In the Victorian country town of Maryborough, a knock-about bloke with a love for baking is taking a stance against domestic violence. Australian Baking Business catches up with Parkview Bakery owner Garry Higgins to chat about the state of the industry, the local Rotary club and surviving tough times.
As the former CEO of the Baking Industry Association Victoria (BIAV), Garry Higgins is well-known within the industry and, as the owner of several regional bakeries throughout the years, he certainly understands the highs and lows of running a small business.
After 25-years-or-so in the industry, he’s still hands-on in his two award-winning Parkview Bakeries, one in Maryborough’s Central Goldfield Shire and another in the Wimmera region.
With 30 staff across the two sites, including Garry’s wife Julie who has taken charge of the managerial side of things, the business has received national recognition for its pastries. And, as if long shifts loading trays into the oven weren’t time consuming enough, he also recently wrapped up a yearlong tenancy as the local Rotary branch president.
It takes a lot of conviction to spend what little free time you have down on the main street, pulling over whoever you can from in and around the town to bag support for local community issues. Nonetheless, for Garry, it’s the conversation no one wants to have that needs to be discussed the loudest.
Led by the baker, the Rotary club launched its very public stance against family violence in June; the SAFE campaign that aims to tackle physical and psychological violence at a grass-roots level.
SAFE stands for Support Advice Facilitation and Early intervention, and encourages the entire community to pitch in and make a difference.
“Domestic violence involves boiler suits to business suits, battlers to billionaires and anything in between, from North Shore in Sydney to Sunshine in Melbourne, and Maryborough too,” he says.
“From fourth generations to newbies, the consensus is to meet the challenge head on.”
With the locals wanting to see the town prosper, they are doing what country people do best – they’re rolling up their sleeves and working together.
The SAFE program is certainly not a one-man campaign, nor limited to Rotary members. The town’s men – from bricklayers to accountants – have raised their hands to take on the White Ribbon oath, to never commit, excuse or remain silent about violence against women. The result is a range of initiatives that will be rolled out in the coming months.
“We’re trying to do a number of things with the campaign to give people the confidence to break the cycle of domestic violence and to give them an option and the confidence to speak up. Of course, once they speak up, it’s important to make sure they’ve got somewhere to go to have protection,” Garry says.
“Awareness, peer pressure, leading by example will help, as will strategies to identify mitigate attitudes and behaviours. Early intervention is a strong theme.”
Bakers Helping Bakers
Family violence isn’t the only issue Garry is tackling head-on. For the best part of the last 10 years, he’s been involved with a baking ‘think tank’; a group of bakers from around 30 different businesses and organisations who meet once in a while to discuss the industry and how best to move it forward.
“It’s basically about bakers working together to solve common problems,” he says, acknowledging the group brings together industry professionals from Ballarat, Bendigo, Echuca, Frankston, Melbourne and Ocean Grove, among other regions.
“Industrial relations issues have been the real big issue in the last few years, which is certainly not unique to the baking sector.
“We’ve got about three or four different awards to cover in our industry, which is just a nightmare. It’s alright if you’ve got a fulltime wages department and administrative department that can handle all that stuff, but for the small operator, they have to do all of the work themselves… and it’s a real burden.
“Nobody at a political level really gives a damn about the unique working conditions of bakeries. There is a lot of unnecessary red tape.”
Beyond the bakery, the group has rallied together in times of need, determined to help those in the industry stay strong in their local communities.
In the wake devastating bushfires back in 2009, the bond has never been stronger. The extreme weather affected around 20 baking businesses in the regions of Murrindindi, Whittlesea, Marysville, King Lake, Yarra Glen and the Yarra Valley. Some were totally lost, while others were adversely affected by tourism, which many of the bakeries heavily relied on to keep the cash flowing.
Along with the Victorian Government, the BIAV stepped in to provide vital support to around 20 bakeries affected by the fires, in the way of a 12-month business assistance program.
“This program is about bakers helping bakers. We were offering a helping hand with a view to the longer term for these businesses,” Garry says.
“Local bakers are an important part of any community in terms of providing a reliable source of staple items. But for those whose premises and livelihoods were destroyed in the fires, saving the local bakery has now also become a signifier – a beacon of hope and a major first step, in many instances, for re-establishing the economic viability of these towns.
“As with all country towns, the presence of successfully operating businesses provides a great sense of stability and helps to build confidence. And bakeries have always been a main hub for local communities.”
Surviving Hard Times
Despite his naturally philanthropic disposition, Garry is quick to say being involved in the local community also has clear business benefits.
“It’s the only way we can maintain sustainable businesses. If you want real profitability you have to maintain your turnover and your margins and those types of things. But getting your face and your name out there helps with exposure,” he says.
Certainly, customers seeing a baker not just as a person trying to make a dollar, but also as a pivotal part of their community, is a massive competitive advantage.
“The pressure towards the independents by the larger supermarket chains and also the franchises is making it more important than ever for the local baker to be seen as a central player within the community,” he says.
“Supermarkets focus on price, and to 99 per cent of people, bread is an impulse buy at the supermarket. So, what we’ve really got to concentrate on is our trade and to not forget it’s an art. Give your customers a reason to come and support you and your business.”
With the baking population ageing, particularly in regional areas, Garry says mum and dad business owners need to evolve… and quickly.
“There are a few who are in a bit of a time warp. When I first started out in the baking industry the coffee offering was Nestlé’s instant – you’d boil the billy out the back. But today, the coffee or café side of things has come a lot way. In fact, it’s now a major part of our business model.
“Today, people see bakeries as being a place where you can feed the entire family, from the kids right through to grandma and grandpa. This means having healthy options, a sandwich bar and so on.”
While it’s this transformation Garry is most proud of, it does make one thing crystal clear: the industry must be prepared to move with the times.
“It’s essential we keep moving, keep evolving. We need to evolve with the community and of course, evolve products. Even at Parkview Bakery, we’ve tried a new Continental-type line, including little Black Forest cakes using a lot of almond and hazelnut and marzipan that traditionally we’ve not used,” he says.
“Some people think the baking industry is recession-proof. Certainly, people still like something with their staple bread, something to treat themselves, regardless of the economy.
“But suburban bakeries have been doing it tough in the past five or six years, particularly in regional areas. Those that have survived and are still around are those that have really focused on customer service and the quality and consistency of their products.
“We can’t afford to sit back and rest on our laurels now.”