From idea to empire – the story of OzHarvest with Ronni Kahn and Vince Frost
Participants – Mark Jones (MJ)
Jeanne-Vida Douglas (JVD)
Vince Frost (VF)
Ronni Kahn (RK)
JVD: Welcome again to the CMO Show. Today, we’re joined by some really exciting guests. We’ve got Vince Frost who’s the CEO of the Frost*collective, and we’ve got Ronni Kahn who’s the CEO and founder of an amazing organization, OzHarvest. Thanks for joining us.
VF: It’s great to be here.
RK: Thanks so much for having us.
JVD: Of course, Mark is here.
MJ: Yes, hello, I’m here.
JVD: As always. I guess what I’d love to do, Ronni, is ask you to start out by giving us a little bit of a potted history of OzHarvest because we’re just talking a moment ago, you’re 11 years old now.
RK: I started OzHarvest because I saw food, and I knew there were people in need.
Mulling around my head was the idea of making sure that good food didn’t go to waste, but I wasn’t activated. I wasn’t actioned into actually starting anything with it until I did go and visit South Africa which was a wonderful visit because I connected with an old friend who I hadn’t seen for years and years.
I was only going to be in South Africa for a few days just to clear my head and think about what could I do. She said, “Well, I’d like you to come with me to Soweto.”
When I grew up, I couldn’t visit Soweto. I was born during the apartheid era. When I left South Africa, it was very much still under the apartheid regime. A White person could not visit Soweto.
Driving into Soweto, she said very … Under her breath, she just very casually said, “By the way, I was responsible for electricity in Soweto.” I just got goosebumps because it was-
JVD: I just got goosebumps when you said that.
RK: What could that feel like to know that you’ve made a difference to millions of people?
MJ: Was the aha moment for you helping a lot of people? Electricity is that sense of scale.
RK: The aha moment was absolutely what can it feel like to know you’ve done something that impacts a country, a mass of people? I knew that my life would never be the same again. I knew that I would come back to Australia and start this food rescue organisation which I didn’t know what that even meant, but that I would do it. I would do that. That really was what galvanised me into action.
MJ: The challenge many people face though is they have that aha moment, that trigger, it takes a lot of courage to do the next thing which is leave what you’re doing, follow-through in some ways, stump up some money, whatever it might be. How do you get over that hurdle?
RK: Well, the stumping up the money was the first part that one had to do. I still needed to work, so I continued running my business for the next six years. At the time, it didn’t feel courageous. I didn’t even think for one minute there was any chance that I would fail because I didn’t know what I was about to do
JVD: Can you take us to the point just before you met Vince? Where was OzHarvest at that stage and what was the turnaround? How did that reinvention of the brand happen?
RK: I started realising that in fact rescuing food is not enough. That we needed to add different elements so that we were not just a food rescue organisation. That’s when we started realising that actually there was a different story to tell and that we needed different messaging. Our new purpose which was to nourish our country which helped us to go from being food rescue … What was our vision before? Our mission was to rescue food to feed hungry people, to nourishing our country.
RK: The turning point for OzHarvest was having Vince help us with our brand, look, collateral, design because it took us stratospherically from where we were to where we are today.
MJ: Vince, I want to bring you in here at this point and say … Firstly, what’s the … You guys have known each other for a while, haven’t you? What’s the-
RK: We fell in love. Sometime ago, I asked him to marry me,
VF: When was this? Four years ago?
RK: … in terms of his business and my business. He said yes. The poor man didn’t know what he was getting into.
VF: It made sense as we met in terms of the opportunity to work together. If you look at my track record of 25 years as a designer, my fundamental focus is on helping other businesses, other people to be successful whether it’s a charity or it’s a big organisation.
MJ: Vince, what was the design role? You got the story. You got the narrative. You’ve got this distilled essence of the brand. How did you take that to the next level?
VF: I guess, in different ways. I looked at the touch points that Ronni needed for her business, looking at the tools and looking at how do you kind of own a colour? They already had the yellow vans previously. That become kind of a symbolic. That’s the thing that most people in Sydney, at the time .
VF: It was less iconic. Now, it’s kind of a strong symbol. The idea is really that we wanted to kind of elevate the brand to be as if it was a corporate commercial business. You don’t want to look like a charity. Quite often, charitable organisations don’t have a lot of money to play with certainly in this kind of brand area. We believe it’s really important that we pull out all the stops to find people that can help us to kind of realise that a higher positioning of that brand than what is normally expected, so it can sit in the same category as all your major corporate sponsors. It doesn’t look like a basket case, if you like. It feels like a credible brand.
RK: The interesting thing that Vince picked up on is that from the day that I set up OzHarvest, I never thought of us as a charity because I’d never run a charity. I’d never been in a charity. I only had a business. We always treated OzHarvest as a business. We just happened to be a transport and logistics company that picks up for free, delivers for free and makes a huge difference. We were running like a business, but we didn’t so much look like a business until Vince absolutely encapsulated that whole vision of just helping us with that brand identity.
MJ: I think my point, I have come across organisations that don’t want to appear to look too slick. There’s this sense that all the money that’s coming in the door, there’s this argument about what percentage does your admin cost, right?
MJ: This perception, if we look too good, then maybe we’re going to get kind of knock on the head for it.
RK: Totally. I’m so proud of that because I say we’re all so slick and chic, and it cost us less than a dollar to deliver two meals. Now, that is pretty powerful. We are slick and chic but we’re running a very tight and efficient organisation.
JVD: Design is integrated into so much product development now and solution development. The whole design thinking approach has totally changed the way the large organisations go about structuring teams, structuring development teams.
VF: Exactly. Design has so much power today and people recognise that power than ever before. It’s all about ideas. I think that’s the key thing. It’s working out what’s going to make the difference? What’s the unique point of difference? What’s something which can stand out in the market? Not just be the same and copy something else but something which is unique that people flock to because they’re so excited about that as an opportunity.
JVD: How do you tell people an entirely new story like that? You’re introducing to them this notion of food rescue, and you’re introducing them to this notion of social entrepreneurship which didn’t exist 10 years ago.
RK: The concept of rescuing food is every man can relate to. It’s not like saying, “I want you to support blind people.” If you have never known anyone who’s blind, it means nothing to you. Every single one of us has had somebody, at some point in our lives, say, “Eat your food because there’s someone starving somewhere.”
MJ: The great thing about OzHarvest is you got this incredible authentic brand story. It’s a really easy story to tell conceptually, right?
MJ: What if you’re a corporate and your brand story is actually not all that great, but there’s something in you, maybe your team or the CEO. Somebody says, “We are going to do this social good thing. We’re going to invest in the communities that we’re a part of, or that we sell to, or whatever the context might be.” How do you go there in a way that’s credible and authentic? This is the big CSR story that went around a while ago. How do you … Is this a business transformation conversation? Is it just simply finding the right positive stories that work? This is a huge problem for a lot of organisations that don’t have the great starting point like yourself.
RK: Well, we believe that it is about changing their story. That every corporate, any corporate, there’s this whole notion of conscious capitalism. It is about going back to the source of why a business started. A business started because they had a product that they thought people would need or they had something that they believed would be of use to society. What changed over the years was that it became less about what use that product was and more about what the business could make for the business and the shareholders.
I think that we have to go back to that notion of finding why business exists. A business is made up of people. People live in society. Every person has a role to play in society. It’s about finding the best alignment for a business to work with an organisation that’s out there to help them lift their game and make corporate social responsibility not just a tick. It’s about meaningful engagement. I think that’s the lesson that corporates are learning now.
MJ: What’s your advice for companies that are trying to emulate a similar kind of positive brand story?
RK: One of the best ways is long-term commitment. Any of the companies that come to us and say, “Hey, listen. We’ve got this great idea, so will you do this with us?” It’s just a one-off and I’m not interested because they will look bad, and it won’t do good for us either.
Our corporate partnerships are long-term because we want to leverage their goodness and ours. We want them to look like good corporate citizens. We look for long-term partnerships, three years, five years because that’s about sustainability for us. Also, it takes time for a partnership to work. A partnership is a marriage. It’s finding all the right nuances, and it’s really about making it genuine, authentic and real.
My advice is if you’re thinking of looking at CSR, you want to do it properly, and you want to do it right. You work out what your budget is, and you do it long-term.You try and find the right partner.
RK: Not switch and change.
MJ: I was going to say … I’d imagine you get the right resources, too. Somebody who,
MJ: … who’s responsible for it and driving the organisation.
RK: Absolutely. You got to have a champion that comes from the top because otherwise it’s really hard to embed something in a business.
Some of the businesses that have participated in Cooking for a Cause tell us that their corporate volunteering have gone from 8% to 35% since they started putting people through their program. That means they’re getting people who are more engaged in their business because those people who’ve been through a wonderful volunteering experience that their company has given them. Not only does it mean they love us, but they think their company is cool. They’re more engaged with their business. They’re more inclined to give back to their company. That’s really what volunteering is all about.
It’s not about ticking a box and saying, “I’ll give you one day. You can go one day and go and do something.” People are lethargic about doing that. It doesn’t feel like it feels their soul if it’s just about … They might prefer to spend it down the beach.
MJ: It’s challenging though, isn’t it? If you’re in an organisation that sort of has leadership that prides itself on being all knowing, it takes quite a bit of humility to bring in new fresh minds. I can see why it’s important for you, particularly you mentioned staying fresh after 11 years. It is a challenging exercise for leaders, isn’t it?
RK: You did mention something very exciting. We can touch on the whole subject of what is a good leader and what are the qualities that are required for leadership. I think humility is a huge one. I think passion, and commitment, and role modelling, and authenticity, and integrity, those are just words that sound jargonistic, but actually they’re pretty meaningful. You can say you’re something, but it’s very clear if you’re not.
MJ: If they’re missing, you notice them. Don’t you?
RK: You sure do.
JVD: What are the sorts of opportunities that you create for businesses to get more involved with OzHarvest?
RK: Our biggest flagship and most exciting event is coming up on the 7th of March. It’s called the CEO CookOff. What it really is, it’s about leadership and role modelling. We get 40 of Australia’s top chefs from the Maggie Beer, Neil Perry, George Calombaris, Matt Moran, you name them, in a space on the 7th of March. We build 40 kitchens. We invite 140 to 150 CEOs, all business leaders or anyone who’s in a business and has a leadership role who wants to participate. They have to pay to participate, of course. It’s all about fundraising, this event.
It cost $1,500 to register. That $1,500, as any dollar that comes into OzHarvest, allows 3,000 meals to be delivered. Every dollar allows two meals to be delivered.
On the night of the 7th, the CEOs get divided into a small group. Each CEO goes with a chef so there maybe three, four to five CEOs with every chef. Together they cook a meal. We serve that meal to a thousand disadvantaged vulnerable Sydney-siders.
It’s a pretty powerful event because the tables are turned.
MJ: Well, I just checked my calendar. I’m free so count me in.
RK: Love it. Love it.
JVD: Sounds like a fabulous night.
RK: Our guests wait all year for it. It’s their night out.
MJ: Wow. Bring it on.
RK: I guess in the first instance we have no competition. I know that’s the most arrogant sounding thing to say. Quite honestly, I think we’re leaders in our space. First of all, we have magnificent stories, and I just want to share them. I think people do want to hear a good story.
For example, on Friday, the phone goes and a woman says …, “I want to give you blessings.” I said, “That’s wonderful. I want to receive blessings. Why do I deserve blessings?” She said, “Well, I heard you talk. Then I went to one of your programs which is a team building program called Cooking for a Cause.”
She said, “I’m a widower. I live with my cat. I’ve lived and I’m quite lonely.” She said, “I walked out of your Cooking for a Cause with a magic yellow apron, and I started putting on my yellow apron everyday and I started cooking. I give away food everyday to my friends, to my neighbours, to whoever. My life has changed. I have a magic yellow apron thanks to you. I’ve phoned to say thank you.”
MJ: Well, it’s been an inspiring conversation. Thank you both for your time.
JVD: Thank you so much for coming in.
VF: Thank you.
JVD: It’s been lovely to speak with you.
RK: Thanks for the opportunity.