Ken Dugan has always had a natural instinct for spotting untapped markets, and a willingness to jump in boots and all when he sees an opportunity. Over the years he has mixed boldness with hard work to create a family business that includes agribusiness, processing, manufacturing and more.

Ken’s early success dates back to 1957 when he won an apprentice of the year award as an electroplater. Through a series of opportunistic moments and a lot of strategic decisions, he and his wife Joan are the primary shareholders in Hardchrome Engineering, one of Australia’s largest industrial surface technology and heat treatment specialists, which is headed up by their son Andrew. Somewhat more surprisingly, given their background, they also own Cockatoo Grove, a premium olive farm and olive oil producer.  

The olive oil business is currently run by their son Tim, who says the family knew little about olives at the time the business was launched.

“Dad saw a property for sale and thought it would be interesting to try something, but mum said no. Next time it came on the market, mum was still cautious, but dad’s mind was made up – mum knew he was keen, she was just testing him to be sure, to be sure, which is a good thing in a family business!” Tim says.

“That was in 1996. By 1997 we’d planted 20,000 olive trees and our first harvest was in 2001. We’ve grown the business a lot since then, and this year we had our biggest yield ever, producing 130,000 litres of olive oil.”

The Dugans spotted another market opportunity in 2012, making the move to organic production.

“By then the general olive oil market was getting quite competitive, so we thought this would be a way to differentiate our brand. It’s a huge process to switch from conventional to organic production, though, so you have to really commit to it. It took us three years to complete the transition.”

In the early days of the business, Cockatoo Grove mainly produced bulk oil but over time it has skewed more and more to value-add, shelf-ready products. A recent deal to bring Cockatoo Grove organic olive oil into almost every Woolworths store across the country has shifted the balance even further.

“Initially our branded product was carried in a few independent health and organic food stores, then into Harris Farm, but demand for organic products has really grown in recent years. In 2019, Woolies took a single product from our range into 200 stores.

“That soon became 950 stores and we have expanded the range to include Mellow, Classic and Robust flavour varieties as well as our Premium Midnight Olive Oil variety,” Tim says.

The Dugans are also in discussion with potential sellers in Europe and the US, although upheavals due to COVID-19 and the UK’s departure from the EU have slowed both conversations for now.

In the meantime, as Cockatoo Grove has grown and developed, Hardchrome has continued to operate and expand, too. This business, which the senior Dugans purchased as an electroplating operation in 1975, now has 70 staff across two factories.

“The businesses are separate but there is a lot of crossover,” Tim says. “The ownership structure is different although mum and dad are owners in both businesses, and our offices are in the same building. I run Cockatoo Grove, my brother Andrew has run Hardchome for 15+ years now, Mum and Dad are both directors and both still very actively involved at age 87 which is pretty amazing. There’s a bit of complexity but also a lot of growth potential.”

The Dugans spent 40 years with another bank but switched to CommBank after a chance introduction to Mark Couter, Executive General Manager of Business and Corporate Banking.

“It’s been a period of big expansion for both the engineering business and the olive business. We’ve been growing fast and it was time for us to work with a bank that could understand what we were trying to achieve and help us implement the best decisions for the group. I’d worked with CommBank in my previous role as CEO of the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse so the connection was already there.

“What CommBank has been able to give us is really solid local relationships, along with access to the funding and the products that we need as a growing business.”

And the business is still growing. A few years ago, Ken decided to grow almonds.

“There was a block of olive trees that weren’t performing that well in a particular area and it was time for them to go,” Tim says.

 “Dad saw not only that there was a lot of growth happening in the almond market but also that there’s a big price differential between conventionally and organically produced almonds. The plants are still young, only on their fourth leaf, but it feels like a good direction to go in.” 

Then in the last few months the family started Light Steel Framing, a new business just launched and overseen by Andrew which manufacturers steel framing for the construction industry.  Tim says “Andrew and dad are having bit of a light hearted barney over which one of them had the idea but at least agree it seems to have been a good one.”

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