Q&A: Nicole McNaughton on cluster gains and growing pains

As the CEO of Sunshine Coast, Queensland-based Food & Agribusiness Network, FAN, Nicole McNaughton knows what makes an agrifood cluster thrive. This is what she told Future Food Systems about how FAN came about, how it works, and about how to weather the challenges of inspiring, growing and sustaining an agrifood industry cluster in regional Australia.

On establishing the Food & Agribusiness Network… 

Tell us how FAN came to be… “FAN has been going since 2015. It arose out of the Sunshine Coast Council’s regional economic development strategy, which was developed in 2013. The task was to identify three priorities, and one of them was forming a group that could help [local] industries grow, which was FAN.

[Part of the task] was mapping the ecosystem – which was mapping [businesses] across the whole Sunshine Coast region. The second was quantifying the value of all these businesses, and the latest study shows that the [agrifood] industry is worth $1 billion, on the Sunshine Coast alone, which is fantastic. The third priority was to establish a food manufacturing precinct in the region – which is the Turbine [Precinct]. It’s been a long-held vision that’s had many false starts but is now getting off the ground.” 

On FAN members… 

Is there a specific demographic to FAN members? “Not really: FAN members extend right across the value chain. So we have farmers; we have distillers and brewers; makers of coffee and custard-apple pies; honey producers. There’s no age demographic. The majority of our members are SMEs, but that reflects the industry as a whole on the Sunshine Coast; it’s primarily small businesses.” 

And do you need members all along the supply chain, too – so not just farmers and food producers but retailers and hospitality businesses, storage providers, distributors, marketers, etc?  “Yes. One of the things we do is connect our FAN members with other supporters and affiliates– we represent the whole value chain. Within our wider membership, we also have marketing agencies, and banks, and packaging suppliers. We like to connect our members with other members and affiliates according to what best meets their needs.” 

Who are your biggest advocates and allies? “Really engaged members – so those who see the value of what true community can do. That includes our local agrifood business stakeholders; our local government bodies, too. It includes people from primary production, food manufacturing, local government, local community and recently, Future Food Systems, who’s introduced us to university partner QUT.  So it goes right across the board.” 

On maintaining a successful cluster…

Sustained success doesn’t happen for a lot of clusters – how has FAN managed to survive and thrive so far? “It takes a lot of hard work.”  

Is there much voluntary input? “Yes and no. Our board is a volunteer board, for example, but in terms of other activity, most of our members are small business owners, so they’re busy! 

What makes a cluster work – and in particular, what makes FAN work? Does it happen organically from the ground up? “Cluster relationships are based on a willingness to cooperate. On being open to long-term connections and conversations. Willingness to support others, even if they might be competing in the same field. Being open to understanding that a connection might not lead to anything but still making that connection, and being open to fostering that relationship.”  

What has been your main challenge? “I think the biggest issue for all of us [clusters] is getting reliable sources of funding to keep operations afloat. A lot of the funding that we’ve all seen is for [specific] projects or for programs and workshops. And that’s fantastic – a lot of the grants fund workshops and outside consultancy fees with not much money for FAN operational expenses, so a lot of my role is sourcing new streams of sustainable funding so we can continue to support our members and create wider opportunities.”  

“The extent of the money for actually funding our operations is a continual challenge that we all face.”

“And that’s why it’s good to come together as clusters and get to understand how we can access new streams of funding, and to get others’ insights on that. And then we can work together to advocate for consistent funding [to sustain our operations].”

What about The Turbine Precinct [a multi-million-dollar F&B innovation and manufacturing precinct now in development on the Sunshine Coast for which FAN helped secure funding]? “The Turbine Precinct is a rare example of a government grant that will fund some operations. It’s a separate entity, though, and a separate not for profit. So again, the funds are not for FAN operations but for the Turbine’s.” 

Do clusters need shared facilities – energy infrastructure, shared storage and the like? Does that help, and is it something you strive for as a cluster “That’s certainly part of what the Turbine Precinct is about. Its vision is to be able to create a facility that allows these businesses to co-locate, and to share infrastructure.  There’s also a wider piece of work that we’re doing with Future Food Systems that is about understanding opportunities around shared distribution and packaging – a research project that’s based on industry need. So if we can cooperate on solutions that make things easier for [our members’] businesses, that’s great.”

How important is collaboration to cluster success? A lot of what we do is through collaboration. A lot of the food and beverage industry is SMEs, and that’s especially the case in our part of the world.  So if we can offer them business advice, connection, knowledge and capabilities in their areas, then it’s valuable to their organisation.”  

“FAN is a conduit of connection to resources and information for our members.”

“A ‘collaboration concierge’ is what we like to call ourselves.” 

In our early-stage cluster in Coffs, we have people who’ve turned excess blueberries into wine but are finding it challenging to do the marketing needed to sell it. Another set of growers, in the passionfruit industry, have tonnes of fruit that they can’t process because the nearest pulping mill is hundreds of kilometres away. Can clusters help SMEs surmount these sorts of obstacles? “Absolutely. Many of our cluster discussions are about how we can solve these problems for agrifood producers, and help make [their businesses] viable.”  

Is it critical for a cluster to have government, industry and research partnerships? “Absolutely. As a cluster, we operate under that triple helix.  Government is one of the three helixes we work with, and we have a very strong relationships with government at all levels. Of course, we now have hundreds of industry members. And we’re looking to have a better relationship with and engagement with R&D – the third helix – through our involvement with Future Food Systems and Queensland University of Technology.” 

What does R&D add to the mix? “That’s a very good question. Based on my own experience and insight, gained on this journey over the past year, it’s a really tough operating environment for our industry. So how do they come up for air to understand what resources and opportunities are out there for them, from government and elsewhere? Add R&D into the mix and that’s another unknown for producers.  

“Research and development is certainly an area in which we’re looking to increase our capability as a cluster – as in, what could R&D mean [to our members’ livelihoods]? And how could we help our members better understand what that R&D space looks like and how they can benefit from it?   

“Traditionally, it’s hard [for SME producers], because the costs of R&D are prohibitive. That’s why we’ve been actively engaging with Future Food Systems, to understand how we as an organisation can work on actively understanding the potential ROI of R&D, and what benefits flow from R&D engagement. So that we can then communicate that to our members when they’re ready to engage in R&D.” 

The next generation are often the ones keen to adopt new ideas, methods, technologies…is this a good ‘way in’? “Yes, and those early adopters are very important. To be supported by a collaborative ecosystem is also important, and that’s where clusters can come into it.

“Part of our role is supporting and connecting members with opportunities.” 

Is it important to identify your members’ challenges and pain points, then help solve them? Is that how it works in the FAN cluster? “What we develop, and what we deliver, is based on industry insights and needs. Last year we undertook a strategic action planning process across our region, funded by Advance Queensland, a state government department. It identified key priorities for our region.  

“From that work, we were able to source funding from other government departments – for a wider agrotourism campaign, for instance. For that campaign, we’ve done a lot of industry development work – workshops and the like. We’ve launched a new destination marketing campaign in partnership with RTO, and next year we’ll be rolling out more workshops and mentoring campaigns and whatnot.” 

 And does that sort of participation help people engage with FAN?
“People get enthusiastic about membership, and when people come along to these events, they meet and talk with other attendees and realise that there are others in the same boat as themselves.   

“A lot of our work is about creating opportunities for members to just come together and share – share insights, share a beer, share some cheese, and just understand that they’re not in the journey of running a small business alone.” 

 Lead image: Nicole McNaughton, CEO of the Food & Agribusiness Network. Image courtesy of FAN