Jan Vydra – 2016 Rabobank Emerging Leader Award

How do you go from a fledgling business with a  staff of three to a thriving national company with 130 employees? In a nutshell – through innovation, technology, sustainability and last, but not least, leadership.

It’s a formula that keeps delivering for entrepreneur and co-founder of one of Australia’s leading herb businesses, Jan Vydra, who won the 2016 Rabobank Emerging Leader Award.

Mr Vydra is now the CEO of Australian Fresh Leaf Herbs, the company he founded 11 years ago with his business partner, William Pham.

By 2016, Australian Fresh Herbs had already become one of Australia’s leading producers of fresh leaf greens, culinary herbs, micro-greens and edible flowers, with 85 employees working across two sites in Victoria.

Since then, Mr Vydra has added another 45 staff to the business and acquired two new farms, one in Victoria and one in Queensland.

The expanded business is now supplying 230,000-250,000 bunches of herbs each week to consumers across Australia – up from 180,000 in 2016, and a far cry from the early days when their hydroponic operation was producing 2000 bunches of herbs per week.

Mr Vydra said their vision for Australian Fresh Leaf Herbs has always been to produce consistent fresh produce for their consumers in a sustainable way.

Through his studies as a 2016 Nuffield Scholar, he investigated innovative ways to boost the yields and sustainability of fresh herbs and salad leaf production, particularly through genetic improvements.

“When we started out we used to grow around 150 bunches per square metre out in the paddock, and now with our hydroponic system we can produce 600 bunches in the same area,” Mr Vydra said.

Cloud technology designed by Australian Fresh Leaf Herbs, which tells employees when and what herbs to plant, pick and pack, was introduced to the company’s 4000 square metre state-of-the-art greenhouse when it opened in 2016.

Mr Vydra said this technology, combined with the use of Dutch-designed rolling benches in the greenhouse, had also produced significant water savings.

“Now that we have the four farms, we plan to consolidate them all and then introduce our technological advances on the new farms,” he added.

Expansion is also extending to Australian Fresh Leaf Herbs product line. The business has obtained a licence to cultivate medicinal cannabis and the first crop is expected to be in production by mid next year.

“The three pillars to our business are retail, hospitality and health, so going down the cannabis track is part of our health focus,” Mr Vydra said.

Another of Mr Vydra’s goals is for the business to become an international player by exporting fresh leaf herbs into Asian markets.

But for the moment, he is remaining focused on the domestic market, as demand is outstripping supply.

As his business has continued to evolve, so too has Mr Vydra’s leadership style. First thrust into a role of authority at just 23 years of age when he was appointed general manager of an organisation with 90 employees, Mr Vydra said he learned a lot from that early experience.

On receiving his award from Rabobank in 2016, Mr Vydra said, “The most important thing I learned is that, as a leader, you need to paint a picture of where you want your business to go and then communicate it to all your stakeholders so they are on board with your vision.”

He rated an innate ability to problem-solve and developing a culture within the organisation where people wanted to come to work and had a sense of purpose, as  other important leadership qualities.

Today, Mr Vydra explained, he has adapted his leadership style to reflect the growth of the company, increasing staff numbers and his transition into the role of CEO.

“Back then, I was about control, now I have learned the value of self-managed teams. Being a leader is great, but you can’t do everything yourself,” he said.

As part of his 2016 Rabobank Emerging Leader Award, Mr Vydra undertook an Australian Institute of Company Directors Course, which has helped him to take his leadership skills to an even higher level and deepen his understanding of governance issues.

And Mr Vydra’s leadership extends beyond his business to the wider industry. He is involved with key industry organisations, including the Horticulture Advisory Committee for Consumer and Market Development at Horticulture Australia and the Coles Produce Agronomy Group.

To find out more about the Rabobank Leadership and Emerging Leader Awards click here.