Rock solid exporter claws Chinese market

Being able to order a live Western rock lobster delivered to your door has been a “game changer” for the Geraldton Fisherman’s Co-operative customer base in China, which has been leveraging trade agreements to reach the booming middle-class market.

GFC, operating for 70 years with more than 200 members between Kalbarri and Mandurah, was recently named WA Exporter of the Year at this year’s WA Industry Export Awards for its innovation.

CEO Matt Rutter says the company is ‘over the moon’ about taking the top gong as well as the Agribusiness award at the CCIWA gold-sponsored, State Government-run awards, which will see them go head to head with the nation’s best exporters in December.

GFC now exports about $400 million worth of Western rock lobsters to China, with this year marking the first year of tariff free trading.

As tariffs have reduced each year for the last five years, Rutter says GFC has been investing in its facilities both in WA and in China and etching out its Brolos brand, with a flagship store on China’s largest online retailer jd.com.

“We’ve been exploring e-commerce, so we’re delivering individual crayfish to Chinese consumer’s homes across China via the online sales method. So it’s been absolutely completely a game changer for our business,” he says.

“It’s an expensive product so there’s not large volumes that are traded but it’s very much going to that aspirational middle class in China, who are looking for the new experience.”

In Welshpool, the company opened a new export facility in 2017 to centralises its exports and reduce travel times for the live crayfish to offshore markets.

“Some of the initiatives that we’ve been able to do around it, such as loading direct into airline containers, becoming a known consigner and being able to export direct in the type of industry that we’re in has been a huge benefit so it’s actually far out achieved what we had hoped it would,” Rutter says.

In the last two months GFC has also started exporting snow crabs, a deep-sea crab only found off the coast of WA and is “in negotiations” to export other products, although lobsters will remain its core.

China accounts for the majority of GFC’s exports of 7.5-8 million crayfish a year, with Japan, Taiwan, South East Asia, Middle East and the United States accounting for the other markets.

While an average of 11 tonne of rock lobster pass through the Welshpool facility daily, volumes are seasonal with peak demand around Chinese New Year when they become a centrepiece for family celebrations and large banquets.

“Within China, a lobster is considered auspicious. It’s red, it looks like a dragon, they actually call it a dragon or Longxia, which is a dragon shrimp. So culturally, it’s a really important product for the Chinese,” Rutter says.

“And coincidentally, Chinese New Year also happens to coincide with the start of our season when we have fresh quota for the fishermen to catch, as well as the highest catch periods at that time of year, so we are by far and away the biggest supplier of rock lobster into China at the time when the Chinese want it the most.”

It’s for this reason that GFC has helped the State Government secure a five-week trial of direct flights between Perth and Shanghai from January 15.

Currently the only direct flight to China is into Guangzhou although GFC’s largest market is in Shanghai.

Rutters says while important from a commercial perspective, benefits will also flow to the WA community.

“If we can help drive tourism and drive extra tourist dollars into our region and also to help the relationship between China and Australia, I think we’re all for it.”

Rutter says trading is all about relationships and the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (chafta) and the State Government’s recently released Asian Engagement Strategy are important for bilateral trade between WA and China.

“Because the good thing about the free trade agreement for us into China is that, yes, it’s definitely been of benefit to Australia in terms of the direct access to that market but it’s also a huge benefit to China as well in terms of the tax revenues that they’re getting off half a billion dollars’ worth of product, which is now flowing into China direct, which wasn’t before.”

Rutter says CCIWA plays an important role in GFC’s operations by providing certificates of origin for each shipment and advice and analysis of potential new international markets.

“Tapping into the CCI network internationally is of huge benefit as well,” he says.

CCIWA’s International Trade and Investment Centre manager Michael Carter congratulated GFC on taking out the award.

“GFC’s commitment to the world best practices of sustainable harvesting of WA rock lobster, focus on quality post-harvest processing and having established an effective direct market entry platform into China is a testament to GFC’s strategic vision to penetrate the trade and directly reach the discerning quality conscious consumer,” he says.

►Need help growing your business internationally? Talk to a CCIWA trade consultant on (08) 9365 7620 or visit CCI’s International Trade and Investment Centre to find out how we can help you expand your business.

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