In 2001, the Thompsons were forced to sell their farm but remained resolute, driven to define success on their own terms.
Amy Thompson and her family are no strangers to adversity. For almost a century, the Thompson family life revolved around the dairy farm. Like many small businesses in the agrarian sector, however, there was only so much the family could do in the face of amalgamation, deregulation and international competition.
Over the next decade, they pursued various business opportunities, including an irrigation company and a culinary franchise. During that time, Amy Thompson completed an education in business management and developed her considerable skill set working outside the family businesses.
In 2014, she returned to co-found the latest Thompson family venture: Monkey Business Catering, now thriving in Toowoomba, Australia.
Tharawat Magazine had the opportunity to speak with Amy Thompson about perseverance, flexibility and her family’s non-linear journey to entrepreneurial success.
“We can’t control our environment as entrepreneurs. Instead, we must extract the useful elements and work with them. For us, failure is simply not an option.”
How did your family make the transition from dairy farming to catering?
We’ve always been involved in the food industry, having run a dairy farm for nearly 100 years. Almost two decades ago now, the Government deregulated the dairy industry, which made dairy farming untenable for us, thus altering the trajectory of our family business. The price of milk fell to the point where we had to start looking elsewhere to make a living.
My parents sold the family farm and relocated to Toowoomba, Australia’s largest non-capital city. With a population of 160,000, it may seem small in comparison to other metropolitan areas but, for us, it is a reasonable market size.
In such a market, certain qualities help engender success. My family are survivors and entrepreneurs; we adapted to meet the changing circumstances of the dairy industry until we couldn’t adapt any longer. Then, we continued to adapt outside of that framework. We can’t control our environment as entrepreneurs. Instead, we must extract the useful elements and work with them. For us, failure is simply not an option.
That said, selling the dairy farm took a psychological toll – parting with a legacy business in one industry to found another from scratch is difficult. In a sense, we are writing a new story for our family.
The transition from dairy farming to catering was not linear and took twelve years to complete. Our first venture after dairy farming, Upton Irrigation, was still within the bounds of the agricultural sector. From there, we gradually made the shift towards culinary, first as Michel’s Patisserie franchisees.
Michel’s is a coffee and cakes business that utilises a supply chain of premade goods for resale. That franchise was a gateway to Monkey Business Catering. Operating a franchise is difficult because of the constraints set by corporate headquarters, which are sometimes unrealistic. We were frustrated by the limitations placed on products, processes and marketing, which were most apparent when it came to the catering portion of the business.
Clients would approach us looking for something specific, but we were often unable to provide it because doing so would break corporate guidelines. Instead of getting frustrated about it, we saw a hole in the market and decided to run with it.
It was around six years after we left the dairy business that my parents and I had the conversation. By that point, I had acquired a business degree in hotel management and had worked in various roles at different businesses. I was ready for a new adventure. They suggested that I return and help with the catering side. One evening, we were sitting around the dinner table thinking about how we could grow further, and we created a tentative business plan.
Over the next six months, we assembled everything we needed to launch Monkey Business Catering. We trialled some of our ideas within the existing infrastructure of our franchise, using some of the equipment and products that were available to us. After about six months, armed with second-hand equipment and anything else we thought might come in handy, Monkey Business was born in a converted garage.
“We benefit from a level of dynamism that larger businesses sometimes lack.”
As you said, entrepreneurship is rarely linear. How can entrepreneurs prepare themselves for the journey?
The ability to adapt is crucial. Our first two years in business were incredibly tumultuous. Statistically, in Australia, eight out of ten small businesses fail. Viability is put into question whenever difficulties arise, which they inevitably and frequently do. The unpredictable nature of running a business is a stark reality.
For us, shifting from the franchise to Monkey Business brought the stability we needed. Free from the rules and regulations of a franchise, we could adapt to the changing market. For example, we started using recyclable packaging and composting to align with our values and the values of our consumers. Sustainability is something we feel very strongly about. However, we could not implement the sustainability we aspired to as franchisees because of corporate guidelines.
We benefit from a level of dynamism that larger businesses sometimes lack. If one of us has an idea, we’ll meet to assess its viability right away. If we decide to move forward with it, we can turn that idea into reality very quickly. For us, the ability to adapt is about the freedom to change as required on our own terms.
Is working with family a competitive advantage?
There are definite benefits to working together as a family. We have complementary skills, and it’s the sum total of these that drives the business forward. As a leader, I am there on-site every day working full-time. My parents are part investors, and they also contribute their wealth of entrepreneurial knowledge and experience. My father goes one step further by applying his farming skills to maintain the equipment and build anything else we require in terms of hardware.
My two sisters-in-law also contribute in their ways. One takes our scraps for her chickens and does much of our composting, which is a considerable part of our sustainability model. My other sister-in-law works in social media and marketing and utilises those skills to heighten our exposure online. My brother, her husband, helped us create the website when we founded the business.
My cousin and my grandmother are also directly involved. The former helps with delivery and quality control, and the latter, despite being 80 years old, even washes the dishes occasionally. It really is a family affair through and through.
Why the monkey?
My family has a weird sense of humour, which expresses itself in peculiar ways. About 20 years ago, my mother bought a christening present for a newborn baby in our family, a little stuffed monkey. That monkey, despite its inanimacy, kept turning up in odd places. Over the years, we went on trips around the world and, invariably, somebody would find the monkey in their luggage – a hitchhiker if you will. The monkey is a long-running gag in the family.
When naming the business, we went through the usual process of thinking about what is in a name and why it is important. Monkey Business Catering is a way to show our personalities. Also, businesses and non-profit organisations account for 90 per cent of our client base; I love the pun as much as the monkey itself.
How is technology changing the way you do business and how should entrepreneurs approach the rapid pace of change?
With Monkey Business, it’s all about utilising technology to decrease our overhead costs and streamline our services. Our cost breakdown is roughly 30 per cent for ingredients and another 25-30 per cent for labour. Our predominant focus, when it comes to technology, is decreasing those costs and thereby increasing our profit margin.
As a family business, we firmly believe in supporting long-term employment. However, we also know that we have to do so intelligently. Technology is a tool that allows us to ensure that the long-term employment we offer is sustainable.
Another factor in our success is our wealth of partners and the systems that they use. We engage with other businesses that are looking to improve their operations through technology. In that way, we are a united force pushing to innovate.
For accounting, we opted for a non-traditional firm, which is still quite young and in product development. The merger of our accounting systems with our credit card systems, which is thanks to our partner, has been incredibly beneficial. We’ve automated a significant segment of our business. Now, we see invoices and payments go through immediately. If we had not partnered with a younger software company developing these types of products, we would not have this advantage. According to my knowledge, we are the only catering company in Toowoomba with this capability.
What does the future of Monkey Business Catering look like?
We want the concept of seizing opportunities wherever they are to continue as the main driver for our business – that is where our sustainability lies. That said, we will not sacrifice quality or the relationships we have built with our clients and partners in the name of advancement. This balance is crucial, and through it, we saw a need in the market and met it; we didn’t try to force success.