In 2000 a family of Sikhs from Punjab turned up in Australia ready to do some farming. They’d been in New Zealand for 12 years driving taxis, cooking beef vindaloo for Kiwis and getting nowhere, so they decided to try growing grapes in the Riverina. Uncle Piara in Renmark thought it might be a good idea.
Fourteen years later, the Grewal brothers run a $3 million wheat and flour milling business out of Mildura that’s growing at 20 per cent a year, supplying Atta flour to Indian stores and restaurants all over Australia.
Like so many family businesses, they got there the hard way, moving from grapes and stone fruits in Renmark to wheat in north-west Victoria just as the drought struck, almost sending them to the wall. Instead of giving in, they bought a second-hand stone flourmill from their hometown in Punjab for $500,000, shipped it to Mildura and started making flour.
Agyakar Grewal. Photo: Glenn Milne.
But let’s start at the start, because the reason the Grewal family emigrated to New Zealand and then Australia is very interesting to us family business aficionados.
Like many Sikh families, this one had been farming in the Punjab for countless generations.
Bakhsish Grewal Singh (all Sikh men are named Singh) inherited 20 acres from his father, who had inherited 40 acres from his father. Bakhsish had one brother, so they got 20 acres each.
Bakhsish and his wife Ranjit Kaur (all Sikh women are named Kaur) did OK over the years with two crops a year (wheat and maize), as well as a few dairy cows and some sugar cane.
Trouble is, they had four sons. That meant five acres each, which would simply not be viable.
Other Indian families deal with that old farming succession dilemma by splitting up. Some of the kids have to go off and do something else and the farm passes intact to one of them. But it’s difficult, because the Indian caste system means that if you’re part of the farming caste (the vaisyas), then that’s what you stay.
Besides, the Grewals wanted to stay together. They couldn’t change jobs because they were vaisyas, so they all went off somewhere else and did something else together.
And now they’re all in Mildura, pillars of the community -- turbans, long beards and all -- where there is no such thing as a caste system and you can do whatever you like. They did bring a part of India with them, though: the four sons have married two sets sisters from Punjab, and all of them arranged marriages.
Manjinder, the number 3 son, went off the rails slightly in New Zealand and married a Kiwi girl, but that didn’t last long. "Right,", said mum and dad. "You’ve tried your way, now you can try ours." They arranged a marriage with a nice Sikh girl from Punjab. Manjinder and his wife are still happily married with three girls of their own. Sometimes the old ways are best.
His brothers and co-owners of Grewal Farms and Golden Grain Mills, Agyakar and Kamaljit, didn’t fight the system at all and each had their marriages arranged. Now all the Grewals – mum, dad, the three sons who own and run the business, their nine children, and their brother Harjas and his arranged wife, sister of Agyakar’s wife, live together in Mildura.
They still own the farm and homestead in Punjab, leasing the farm to a neighbour and using the house as a kind of holiday house for visits.
Last week the Grewals finished quadrupling the size of their flour-milling business, adding a dozen more stone mills and the equipment that goes with them.
The Grewal brothers now mill 3000 tonnes of wheat a year, of which about a third comes from their own 3,200 acre farm about 50km from Mildura, and the rest they buy from other farms.
Kamaljit Grewal. Photo: Glenn Milne.
They truck the flour themselves to Melbourne and deliver it to customers around the city. In other capital cities they use distributors. They are also milling maize and chickpeas from other farms in the district, and also have 120 acres of almonds, which they sell under their own brand, Grewal Nuts.
The three brothers are 43, 46 and 51 so they have plenty of time before the next Grewal family succession comes along. Do they expect the next generation to take over the business?
Oh yes, but it might be harder to arrange their marriages.