Published: 25 May 2022
A conversation with Marie Piccone, Managing Director of Manbulloo Limited (Ltd), the largest grower of Kensington Pride mangoes in the country, is akin to a mini masterclass in business management.
Fittingly, she has been able to share her knowledge with participants of the University of Tasmania’s Masterclass in Horticultural Business, since joining the steering committee when the course began in 2017.
Delivered in partnership with some of the world’s leading names in horticulture, including New Zealand’s Lincoln University, the Wageningen Research Academy in the Netherlands, and Hort Innovation, and facilitated by the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture, the Masterclass in Horticultural Business has helped professionals from across the country turn their business ideas into actionable business plans, so that they are ready to overcome challenges and reach their full potential.
“I have spent a lot of time involved with the Horticultural Masterclass. I was one of the founding mentors, I am on the advisory committee, because I believe it is a great course and an amazing experience for participants,” Marie said.
“I have interacted with the participants, and really enjoy hearing about their experiences and skill sets. I see the Masterclass as an amazing journey for people to develop skills they want to use in their business and career.
“I have interacted with nearly every class at least once, and I get to talk to them as a mentor, learn from them and the one thing I find is that many participants want to discuss and develop their marketing skills and strategy.”
Since she took ownership of Manbulloo Ltd in 2005, Marie has turned the business into a powerhouse. After graduating with a Bachelor of Agricultural Science from The University of Queensland, Marie worked as a horticulture extension officer, before starting her own consultancy which she ran for 15 years.
It was through that company that she found herself undertaking due diligence on Manbulloo Ltd for a potential buyer, Kerry Packer, in the late 1990s.
The deal fell through, but the three mango farms were still up for sale.
“Five years passed, and the company assets lost some of their lustre,” Marie said.
“By 2005, they were so run down I thought we might be able to afford them. I knew there was a big opportunity, because I knew they were the biggest Kensington Pride (KP) and R2E2 holdings in Australia and they span regions, so we could start supplying great mango varieties early and finish later.
“So, I thought I’ve done my ‘apprenticeship’. I’ve spent a lot of time consulting with individual businesses, industry, and banks, I want to buy these.”
Marie said she bought three run-down farms and a brand that was once iconic but had faded.
“It had been iconic to begin with, but by 2005 the Manbulloo (Ltd) brand and business was broken. It was becoming so incredibly run-down that prospective buyers were scared. With the skillset I had developed over many years and the networks I had I wasn’t so scared of it.”
Marie saw an opportunity and called on her strengths and contacts to re-build the business and focused on creating a talented team. Some knowledge of retail and marketing that she developed growing up with an entrepreneurial father and through her consultancy, along with building relationships and building a team, were key to her decision. This saw her create the culture that was key to the solid foundation Manbulloo Ltd rebuilt from.
While the first five-year plan focused on rebuilding quality and reputation and building a good team, the next five focused on a fresh marketing strategy.
Against advice, she rebranded all the farms (now consisting of seven: two in the Northern Territory and five in Queensland) as Manbulloo Ltd. She also parted ways with the original marketing process and took supply chain management and marketing domestically and internationally in house.
“The three farms I bought were all owned by the same farmer but only Manbulloo (Ltd) in Katherine was called Manbulloo (Ltd),” Marie said.
“I was told that ‘only one farm is Manbulloo (Ltd), and it’s not possible to call all these farms Manbulloo (Ltd),’ but I wanted to recreate the Manbulloo (Ltd) brand to stand for great flavour, integrity, quality, and reliability.
“In the second five years, we embarked on building our export strategy, taking control of our own supply chain and creating direct relationships with important partners and customers.”
Those decisions marked the turning point for Manbulloo Ltd—the broken company Marie bought began to become profitable. Coles, Manbulloo (Ltd), together with other suppliers and retailers and the broader Australian Mango Industry have worked at growing the overall mango demand.
During Manbulloo Ltd.’s 10-year relationship with Coles, the supermarket’s share of the mango market continues to grow.
“There has been some real success in building an open, trusting relationship and making sure it is win-win and giving consumers what they want.”
Hence, why participants in the Masterclass of Horticultural Business are keen for the secret sauce.
“That is the question they all ask me. Tell us your marketing strategy and journey,” Marie said.
“I wouldn’t tell them that the Manbulloo (Ltd) marketing ‘formula’ is the one they should have, but suggest they look at the value chain and decide which parts of the chain add value to their business, and which parts are just clipping the ticket. That is fundamental.
“Participants should look at their market segments, who their consumers are and the key customer and consumer insights?
“We always go back to the questions ‘what do the customer and the consumer want?’ and ‘how are we going to deliver that in the most efficient, effective way?’
“Our ‘formula’ is always gradually or radically changing, and we are always looking for new opportunities and to make sure we keep ourselves relevant to customers and consumers.
“Some advice that was given to me is trust your gut—with people management and more. Challenge yourself but trust your gut. And the other piece of advice is what is your ‘rare air?’
“What is it that you do well, that you can’t delegate? That is what you should do yourself, but other roles and activities can be for other team members and service providers that are better than you, or just as good as, or can learn.
“The Masterclass has so much content that will “lead and challenge” you and help you in so many areas crucial to business.
“And who doesn’t want to keep learning?”
The University of Tasmania’s Graduate Diploma in Agribusiness is delivered through the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture, online, with face-to-face learning and networking opportunities throughout, meaning that no matter where you live it is flexible and accessible.
Applications are now open for June 2022. For further information please visit utas.edu.au/courses/s6e.
This article was first published in Mango Matters, the mango industry's quarterly publication.