CONSUMERS could enjoy more variety of locally-grown fresh fruit and vegetables over a "longer season", if investment growth plans by one of the State's major produce suppliers take root in fertile ground.
Vertically-integrated retail chain and food service fresh produce supplier, markets wholesaler, exporter, importer and increasingly private equity horticulture financier Odeum Produce Pty Ltd, which trades as Odium Farms, is reorganising with a strategic growth focus.
It is seeking suitable horticulture sector acquisitions and investments, according to new chairman David Lock, who has extensive agri-management experience, particularly in the pork and seafood sectors.
"We are on the lookout for good companies (as buyout or equity financing targets) that have a good quality product and good people," said Mr Lock, who was a non-executive director of Odeum until he became chairman at the start of this week.
"Maybe something that has a different customer base or does something differently, but still within the fruit and veg sector," he said.
"We are aiming for more retail growth, diversifying our products so we have more products to offer and having more growers so we can offer for a longer season and diversify our risk."
Odeum currently partners with growers on Perth's northern fringe at Carabooda, Bullsbrook and Gingin and at Geraldton, Carnarvon, Broome and Kununurra.
It does not exclusively own farms outright, explained Mr Lock, a former Food Industry Association of WA chairman and current WA Meat Industry Authority and Australian Pork chairman who was recognised as an Australian Export Hero by the Export Council of Australia and also as Agribusiness Leader of the Year by National Australia Bank.
Rather, it partners with farmers by providing working capital and infrastructure capital so they can grow products Odeum wants and put in quality assurance (QA) systems Odeum requires, then Odeum "can reliably go and get customers", he said.
"Secured lending from Odeum into farms allows them to grow and tie the product back to Odeum and it (also) allows investors to participate in that sector with a securer return for their investment funds.
"Our growing season here in Perth is over the summer and then we follow the warm weather north to Geraldton, Carnarvon, Broome and Kununurra.
"Wherever there are seasonality opportunities I am certain we will be keen to source product or to send it over east," he said.
While Odeum provides retail chain and food service - predominantly direct selling to restaurants - clients with a wide range of quality staple and in-season boutique produce, its main volume lines are Brussels sprouts, snow peas, sugar peas and cucumbers.
It has "growing lines" in strawberries, tomatoes and melons, Mr Lock said.
He said growing Odeum's small export business - it sells overseas under the Koala brand - would also be a focus.
"Export is challenging - it's about having the right partners in the export countries, but we are now starting to export grapes into China, so bit by bit we'll tread carefully.
"But Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, they're all pretty good markets for Australian fruit and veg.
"I think where we're heading is definitely to grow the export business, particularly in specific product lines where we can supply consistently and have the quality we aim for."
Mr Lock said Odeum's growth plans would continue to rely on imported labour - temporary workers on a range of visa programs, including holiday visas, to harvest its crops.
"We need temporary workers to ensure our products are picked rapidly at the optimum time," he said.
Started in 1988 as a grower co-operative, Odeum has transitioned into a horticultural industry equity financier and produce marketer.
In January, promoting what it calls its "Grower Assistance Package", or GAP funding, Odeum said it had loaned the local fruit and vegetable industry more than $5 million over the past six years.
One original owner John Marinovich remains as the only vegetable grower on the Odeum board.
Other board members include Mark Wege, chief financial officer for a WA food manufacturer, and Joseph Mavromatidis who is associated with produce wholesaler Allied Farms Australia based at Market City, Canningvale, near Odeum's produce warehouse.
Managing director John Travers has been involved in the fresh produce industry for more than 25 years, having opened Boatshed Fresh Markets in 1988, Freshcorp in 2000 and joining the Odeum board in 2009.
A member of the WA Chamber of Commerce and Industry's food advisory group, Mr Travers stood down as chairman to make way for Mr Lock.
"Odeum has got a very strong management team, a very strong customer base and now, after trading in the current structure for 10 years, they are looking at how they stand," Mr Lock said.
"Bringing me in as chairman is to help have a bit more of a longer-term view and more of a strategic view.
"Management is excellent at what they do, but their time is consumed with the day-to-day operation and so my role will be to help think about where we look in the future," he said.
A chartered accountant specialising in insolvency, Mr Lock was chief executive of the Craig Mostyn Group (CMG) - owner of Linley Valley Pork - for 12 years and the group's chief operating and finance officer for eight years before that.
He was appointed to the CBH Group board in January and expects to remain chairman of Australian Securities Exchange-listed West Coast fishing, seafood distribution and agribusiness company Mareterram Ltd when a takeover launched in February by South Africa's Sea Harvest Group is concluded.
Mr Lock is one of three Mareterram directors not aligned with Sea Harvest to recommend the takeover offer to shareholders.
Mareterram was created in 2015 by the amalgamation of Shark Bay prawn fisher Nor-West Seafoods with the food service division hived off from CMG and headed by Mr Lock who is also deputy chairman of the Water Corporation and a member of the Curtin Business School advisory council.
In a statement last week Mr Travers acknowledged Mr Lock's expertise.
"The board recognises that our expertise lies in fresh fruit and vegetables and has limitations because of that single focus," Mr Travers said.
"David's extensive ag experience and involvement with government will create options for the Odeum group that previously weren't available.
"Current challenges are bedding in acquisitions and other new business in line with our 2020 strategic plans and we expect David to develop more rigour around achieving the targeted performance milestones.
"Other challenges are weather events that create both a glut of produce in individual product lines and then a shortage on separate lines.
"Longer term planning with David's contribution will help us smooth out those supply issues (by) developing plan B and C instead of accepting these common farming challenges as a regular business," he said.