GP Graders have been manufacturing unique machinery for growers and packers around the globe for 50 years. They are leading supplier of fresh produce grading machinery to Australia, and the leader of the entire world for cherry sorting and packing technologies. They are also well established in the shellfish business, with their technology revolutionising packing operations worldwide.
The company was first founded in 1963 by Geoff Payne. Prior to that, the Payne family had gotten their start in the industry by working in their local apple orchard, in an area that would become the southeast suburbs of Melbourne. Geoff diversified out of that business when he started manufacturing grading and packaging machinery for his orchards, as well as the neighbouring orchards.
“The business really grew from there,” recalls Stuart Payne, Geoff’s son, and a Director at the company.
“He developed a small factory on the family farm, which grew into a larger one, then a second one, and so on,” Stuart continues. “He also ventured from providing machinery for apples and stone fruit to citrus and mango machinery, then cherry grading, shellfish – all sorts of things.”
Stuart and his brother Ian essentially grew up in the business. The two of them have served a variety of roles since they officially joined in the 90s. They took over as Directors in 2005, when their father retired.
Since the beginning, GP Graders has evolved considerably. They’ve now supplied more than 800 turnkey fruit-packing lines around Australia, and have exported more than 250 turnkey cherry-grading lines for international customers. Their export markets have included Chile, Turkey, Greece, Norway, the United States, New Zealand, and more.
GP Graders’ successful foray into the export market began many years ago, when they realised their domestic prospects were weak and growing weaker.
“The Australian horticultural market has very few signs of life at the moment – it’s going through an incredibly tough time, and really has only two major suppliers,” Stuart explains. “That’s caused an enormous amount of consolidation in the fruit-growing industry.”
“Hence, there’s quite a low margin to gain at the moment, with a high dollar making that even harder,” he adds. “It became pretty evident quite a number of years ago that the future for us was going into the export market. We have pursued that with vigour.”
The company released their first exported machine in 1997, to an Italian customer. The machine was a cherry-grading machine, which GP Graders had been producing and refining since 1985. They had developed that machine specifically for cherries, and they realized in the late -90s that they “really had something unique,” Stuart says.
“We were specializing in a product and a niche that no one else around the world was really touching,” he says.
“After we put something out to the world market, it didn’t take long for other cherry packers to see what this customer had,” he continues. “Pretty soon, the orders really began to flow in. After starting business in Italy, we sold our first machine into Turkey in 2000, and then got into the United State and Chile not long after.”
“It’s gotten to the point where we supply the top ten cherry packers in Turkey and Greece, three of the top five in Italy, along with many of the top companies in the United States and elsewhere too.”
In 2005, Stuart travelled to Spain, where he started to talking to someone he respected in a similar industry. He says that was a defining moment in the evolution of GP Graders.
“I learned the Spanish were early adopters of new technology, and the conversations I had while I was there were all about electronic grading of cherries, as opposed to the mechanical graders that we were manufacturing at the time. Rather than having fruit just running down steel shafts and falling through at a certain point, they were talking about individualizing each cherry and running it under a camera system to analyse its characteristics, particularly its optical size and colour grade.”
When he returned home, Stuart and Ian set about developing GP Grader’s own electronic cherry-grading machine.
“As far as we knew at the time, we were the only ones out there doing this, although we’d heard later that an American company had tried and had done quite well. We put our first new machine into the United States in 2006, and it found limited success. But it was enough success to warrant more sales in Chile, then into the northern hemisphere, and so on.”
In every season since, GP Graders has been further developing their electronic grader, and achieving more success with it every year.
According to Stuart, the benefit of the electronic grading system over the old mechanical one is an increase in accuracy in size reading. This is critically important, as cherries are sold in grades, and different grades command very different prices. With GP Graders’ machines, they can accurately gauge size 98.5 per cent of the time – up from 60 per cent with the old machines.
“Since we introduced this technology, all sales on the old-style mechanical graders have just stopped. The compulsion to move into this new technology for packaging companies has been so great, it has completely ramped us up as a business.”
That development was a major one, but GP Graders was not done innovating. Stuart says their ultimate goal was never just being able to accurately judge the size and colour of the cherry – they also wanted to be able to check for defects that would diminish the cherry’s value.
The next step, Stuart says, was to develop a new product – which they have done in collaboration with a Dutch-based company. That partner company developed the electronics and software for that product, while GP Graders developed all the hardware and mechanical equipment that went with it. In 2011, that teamwork resulted in GP Graders’ first “defect system,” which utilised a new camera to detect softness, bruising rotting splitting, and other issues.
“We activated it and it just worked,” Stuart says. “We were removing about 70 per cent of all the defect cherries that were running over the machine, and we have since already increased that number to over 90 per cent.”
GP Graders’ commitment to excellence and constant innovation has not gone unnoticed by their customers – nor has it gone unnoticed by the industry at large. Last year, GP Graders was proud to be a winner at the Governor of Victoria Export Awards, where they took home both the Small to Medium Manufacturer Award and the overall Innovation Excellence Award.
“We are a success story,” Stuart says. “It’s great for the staff when that is recognised. It lets them know that there are people out there who are noticing what we’re doing. We’re also an extremely competitive bunch, so it’s a great feeling to win.”
“And we really pride ourselves on innovation,” he adds. “The whole DNA of the business is based around innovation. The people who work here all buy into that culture. We all take great pride in achieving what we have achieved. We really are revolutionising an industry. There are not many people who can say that.”
For more information, please visit their website at: GP Graders
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