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Harris Farm Markets keep it in the family

Ever imagined your mum and dad being your bosses? Or even working with your siblings day in, day out? We spoke to Tristan Harris, GM Buying and Marketing for NSW grocery chain, Harris Farm Markets.

Harris Farm MarketsAs Australian family business stories go, Harris Farm Markets has it all. In 1971, David Harris established the business with one small shop. Fast forward to 2010 and he is still managing director, there are 21 stores, his wife Catherine is the chairperson, and three of his sons: Luke, Angus and Tristan, work in the business.

Tristan, 35, is the general manager buying and marketing, and only joined the family business two years ago. He’d decided to earlier than that though. After short careers in engineering and IT and starting up and selling a couple of his own businesses, he thought he was fast becoming a jack of all trades and a master of none. “I phoned mum and dad and said ‘I’m ready to join the business,’ and they told me they didn’t have a job for me! I thought ‘Fine, I’ll go back to Seek then!’

“A couple of months later though, they had something for me and said they’d love me to come on board. The timing was really good for them and me.” Tristan didn’t join the business on leaving school because it was going through a bad patch financially. “In the late eighties and nineties, the business became a shadow of its former self and went down to just two stores. This was around the time I was going to uni.” That certainly isn’t the case now, with Harris Farm Markets recently opening its 21st store in Sydney’s Potts Point.

So what’s it like having your mum and dad as your bosses at work? It actually works, very well, says Tristan. “You get used to being told what to do by your mum and dad. They also understand you and how you work much better than anyone else could. You can speak very, very honestly to each other and there’s just an absolute trust in each other.”

It’s not all easy going though. “Sometimes it can be extremely difficult working for your parents at the same time,” says Tristan. “But we’re all used to fighting with our parents sometimes!”

The working relationship with his brothers is different again. Two of them are also in the family business. Luke, 34, is chief operating officer and Angus, 32, is chief financial officer. “There are positives and negatives,” says Tristan. “Sometimes it is such unbelievably good fun and really easy working together. It’s great knowing somebody’s always got your back and we’re all of a similar age. When we’re fighting it can make work very difficult but, on the whole, it’s an extremely positive experience.”

Their other two brothers don’t work for Harris Farm. While Dan, 36, works in the wholesale fruit and vegetable business, the youngest, 30 year-old Lachlan, is communications director for the Prime Minister.

Tristan says working with your parents give you a healthy respect for them as businesspeople and all round human beings, as well as simply your mum and dad. “A lot of credit goes to my dad, but my mum is also an incredible lady. She is a very smart businesswoman and very active in the arts and on various boards. Not many mums have an AO!” Catherine Harris was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2006 for services to community development through leadership roles, including the advancement of the status of women.

Harris Farm Markets, which predominantly sell fruit and vegetables, are up against huge competition from the supermarket giants Woolworths and Coles. To stay ahead of the game, the business is concentrating on offering more fresh meat and deli lines to its in-store offer as well as opening new stores in new locations to continue to grow. “We have built up that European deli feel over the last 15 years,” says Tristan. “But we’ve really ramped it up in the last five.”

He adds: “There’s very much a perception that our product isn’t the cheapest, which is driven by the view we have a higher quality product. In fact, we spend a huge amount of time making sure we’re cheaper than the supermarkets. We’ve got quite a significant growth in meat and seafood but we have no plans to diversify our base at all.”

Jen Bishop

Jen Bishop

Jen was the publisher at Loyalty Media and editor of Dynamic Business, Australia's largest circulating small business magazine, from 2008 until 2012. She is now a full-time blogger at The Interiors Addict.

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