When Fiona Bryce and her partner Greg Cook purchased a farm in northern NSW three years ago, she planned to visit for a few weeks a year.
But when plans changed overnight she found herself living alone on an isolated 250-acres of land, and responsible for the wellbeing of 150 head of cattle.
This in addition to co-managing their successful broker business based in Sydney.
But the resourceful businesswoman made it work by doing what she does best, identifying problems and finding solutions.
Now she is weeks away from launching an online meat business, and if January is any guide, has a busy 2021 on the horizon.
Fiona’s unique story is this edition of Prospa’s Long Road – Tales of Regional Brokers.
MFAA: Tell us about your broking career and how you came to where you are now?
Fiona Bryce (FB): About 25 years ago I was working at a casino in Queensland when I looked around and asked myself, ‘do I want to be doing this in five years?’ And I thought, ‘no’. So, I packed my bags and came to Sydney to do finance. This was when finance brokers didn’t really exist, at least not like they do today. So, I started at Mortgage Choice because they were pretty much the only ones around at the time. I was at Mortgage Choice for 14 or 15 years and then I teamed up with Greg (Cook) and we’ve been working together ever since. We are currently with Loan Market.
MFAA: I understand you moved not so long ago to northern NSW. How did that come about?
FB: So about three years ago in January 2017 we settled on a 250-acre farm up here at Mount Burrell 50 kilometres southwest of the Tweed Heads. Our initial plan was to basically work out of Sydney and have someone else living up here. But I came up in September of that year and decided to stay for a couple of weeks, but long story short I wound up living on the farm by myself with Greg in our Sydney office. I had a farm manager but basically, I was looking after 150 head of cattle with no farming experience. Over the next couple of years we built a profile up here, and spent a bit of time making sure we were moving up on the Google searches, so we slowly built a base.
MFAA: Was it difficult making connections and getting a start on the north coast? How did you manage that?
FB: We initially made connections with Ray White rural. When Greg would come up once a month he would meet with them along the coast and provide our services that way. But when COVID hit and the banks requirements changed so that we didn’t need to be face-to-face anymore, Greg bailed out of Sydney and came up here with me.
MFAA: In the time you’ve been on the north coast, how has your business and the market up there grown and evolved?
FB: The market up here is busy, and everything is selling quickly, but there’s also tension because the locals are being priced out of their own towns and there’s a lot of non-locals moving in.
MFAA: How was it for you at the start adapting as a city person to life on the farm?
FB: I didn’t have any choice because there were 150 animals so what do you do? You’ve got to look after them. It was the middle of winter and I was getting up at 4am working then as soon as it was day light, I’d hand load my truck with hay and go out and dump it in the paddocks. Then I’d come back in and work through the day before going back out to check the cattle in the afternoon and make sure everything was in order, because at that stage we didn’t have proper fencing. So, that’s the first thing we did was buy fencing, then we upgraded our cattle yards. Then we ran out of water, so we drilled a bore and reticulated clean bore water into troughs around the property.
MFAA: I understand you have some good produce coming off the farm. When did you get into that as a business?
FB: Back in the beginning of 2019 we decided to open a meat business, and we just started to get orders out of Sydney for this meat. So, I got a logo knocked up, I came up with the name ‘Beef on Grass’, then I had to figure out the logistics, organise sending it off to the abattoir, then how do I get it from the abattoir to the butchers, then getting it to Sydney, and then getting it home delivered. Now I’m just about to launch the shop so people can go online and order. One of the great things about our meat is that when you go to the butchers or the supermarket to buy mince, you are not getting the same animal the T-bones come from. If it’s an old cow or if it’s a bull it’ll go in the mincer because the meats not nice on them because of the testosterone. So, when we cut our animals up, you’re getting everything off that animal, so the mincemeat is as nice as the steaks.
MFAA: How did your experience as a broker prepare you for getting this business up and running?
FB: Broking is just about finding solutions. At the end of the day taking an application and filling in a form is the easy bit. But everything’s got a process behind it and problem solving around that process, that’s our job really. Keeping that transaction on track, so making sure everything runs smoothly in the background. So, I guess having to understand that process helped me to understand and figure out the process with the meat. Like what does the butcher need from me to cut my meat quickly and efficiently? And what’s that going to cost me? It does get a bit frantic juggling all these balls, which is why the online site will make it easier, automating processes help, which is the same as having templates in the office. We have a philosophy in our office, if the bank asks for something or something goes wrong, we look at what could we have done that would have stopped that problem from occurring and we make the necessary change. So, we strive to only make mistakes once because the first one is a lesson.
MFAA: How is business looking for 2021 and what are you looking forward to most?
FB: We’re still busy. I haven’t had a break yet, which indicates we could be off to a busy year. The year that we moved in here our phone didn’t ring the hole of January. But this January has been busy.
MFAA: And what about Beef on Grass?
FB: We are going to be doing monthly shipments. I just need to fix up a few web pages, then I’m going to launch that, and the orders can happen. We’ll plan to do two animals a month. Already I’m getting orders, Stephen from the MFAA always wants some meat when he comes up the coast, and Aaron Milburn from Pepper has been awesome, he reckons his kids love the sausages and mince so much. So that support I have received from our clients, fellow brokers and lending partners has been awesome and greatly appreciated.