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BUSINESS EXCELLENCE AWARD - 2014 BUSINESSPERSON OF THE YEAR

When Greg Dennis convinced his family to invest more than $1 million in a milk processing and bottling factory, his focus was simply on survival of the family business. But in the year since the factory opened Mr Dennis and his family’s Scenic Rim 4Real Milk has won a slew of industry accolades, including Australian Dairy Farmer of the Year.

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Greg Dennis says being named Scenic Rim’s Business Person of the Year is quite surreal.

It’s been a big year of awards for Dennis, who in September was named Australian Dairy Farmer of the Year, but that doesn’t make winning accolades any easier.

“It’s quite surreal,” he admits.

“Awards and accolades were never part of the motivation. What I look at, and what I love, is what awards stand for. I love to be able to use awards as a platform, as a vehicle to strengthen the message.”

Greg has certainly done that. Even before the awards started to flow, Greg – or Farmer Gregie as he’s known in social media circles – started telling his story with convincing results.

He told his largely city-based audience how their cheap supermarket milk was sending Australian dairy famers to an early business grave.

It’s a message that has gained traction and now Scenic Rim 4Real Milk now boasts more than 10,000 Facebook followers, who are helping spread the word.

Greg admits that the first year of processing and bottling his own milk hasn’t always been easy, but he believes the future looks bright.

He says the decision to break away from big processors has enabled his family to make 15 per cent more for its milk.

“I think it’s fair to say we’re in a very strong position so early into our business,” he says.

“Our position is  a lot stronger than it was last year. The demand for the milk has grown, largely because it’s such a high quality product. If the milk was rubbish then we would be in trouble.

“But the other reason that the message resonates with people is because of the timing and mood within retail. People feel as though they need to get back to supporting local and regional.

“We can only deliver to within two hours of our farm but there are stores, like in Chinchilla, where they will go and pick up supplies from Toowoomba.

“We’ve had interest from Kingaroy, Emerald and Charters Towers.

“I absolutely always had a belief that it was going to work but you can’t get around the fact that if it’s not working financially it doesn’t’ matter what your belief is.”

Mr Dennis says the family budgeted on spending $900,000 constructing the milk processing facility. The budget blew out to $1.4million and the family faced another financial hurdle in February when an E Coli breakout stopped production, costing about $120,000 in lost business.

“That was certainly the biggest bump in the road and set us back $120,000 conservatively. People were still very supportive but it did take some time to come back from that.

“You can’t put a value on the sort of media coverage we’ve had, the media has been incredibly kind.”

And then there’s the support on social media.

Mr Dennis engages in conversations about anything and everything to do with the dairy industry – from the industry’s treatment of bobby calves to that $1/litre milk.

He says he’s still feeling his way but believes social media has opened up a powerful new avenue of communication to farmers.

“Social media does get a bad rap but I really think it’s a great tool if used for positive reasons,” he says.

“I communicate regularly with people I’ve never met. They share their thoughts, I share mine. It’s great for instant feedback – good and bad. I’m still learning and I don’t always get it right.”

A staff of 15 full-time equivalents are employed between the Dennis family farm and the milk factory. Each year the family welcomes about 12,000 people to tour the robotic milking factory and Mr Dennis says it’s been a surprising new arm to the business.

“It’s been a very big change to my role on the farm,” says Mr Dennis.

“I used to just be a farmer who worked silly hours and grew the feed and milked the cows. I kind of feel as though, with the interaction with people and educating people and reconnecting city and country, that I’ve fallen on my feet. I’m doing what I love to do.

“The tourism aspect helps put people in touch with agriculture and food production and it’s been a great thing.”

Image: Greg Dennis and the Scenic Rim 4Real Milk team