Usually it is the children that are encouraged to take on the family business, but in the case of Sunshine Iris Nursery near Lockhart in New South Wales, it was the opposite. What started as a logical step into the business world for agronomist trained Elissa Strong became problematic when she went back to study in 2017 leaving her mother Mandy to pick pack and post.
Much to my son’s delight I’ve been invited to lunch at the home of daredevil X-Games and freestyle motorcycle rider Jackson Strong, but the international superstar is not the purpose of my visit. I am here to catch up with Mandy Strong, Jackson’s quietly spoken mother and co-owner of Sunshine Iris Nursery.
Driving on to the Strong’s 20,000 acre cereal cropping farm near Lockhart in the Riverina district of New South Wales, I immediately spot two distinct differences to every other farming property I’ve visited. First and foremost, there is Jackson’s elaborate training track, adjacent to which there is a fenced paddock of flowering irises of all colours and descriptions. Quite by accident I’ve timed my visit in October, right in the middle of flowering season!
While she has always been a part of the family farming enterprise – and the ‘number two header driver’ until their eldest son Toby was old enough to take over – Mandy’s main profession was teaching. It was in 2013, around the time of her retirement, that her daughter Elissa spotted a nearby iris business for sale. With Elissa’s agronomist training and Mandy’s love of gardening it seemed like a good opportunity. ‘Let’s do this,’ Elissa told her mother. So they did.
‘My husband thought it was a ridiculous idea,’ Mandy admits, ‘but we’ve proven to him that it is a very profitable business.’
It is at this point that I am embarrassed to admit my lack of gardening knowledge so Mandy sets me straight. It turns out that there are over 600 varieties of irises which are drought resistant, disease free and multiply each year. Perfect for Australian gardens which is why Sunshine Irises has sales to every state and territory. Walking through the allotment I see firsthand how many different colours and sizes there are which makes it a collector’s paradise and brings them many repeat customers.
Mandy pulls out her smart phone and opens up the Shopify App that they use in their online business. Even though they advertise that they cannot process orders between September and November during the flowering season, there are already 108 orders logged and awaiting delivery. Each order is clearly identified by a photo of the iris being purchased and each iris in the allotment is carefully labelled making the selections easy.
‘Basically we pick, pack and post,’ Mandy explains. ‘Shopify is perfect for this type of business and prints all the reports we need.’ Prepaid bags are purchased and posted through their local post office in Lockhart.
Extra care needs to be taken with orders to Western Australia and Tasmania that have quarantine laws. ‘We treat them with a special spray and have to do some paperwork. It’s not hard to do once you’re in the system and being an agronomist Elissa did the initial setting up.’
Two years into the business and the daughter-mother duo purchased another iris collection, this time from Yarrawonga, adding significantly to their stock. They also introduced eighty varieties of Daylilies. The business was significantly growing.
While the actual bulb of the irises and lilies are the main product, the blooms are also sold during flowering season at a market in Wagga Wagga.
In 2017, when Elissa returned to study and found it impossible to actively contribute, Mandy took on the business but not without support. She approached her twin sister Margie, who resides in Canberra, and invited her to become the new partner.
‘I do all the physical stuff and Margie does the books, blogs for our website, social media, and behind the scenes stuff,’ says Mandy. They also have an employee – conveniently Mandy’s next-door neighbour – who comes and helps pack every Monday. University students assist with weeding on a seasonal basis.
And sometimes things just go in your favour when you are surrounded by equally motivated business people albeit for very different purposes. Mandy reports that water for the irises is plentiful, as Jackson’s new training track required extra dirt to be excavated from the dam providing it with a far greater storage capacity. An aerial video of the iris allotment for the Facebook page also came courtesy of her son’s drone.
Apart from when the business has the occasional Open Day during the flowering season it is a very solitary business but, well used to rural life, Mandy appears to relish it. The internet has opened up sales well beyond her patch of rural bliss and she remains active in her local community of Lockhart.
Showing a hint of why her son Jackson has become known as an innovator in the sporting world, Mandy believes that anyone can do well in business if they think outside the square and develop something that suits their interests and skills set.
‘I’ve always been a gardener and love growing things,’ she says.
Best of all the business also allows her to make an income independent of the farm, which apparently surprised a few people along the way.
Mandy’s top business tips:
Take the time to talk to your customers even those not tech savvy.
Take a chance - and work hard when you do!
Enjoy what you are doing and it doesn't become a chore.
KERRY ANDERSON: Founder of the Operation Next Gen program and author of ‘Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business,’ Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. In 2018 she was named as one of Australia’s Top 50 Regional Agents of Change. READ MORE