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10 minutes with... Aaron Brumby

Business

When Adelaide Central Market general manager Aaron Brumby took the reins of the SA icon, it was a case of “coming home”. On the cusp of marking his first full year at the helm, Aaron talks about his return to the aisles and bringing one of the country’s oldest markets into the 21st century.

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Lee Nicholson: Welcome Aaron to 10 Minutes With. Adelaide born and bred, you have an extensive background in local asset management and retail. What led you to the Adelaide Central Market?

Aaron Brumby: Yes, Adelaide born and bred. I went to school here, grew up in the eastern suburbs. My family has a background in property and asset management so I had that in my blood already at a young age.

In my last year in uni I got a position with Jones Lang Wootton as a retail leasing negotiator. I had about 16 shopping centres to look after around Adelaide. I made a move over to the Myer centre as retail co-ordinator and that’s where I met one of the best mentors of my career, Tony Hawkins. He was centre manager at the time. I learnt a huge amount from Tony working with him for about five years.

I was appointed centre manager at the age of 28 with 26 staff and looking after assets of about $400 million and property turning over in excess of $32 million a year.

I’d been there about 10 years when I decided I really needed to grow my experience in property outside of purely retail asset management and got a role in asset management with defence SA, so quite a change going from retail to defence.

From there I moved to Renewal SA where I was director of asset management for about three years. I looked after around 50 buildings across South Australia, 2000 hectares of land, parks, gardens, rivers, a really unique portfolio.

Then I heard about the challenges the market was facing with their management. I felt I wanted to get back into retail and do something in a good way for the state. I knew that with the right retail and management principles applied [to the market] this place could be absolutely humming along. It should be an important asset for South Australia.

I also felt a close connection with it because my family managed the arcade next door to the market and had done since it was built. As a child I remember coming to the market on a weekly basis. I got to know the traders and the experience you get there, so I felt a close connection with it.

LN: Was it like coming home, so to speak?

AB: Yes, it really does feel like that, coming home. I understand when the traders talk about ‘I remember 20 years ago when this trader was there’ or ‘this went on’.

So I put my hat in the ring and was successful in obtaining the role and joined the market on the 23rd of March last year.

LN: The market is such a South Australian attraction, do you feel the responsibility of being the steward of such an icon?

AB: I do without a doubt. But I do see it more as a privilege. I think that’s because I’m South Australian born and bred.

I know how important the Central Market’s been to the history of South Australia.

For me there is a huge amount of pressure in having the role because there’s only one Central Market that we have in Australia like this. We normally rank in the [top] 10 markets in the world so what a wonderful asset to look after.

LN: The market has been operating for almost 150 years. How do you intend to take forward such a historic and iconic building into the future so it remains relevant?

AB: That’s something we’re working on at the moment.

I see the market as being firmly entrenched in the 19th century. We have two heritage-listed buildings that bookend the market [plaza and arcade] itself so it will always have a heritage feel to it. Part of the eclectic feel of the market is because of that heritage nature.

I want to make sure everything behind the scenes, waste management, lighting, energy consumption, water consumption, is state-of-the-art and the absolute best that it can be.

The example I give is I think of this place in a similar vein to Disneyland in Los Angeles. Disneyland has that authenticity of being the same product for the last 50 years because everything behind the scenes is updated and improved but you still get that authentic experience and that’s what I want the market to have.

LN: How are the traders reacting to bringing the market into the 21 century?

AB: It’s been an interesting process. We’ve currently got a capital works program where we’re looking to invest $2.4 million this financial year in the market with a lot of back-of-house infrastructure improvements.

There will be a rolling budget of a similar level for the next decade for the market.

We’ve created work groups [with] traders where we come together and meet to talk through any of the changes, to have them understand and come on board with us because historically it’s been ‘here’s a new set of rules, here they are, accept it’.

Whereas we’re saying here are some new procedures or a new process. How do you guys feel about it? We get lots of feedback before we actually go forward with it.

We’ve an advisory group. On our board we have a trader, a councillor from Adelaide City Council, because it is an Adelaide City Council asset that we are custodians of, then the rest of the five board members are all appointed based on particular experience or skills.

Our chairman is Nick Begakis who is an amazing professional businessman who has wide experience in the food industry.

There has also been a change in philosophy for how the market’s been run.

LN: What are the plans for the arcade and the plaza?

AB: Those two ends of the market are outside the area we have remit over. For us it’s the old part of the market, in the middle [I am responsible for].

A lot of South Australians don’t realise it is split up into three ownership structures and management teams.

There’s a lease over that arcade which expires in 2018.

Adelaide City Council also owns the ground the arcade sits on.

They are making decisions on that presently as to how they can move forward and the potential redevelopment of that site.

There are going into a master-planning process about how it will be developed.

It’s an important strategic part of the market that will come up once in 50 years, so it’s a huge opportunity.

LN: What is the secret to the market’s success and South Australians’ affection for it?

AB: Ex-pats from Adelaide, the first place they want to go is the Central Market, to get that experience. It’s the wonderful connection the market has [to the public].

I’ve never experienced it with any other retail venue in Adelaide and in Australia.

I think it comes down to how long the market’s been around. The number of people it touches everyday. We have 75 traders, quite a few of them third and fourth generation traders, which you really don’t see in a lot of properties,

When you look into the granular effect of the market, we sell around a million kilograms of fruit and veg every month to the public. It means we’re acting as the pantry for a lot of South Australians. We’re not just a tourism market, we’re much broader and authentic.

You look at the 500-plus suppliers that supply on a weekly basis into the market. The produce, the farmers that supply direct, the ways in which the tentacles of the market reaches South Australians is massive.

LN: Why does the market have different operating hours and days?

AB: That’s a question I get asked a lot. We have some really unusual opening hours compared to most retail venues in South Australia.

It’s very old legislation we sit under for our trading hours at the market. We actually trade more hours than any other market in Australia. We’re at 49.5 hours a week. The average in Australia is 33.5 hours

There are two pieces of legislation that govern what we do. There’s the Retail and Commercial Leases Act 1995 and the Shop Trading Hours Act 1977.

Our governing structure and lease require the traders to vote for a change in trading hours and it has to be a majority.

If you go back over the past 100 years we’ve had similar trading hours. If you go back 40 years ago there wasn’t a Wednesday.

The only change I could see was adjusting the hours later because consumers are shopping later in the day, rather than earlier. It’s just a trend that’s been seen.

LN: With so many traders, and some selling virtually the same produce, how do you achieve a balance within the aisles?

AB: There’s a lot of thought that goes into how we select traders. Right now we are full.

We have no vacancies at all through the market and we have a waiting list of 27 traders to come into the market, which I think is a great sign of prosperity.

A lot of people say we are a bit of a barometer for the South Australian economy because we have so many touch points outside the market.

Getting the balance right is something we focus a lot on in the decisions we make.

When a shop does become vacant it’s really important for us to continue to be a produce market because that’s what makes us different from any other shopping centre in South Australia and keeps us unique.

We’ll always focus towards artisan South Australian produce wherever we can.

Getting the mix of traders next to each other is difficult at times.

That’s one thing I’ve really had to juggle is we have 40 different nationalities represented in the market. When you get down there and the melting pot of nationalities exists it makes the experience between different traders very different.

We’ve got Italians, Greek, Algerian, Vietnamese, Indian, Chinese, Latvian and Australians. The mix of them altogether really makes for an interesting day. No two days are ever the same.

There is always something going on in the market at some point. Whenever there’s an issue in the market floor, and I try to spend at least two to three hours everyday on the market floor talking to the traders rather than being up in the office.

If any issue comes up you’ve got to jump on it straight away and try and resolve it.

LN: And they appreciate that?

AB: The fact that the general manager of the market can be on the floor and experience what their experiences are is [beneficial].

It provides an opportunity for them to share with me what issues they’ve had historically and what needs attention and what needs correction.

LN: Historically, there was some instability with management, what has been part of the new market management style?

AB: We’ve been communicating as often as possible with the traders and we do that three ways.

Also by my team being on the floor – I’ve been able to assemble a fantastic team upstairs here to support me.

LN: You’ve brought in a digital marketer, what has that done for your online presence?

AB: Over the last 12 months, with Instagram in particular, our following has grown 2300 per cent over the last 12 months.

We now have more Instagram followers than any other market in Australia.

We can see the amazing growth in digital.

LN: Is this bringing a new customer to the market and is your relationship with current customers changing?

AB: Yes the medium in which we communicate with the customer is constantly changing.

It’s probably the fastest they’ve changed in the past four or five decades.

About three months ago we had a new product come through called kalettes, which were grown up in the Adelaide Hills – that were a mix of kale and Brussels sprouts. We put them on Instagram and told the public about them. They sold out the following day.

We launched the website recently with an online entrepreneur we’ve been incubating where we can offer an online buying system for the market. Customers are looking at different avenues to satisfy their want for retail spend and to buy things and we’ve got to be able to tackle that all ways.

We opened a community kitchen on the market floor on August 1 last year. We offer that to chefs and any multicultural group that wants to celebrate their national day.

If you’re from Algeria, it’s your national day, come to the market as long as you buy your produce from our traders, use the community kitchen for free, cook and share your produce with people.

Since we opened in August ’til last week, we’ve used it 59 times, so every third day there’s a cooking event going on at our community kitchen.

LN: What is that adding to the market?

AB: It provides an experience for the customer. We’ve put next to that an outside broadcast facility so radio stations can come in, plug in and do an outside broadcast.

We recently hit what was the pinnacle of what we wanted to achieve.

We had the Italian radio club on radio at the market with the Lucia’s family cooking Italian food at the community kitchen.

You had this beautiful marrying up of the experience of what was going on.

LN: Is the market nearing it’s full potential?

AB: We’ve put together a three-year strategic plan which we built around three pillars of the market.

First one is around access. Seventy-five per cent of the decision about where someone shops is about accessibility around that particular site.

The second part is what creates our sustainable competitive advantage. We’re in an ever-increasing competitive market for the sale of fresh produce, fruit and veg all that spent. We’ve got Aldi coming into the (general retail) market. Coles and Woolworths doing an exceptional job.

How do we continue to have a point of difference? For us we think that lies in having a really good regional offer.

An example of that is we have a Kangaroo Island store that came together about 10 months ago. There was a whole group of suppliers about 30 of them, 15 of which had never sold any products off the island.

They decided to establish a stall in the central market where they could bring together all those products.

We’d like to create more similar stalls like that, regionally focused where tourists who can’t make it to Kangaroo Island or Eyre Peninsula.

We could have an Eyre Peninsula stall here that provides the opportunity for tourists to taste and try and buy the best that region has to offer.

The third part is our entrepreneurial program. How do we take the market to the people?

Where I spoke about us establishing a website where they can purchase food from the market online that’s certainly part of it.

We’re looking at a click-and-collect style program where for the customer their produce could be aggregated and then they just drive in the car park, someone puts it in their boot and off you go.

Some people would love that, other people don’t want that experience.

So it’s about balancing the two up.

We’ve now got a program where we are incubating entrepreneurs with different options we’re considering to take the market out to the people because we can’t continue just to focus on what’s happening inside the four walls of the market.

LN: Do you have an app in development for the market?

AB: It is something we have been looking at. It will be probably related to a shopping list. You could imagine how wonderful it would be if people could come to the market have an app that they’ve already put in their ingredients and if the app could tell you where to find those goods in the market geographically.

If I said ‘where can I get pumpkin squash’, there’s only one trader who sells pumpkin squash, it would be able to tell you where to go. So we’re working on some apps at the moment as an opportunity.

LN: You mentioned Aldi, does it impact on the central market and, if so, how do you compete with that style of retail?

AB: Certainly we’re keeping a watchful eye on the situation because Aldi suggested they may have a turnover of up to $500 million in South Australia.

Our [state] market’s not growing by population to support a new $500m [business].

They’re going to be putting the hand in the pocket of many places to lift some that turnover out.

We think we’re less exposed to risk there. That’s mainly because we offer a different level of service than Aldi offers and a different marketing quality of product.

You really never get to know the checkout person at Aldi very well or at Coles and Woolworths like you do here at the Central Market. I think if we make that as one of our points of difference, we’ll comfortably compete with any offer that’s out there. But it’s an ever-growing competitive market out there and we’re very aware that’s the case.

We’ve been here 147 years and I think we’ll go for another 147 at least.

We have a lot of people come to us and say how’s the market going? We see it as a barometer for South Australia so at the moment it’s going really well.

December was up 15 per cent, January was up as well on last year. February’s starting to soften a bit quicker than normal.

It’s going to be interesting to see the effect of the election federally if that comes up soon as that tends to flatten retail.

LN: The market will be 150 years old in three years. How will you celebrate the milestone?

AB: We did our first celebrations of the markets in January this year, a re-enactment of the first day of the market.

The Adelaide Central Market was created when there used to be a retail and a wholesale produce market at the east end off Rundle Street back in 1869.

A number of the traders got fed up with the commercial terms and decided at 3am to take their horses and carriages from the east end market all the way over to Victoria Square.

By 6am they had sold out of all the produce they had. Which demonstrated there was demand in the western part of Adelaide for a market.

For the 150th I’d love to see a big morning procession of all the old traders that have been involved in the market coming over from the east end market location to our spot, maybe a street closure, all of Grote street.

We can really bring the community in to have a wonderful experience and celebrate our 150th.

Read all of our “10 minutes with…” interviews with SA business leaders here.

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