Gettin’ Freekeh Together
Tony Lutfi: I met the crown prince of Jordan when I was working with USAID [in the 1980s] and he invited me to his home for lunch and he served freekeh. (Freekeh is wheat grains harvested while they are still young and then parched, roasted and dried.) It was delicious! He said the local dentists rub their hands with glee because it contains so many stones, but I saw an opportunity.
In 1994 I was working in Adelaide to set up a form of investment fund and that is when I met John.
John Tucker: We met for drinks at a law practice where I was a partner. I’d been involved in the food industry and Tony came up with the freekeh proposition, which really interested me. I thought it would be great to produce in Australia because of our wheat fields. So we set up the business: he brought the engineering skills and product knowledge; and I was the investor and advisor.
A Sounding Board
Tony: John’s very conservative and I’m gung-ho, so we work very well together. It’s sometimes tense, but we respect each other and share a determination to succeed. We have a fantastic relationship!
John: We’ve shared countless difficulties, but we trust each other. Tony relies on me as a sounding board. We’ve had lots of very robust discussions, but always respecting each other’s points of view. Being in business has been a drain financially, but our relationship is one of mutual respect and belief that we will succeed.
Don’t Be So… American!
Tony: I’m very American in the way I do things, but that doesn’t work here. John helped me bridge that gap and understand the Australian mind-set, which is so culturally different.
John: I’ve often had to tell Tony, “Don’t be so American when dealing with Australians.” He gets people to repeat things three times to make sure they’ve got it right. Occasionally I have to placate people because he can rub them up the wrong way.
If at First You Don’t Succeed
Tony: Originally, we intended to export freekeh to the Middle East. In 1996 I got an order from a Jordanian businessman I knew for 300 tonnes, but because our product didn’t meet local expectations, it didn’t sell!
John helped with the legal contracts for that work, which would normally cost many tens of thousands of dollars. We managed to sell the 300 tonnes to Coles and Woolworths. John was directly involved every day in this and we cried on each other’s shoulders!
John: Trying to sell freekeh to the Middle East was our first major challenge, so we changed our business plan. We had the CSIRO analyse freekeh to show the purity and nutritional profile, and decided to look to Western markets.
Surviving and Staying Sane
Tony: I had a serious car accident in 2009 and my insurance company said I couldn’t work for 18 months. Also, the Australian banks called in our debts, but luckily we had the capacity to pay. I had income protection, but it was a hard time. John helped me through it with his friendship and understanding.
In January 2011, our world turned around. I turned on my computer and had 4683 emails, many from the US.
A lady who had lost 59kg appeared on Dr Oz, held up our box and said, “This is the product that made me lose weight.” Since then, we’re pre-selling all of our freekeh before it’s made.
John: At times Tony has felt it’s all too hard. As a practising lawyer, there is no work-life balance for me. In those conversations there was reassurance from me as he has seen me make sacrifices too. Tony put his head down and kept going because we believe in our business. Eventually we hope it will get us the lifestyle we want. It had better hurry up!