When you hear Steve Marafiote has been working in the food business for
more than 20 years it might not come as a surprise to discover his
company turns over $25 million a year.
What might surprise is that Marafiote is only 32. His company
Australian Quality Plus is less than five years old and his first job
in the industry was serving customers in his family’s fruit shop in
”Every day after school I was working, and on the weekends too. I
started serving customers when I was 11 years old,” Marafiote says.
Marafiote still works seven days a week but his customer base has
shifted from grocery shoppers in suburban Adelaide to the likes of the
King of Jordan, the Sheik of Dubai, Emirates Airlines and the Burj-Al
Arab seven-star hotel. And that’s only in the Middle East.
Australian Quality Plus supplies perishable foods – dairy, meat,
fruit, vegetables and Australian bush foods – to 24 countries in the
Middle East, Asia, Eastern Europe and island nations including
Mauritius and the Maldives. Its target markets include hotel chains and
high end food providers.
After completing his commerce degree at Adelaide University,
Marafiote worked with Chiquita Foods for five years before taking a
role with the Federal Government developing food export markets. He
travelled extensively in both these roles, primarily to the Middle
East, where he noticed business opportunities.
”You could see it was a vibrant market that was growing. Chefs and
retailers were telling us that and we recognised that we needed to do
something to take that opportunity.
”[Food] was definitely something I had history in and there was a
void and it seemed a natural fit to do at that stage,” he says.
Australian Quality Plus was an immediate success, turning over
$140,000 in the first six months, $8.8 million the following year and
increasing successively over the years to reach $20.6 million last
Despite its rapid growth rate, Australian Quality Plus still employs only seven people.
”We don’t need a lot of staff to do what we’ve got to do. It’s the
nature of the business – it’s more about the logistics and the
operation of it. There is not a lot of hands-on work. We just need more
high level people,” he says.
The company’s ”trade secret” is in its transport methods, Marafiote says.
”We always have to do things to make sure we look after the products in the right way.
Temperatures are pretty extreme, they get up to 50 degrees [in the
Middle East]. We are dealing with high quality perishable food which
doesn’t take much to spoil so we have to be cautious in that respect.”
In building the business, Marafiote consulted with chefs in the
Middle East to decide which produce to supply. Australian bush foods
were added to his list because of requests for unique products from
chefs on the other side of the globe.
”They demanded new and interesting stuff. Chefs are pretty well
read and they were looking for something unique they could put into
their menus,” he says.
Another consideration is that meat supplied to the Middle East must
be halal (killed in accordance with Muslim requirements) so Marafiote
has been working with Australian suppliers to help them get halal
Marafiote speaks only a few words of Arabic, but is slowly learning.
His family has Italian heritage and he speaks fluent Italian but seldom
gets to speak it for business, he says.
As well as running the company and spending time with his family (he
has three children under 5), Marafiote is on the board of both the
Australian Arab Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Council for
International Trade and Commerce (South Australia).
Last year was a year of celebrations for Marafiote. He was awarded
KPMG young leader award, the Australian Arab Council business
ambassador of the year and was an entrepreneur of the year finalist. He
won several South Australian awards including the Premier’s food award
for best export company and the Premier’s young leader award.
It was also a year of hospitalisations for the young entrepreneur who
suffered from deep vein thrombosis after falling asleep for 10 hours on
a flight and later in the year had pneumonia.
”The doctors said to slow down. I told them as long as they look after the business then I’m ok with it.”
Marafiote has no plans to slow down in 2008. The year’s focus is on
expanding to new markets (he’s in talks with clients in the US) and
broadening the product base (particularly the seafood range).
And Australian Quality Plus is a business with a sharp focus.
”We don’t leave stones unturned. We work really hard whether it’s
service or seeking customers. If we are after any segment of business
we don’t stop hunting until we get it.”