. His short life (he was only 19 when he took the big trip to the other side of the world) was lived close to the land. He knew how to caress it, how generous she could be, yet difficult and demanding at the same time.
He was determined to be a farmer. He wanted his own land. He did not want to plant his roots in Australia. He only wanted to plant pear and apple trees. “My father never stopped thinking of going back to Greece. This was always his dream,” says Jimmy.
Vangelis worked the odd shifts as a fruit picker. From dawn to dusk he would whisper his dreams and his nostalgia for Mavrohori to the trees he was stripping.
“He did everything, not just fruit picking. Worked endless hours saving the money to buy some land,” says Jimmy.
And he did. His dream started to come true with an 80 acre dairy farm that he managed to buy five years after his arrival in Australia.
“Dad didn’t want to raise cows or sheep. He was never a shepherd. He wanted to cultivate the land because that’s what he knew well. He wanted to farm pear and apple trees because that’s what he did in his village.”
And so he did. The hours he put into unearthing the soil in order to prepare and stimulate his land to accept the roots of his trees were endless. In the meantime he had to work elsewhere in order to earn a living. If you dream big though, and you have the forceful will of a young 25-year-old man, nothing can get in your way. His trees were planted. He knew that the yield for his effort would not come immediately. So he used the alleys in between his trees to grow vegetables.
“He would harvest the vegetables with mum every day, he loaded his little truck and headed to Melbourne to sell them in the market,” says Jimmy.
“Ever since I can remember I was running from one alley to the other, carrying crates, just helping them. That’s how I grew up. I remember how guilty I felt when I returned from school and wanted to sit on the couch and watch TV. I could not do that for more than five minutes. I saw mum and dad working out in the fields and felt compelled to help them. They were both hard workers. I was driving a forklift since I remember myself, I think I was six or seven when I started,” he says.
Vangelis’ health is not the best today, but his business’s health is in an immaculate state. He managed that by creating a very close relationship between his four children, Mary, Jim, Anthony and Nick and his land.
And as it turns out, this relationship that Vangelis cultivated with equal care as he cultivated his trees turned out to be the main reason that Kalafatis Cold Stores today provides for all his offspring, not just their livelihood, but much more.
“I had the opportunity to go onto tertiary education but I could see there was a lot of work here and there was a lot more value with me staying on in the business,” says Jimmy.
The catalyst for Kalafatis Cold Stores to become the pear giant of Australia came 45 years ago, when Vangelis sold some of his pears to Woolworths.
“Dad used to say that the one thing he liked about Australia was opportunity,” says Jimmy, as we get into that particular moment when Woolworths put the Kalafatis farm’s pears in its stores.
“Dad had a philosophy. He used to say you can only be married to one woman at a time. He felt that if you deal with another retailer at the same time it’s like cheating on your wife. He always wanted to be loyal in his business deal with Woolworths,” says Jimmy, and as matters stand today this loyalty paid and still pays high dividends to this family business.
“It is a strong relationship, they appreciate our consistence and loyalty and this is mutual. They treat us very well,” he adds.
The second and third generation of the Kalafatis family have run the company for several years now. Jim entered the business from the day he was born but officially at the age of 18. “Dad was a little bit different. He gave all of his kids the opportunity to run the business from a very young age. He put us at the front with all our customers; he sat in the background but always very much involved in the business and always there to guide us,” he explains.
The fresh eyes brought with them a fresh productive breeze through the Kalafatis orchards.
“The new generation brought into the business new varieties. We grow niche market varieties. We established new techniques of growing and as a result of that we get better yield. We tried to keep ahead of the market,” says the managing director, who admits that innovation goes hand in hand with challenges.
“There is a lot of competition, not only on an international level but also with other growers in Australia. To be in this game there are a lot of challenges – foremost with Mother Nature. You know we had floods, not to mention the 12 years of drought. And you know you have to live and to sleep the business because it changes every day. There is nothing normal. The weather conditions are always so different,” says Jimmy, and he remembers a recent ‘Year of Wonders’.
In 2007, in the middle of the drought, Kalafatis Cold Stores had to buy water in order to save their trees. Twelve thousand megalitres at $1,000 per megalitre, all paid in cash. “The pressure was immense,” he adds.
There are three generations of Kalafatis’ that these days put their effort and work in Kalafatis Cold Stores.
“I have four children and one of my daughters works in the business. My three nephews work here as well but I don’t expect all of my children or nephews to work in the business. It is entirely up to them. In this business you have to grow in, you cannot learn overnight. Anything can go wrong,” says the good student of Vangelis, and the charismatic teacher to the third generation of Kalafatis growers.
Jimmy Kalafatis is the managing director of Kalafatis Cold Stores but this position didn’t change the work ethic that Vangelis instilled in him.
“I still load trucks. For me, for all my people it’s normal but not for everyone I agree. I will give you a little story. My cousin’s friend came here from Greece and he’d seen me working on the forklift and he said ‘Jimmy, what do you work like that for?’. I said here in Australia the boss has to work harder than everyone else. He has to show everyone what to do. And then I asked him about Greece… ‘Our boss in Greece comes late to work, dressed nice, has a coffee in one hand, a smoke in the other, asks if everything goes all right and then he goes back and does his social thing. Jimmy, if in Greece we saw our boss working like you, we’d think we are going broke.’ Apparently I have a different philosophy. You lead from the front. That’s my philosophy.”
And a very successful one at that, we may add.