Being in the right place at the right time, and playing your cards right, are two keys to business success Fruit Box and Milk Box founder and CEO Martin Halphen told attendees at Matthews Steer’s October Success Stories Breakfast.
Halphen studied law at university and was “ready to conquer the world” when he accepted a job as a commercial lawyer immediately upon graduating. However, after working his way through three jobs in three years, Halphen realised the life of a commercial litigator was not for him and moved sideways into a role in waste management. After seven years in recycling, and with a clear career progression mapped out for him, Halphen decided he didn’t want to spend his working life in waste management.
“I had a charmed childhood with everything I could wish for so I grew up with a massive sense of entitlement and an expectation that everything would be handed to me,” said Halphen. “I was waiting to be saved and handed a path to success and it wasn’t until I realised that if you want a story you have to write your own, that I opened my mind and became fearless.”
In 2000, Halphen decided to set himself up in his own business and responded to an advertisement for a Melbourne-based fruit delivery business that serviced 300 Melbourne homes and turned over $7000 a week. Within a week he’d bought the business for $100,000 and Fruit Box was born.
At first, Halphen simply aspired to maintain a cash-flow positive business but, as Fruit Box started to grow, his thinking became more creative. “From the start I’ve had a commitment to fresh thinking, not just fresh food,” said Halphen. “From the beginning I threw a lot of balls into the air. I didn't catch any, but I was having a ball trying new things with the business.”
In 2001, Fruit Box was approached to provide fresh fruit to office workers at a Melbourne branch of Macquarie Bank. While Fruit Box had traditionally been a home delivery service, Halphen saw the opportunity for expansion and seized the chance to take the Fruit Box business in a new direction. “There’s been no crystal ball in my journey,” said Halphen. “Much of it has been about being in the right place at the right time.”
Having identified a market for office fruit deliveries, Halphen circulated brochures to 1,500 other Melbourne CBD businesses and acquired a further 20 clients immediately. “My success has been a lot like a game of Blackjack,” said Halphen. “If you want to win, you have to be in the game, and to be in the game you have to step up to the table and play.
“You need a lot of luck and I feel I've had a lot of luck. You get dealt hand after hand and have to decide whether to hold, or put it all on line and be prepared to go bust. If you do manage to get some winnings you have to put them away. Otherwise you can lose it very quickly.”
In 2004 Halphen expanded Fruit Box into Sydney and between 2005 and 2008 he established the business in Australia’s other capital cities. The businesses’ original $100,000 turn over increased to between $600,000 and $700,000 in turn over but, like many SME owners, Halphen increasingly felt that he’d bought a job, rather than a business.
“We were seeing growth without reward,” he said. “There were many times I wanted to chuck it in, but those first seven years of my career had helped me develop resilience and that’s what got me through.”
Encouraged by his father to “embrace struggle years, as they are the best years of your life,” Halphen spent the next 10 years getting to know the business and his customers. He minimised backlash during the GFC – and actually managed to grow the business, by leveraging their fruit customer base to introduce Milk Box milk deliveries to his service offering. Today Milk Box delivers 10-million litres of milk to Australian businesses every year, which represents 40 per cent of the business.
“Again, luck played a part in that success,” said Halphen. “It turned out that milk helped to sell food, and at the same time coffee machines became much more prevalent in workplace so we rode that wave of popularity as well.”
While the business’ targeted turnover for the next financial year is $60-million, Halphen is not resting on his laurels, acknowledging that the 20% year-on-year growth in demand for milk won’t continue indefinitely. In order to future-proof the business, he and his team constantly assess potential new products and services to offer under the Fruit Box-Milk Box banner, and they are currently focusing on pantry and janitorial items and alcohol, consumables clients traditionally purchase from supermarkets and cash and carries.
“We are not in business for an exit,” he said. “At 17 years old, the business is a teenager that we’re now preparing for adulthood. We’re successful at running a business that is profitable and embraces opportunities, and we want to continue to do that.”
Halphen said the number one key to his success is that he “didn’t get full of himself” saying he and his team never forget the things that got the business where it is today. “In business there can be a tendency to stop looking backwards and just look forwards. We approach every challenge in business with no entitlement and we write the next chapters of our own book.”
He said the second key to business success is connection; with the business and team, with the customer, with the community and with success itself.
“If you can’t say what your business does in 25 words I reckon you don’t know what you’re doing,” said Halpern. “Your relationship with your customers should be a love affair. If you walk in their footsteps and enhance what they are doing, the business will take care of itself. “
Halphen has grown Fruit Box and Milk Box into a business with a social conscience, piloting a program in 2017 to donate fruit boxes to families in need. “Connection with the community – and social good – is good business,” said Halphen. “It leads into connecting with success and why we get up in the morning. We provide a good environment to work in and we’re building our people. Now it’s about doing something good that can genuinely impact the community.”
A Melbourne entrepreneurial success story, Halphen has big aspirations to solve problems in simple, straightforward ways, saying: “We work hard through challenges with resilience. We are excited about future – we embrace the future.”