Reflections of a CEO: Jolyon Burnett says goodbye to the Australian macadamia industry

When Jolyon Burnett was appointed CEO of the Australian Macadamia Society back in 2008, he was handed the keys to an industry body facing substantial challenges. Membership numbers were dwindling, staff were disheartened, and the Australian Macadamias industry conference and quarterly trade publication were both losing money.

“The Board brought me in as a change agent to help unify the industry and strengthen its reputation,” recalls Jolyon. “They also said that while they had enough money to pay me for the first year, after that it would be dependent on my ability to turn things around. It was certainly full disclosure, but I was up for the challenge!”

And turn things around he has, notching up an impressive 14 years in the role, and leaving the Australian macadamia industry in a very different shape to which he found it.

Rebuilding from rock bottom

While Jolyon light-heartedly remarks he picked the best time to take on the role “because it was always going to be uphill from there”, the negativity in the industry when he started was no laughing matter.

Growers were reeling from a substantial price crash, there was tension in the processing sector, and a review of the industry’s marketing program found it was underachieving. In short, Jolyn says it was ‘rock bottom’.

So where do you begin when faced with such challenging dynamics? For Jolyon, it was about refocusing on a core belief in the product, and the opportunities lying in wait.

“The industry knew it had a great product and everyone believed strongly in that,” Jolyon recalls. “We had barely touched the sides of some major markets, but Australia had just overtaken Hawaii as the largest grower in the world. So it wasn’t all doom and gloom, but it was certainly challenging.”

“The industry has always been export focused. Work had been done to build the German market, and we had a market in Japan. We had tried, along with the South African industry, to develop the UK market but it was unsuccessful,” Jolyon says.

“Developing new markets was essential to fulfilling the potential of our product, and now we have a thriving industry-run marketing program that’s active not only in Australia, Germany and Japan, but China, South Korea and Taiwan too.”

A more professional and data-driven industry

There have been many shifts in the industry during Jolyon’s tenure, with one of the most significant being the growth in macadamia production.

“Building supply has been critical. It’s taken a long time but we are now producing a volume sufficient to engage seriously with the ingredient market and product manufacturers and we’re talking about entering significant new markets like India. In the past we didn’t have the volume as an industry to even think about those sorts of aspirations,” he says.

Jolyon cites growth in the professionalism of orchard management as another major change that’s occurred during his time as CEO.

“When I started it was largely an industry of dedicated amateurs. I mean no disrespect when I say that, but back then there was so much we didn’t know,” he recalls. “Now there is a solid understanding of how to establish an orchard and make it really productive, and our best growers are producing 6 tonnes to the hectare.”

Jolyon says one of the most significant improvements of the past 14 years was the establishment of the Australian Macadamia Handlers Association (AMHA), an independent company dedicated to the collection of real-time crop data that represents more than 90% of the Australian macadamia crop.

“The development of the AMHA brought a new level of professionalism, credibility and collaboration to our industry. It’s given us a good line of sight around stock inventories which has enabled us to manage that and report much more credibly to the global market.”

A strong belief in global collaboration

While Australia is the natural home of macadamias and a world leader in macadamia production and marketing, Jolyon is quick to champion the importance of global collaboration to continued success, both locally and beyond.

He says Australia’s ongoing support of the World Macadamia Organisation, which launched last year to promote macadamias globally, will be critical.

“The growth we’re seeing in global macadamia supply is essential for the continued development of the industry as a whole. But all nut supplies are growing, not just macadamias. And many of those other nut industries have significant resources to grow demand for their product,” Jolyon cautions.

“We have to lift our game in terms of generic (origin neutral) marketing of macadamias to ensure we don’t lose market share in a growing sector. Ultimately we are all in this together in terms of stimulating demand. If we continue to stimulate demand at a global level, Australian grown will still be the best of the best.” 

Opportunities on the road ahead

Jolyon is optimistic about the opportunities that are unfolding for Australia’s macadamia industry.

“Australia’s macadamia breeding program is a long term opportunity. Because the macadamia is indigenous to Australia and we’re the only country where macadamias grow wild, we have access to the genetic diversity found in wild macadamia trees. This means we can more effectively breed trees with favourable characteristics, and we have a world-class research base on macadamia genetics to draw on.”

“I also see a big opportunity in the growing global interest in sustainability credentials. I believe Australia is better placed than other origins to comprehensively document our sustainable practices across a host of areas including carbon footprint, waste, worker health and safety, and water use. That’s not to say that other origins can’t do this well too, but Australia’s regulatory framework is advantageous for our local industry.”

Innovation has long been at the heart of Australia’s industry, and Jolyon sees this as an ongoing competitive advantage.

“Australia has led so many of the innovations in the macadamia industry, and that’s a feature of Australian agriculture more broadly too. We have had to be innovative to survive, and I can see that continuing.”

Achievements to be proud of

When pressed about the achievements he is proudest of, Jolyon is quick to praise the industry’s people.

“It’s been wonderful meeting all the fantastic people involved in this industry and being part of something as big as the growth of the Australian macadamia industry,” he says fondly.

“I’m particularly proud of my team. I feel privileged to have worked with all of them. Everyone gives so much and has made their own unique contribution to what has been such a delightful series of initiatives. I’ll never forget things like our industry’s 40th anniversary celebrations, the Macadamia Innovation Challenge, and developing our integrated orchard management tools.”

Being involved with the Macadamia Conservation Trust (MCT) has been another highlight of Jolyon’s time in the industry.

“It’s so important that we protect the germplasm and diversity in wild macadamia trees – it’s essential to the future of our industry. The MCT has been positive in terms of our industry’s reputation as being safe and responsible. It’s helped to build our marketing narrative and it’s facilitated some recognition of First Nations Australians.”

Jolyon has also guided the Australian Macadamia Society into a sound financial position. “We now have around 1,000 members and it’s fair to say we are well regarded in horticulture generally and government.”

Life after macadamias

Jolyon reflects on his time as CEO with enormous affection.

“It’s been a privilege and a pleasure. There have been very few times when I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed this role. The variety of the work has been great. You’re on farm talking to growers one day and then in Dubai attending the INC Congress the next” he says.

“And it’s so gratifying to be involved with a product as special as macadamias. I’ve worked in industries in the past where it’s hard to put your heart and soul into promoting their product. With macadamias, that’s not the case at all. Australian growers are committed to producing this wonderful product sustainably and responsibly.”

Far from being at a loose end when he finishes up, Jolyon has plenty in the pipeline to keep him busy. In addition to serving on two Boards – one for NSW Government Local Land Services and another for a small organic food company – Jolyon is eager to give back to his local community now that he will have more time.

“One of my life’s great pleasures has been moving to the Northern Rivers and feeling really engaged in the local community. I was hoping to volunteer at the local library and soup kitchen, but sadly both were destroyed by the floods earlier this year. I’ll find other ways of contributing though, and I recently had my first grandchild so I’m looking forward to having more time to spend with him. Hopefully a few more grandkids will follow!” he says.

Jolyon’s parting message is one of great optimism for the industry he’s given so much to over the past 14 years.

“I strongly believe our industry’s best days are in front of it because it’s such a great product,” he said.  “I can only see it getting bigger, better and more exciting. “

From everyone at Australian Macadamias, we sincerely thank Jolyon for his service to our industry. He has guided us through challenging times, built a global brand, and left a positive impact on everyone lucky enough to have worked with him. We wish him all the very best.

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