Sustainable business changes the face of remote communities

The award-winning Arnhem Land Progress Aboriginal Corporation has created jobs in some of Australia’s most isolated communities. CEO Alastair King explains how ALPA is creating the jobs that are key to building successful communities in remote locations.

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Sustainable businesses can build healthier communities. CEO of ALPA, Alastair King, discusses the challenges and rewards of creating jobs in remote locations.

From a handful of counter stores in tin sheds in the 1970s to last year becoming Australia’s largest Indigenous organisation with a total group turnover of over $75 million a year, the Arnhem Land Progress Aboriginal Corporation (ALPA) is a model of successful growth.

For 41 years, it focused solely on setting up stores in some of the country’s most isolated communities, stores that provided employment and training for local people, as well as essential supplies.

“We call ourselves ‘womb to doom’ retailers,” says Chief Executive Officer Alastair King. “We sell baby food, coffins and everything in between.”

Then, four years ago, the federal government announced changes to employment services, and ALPA management saw this as an opportunity to expand.

“We had always made a point of staying independent from government so we weren’t sure of the reception we’d get from the board,” King says. “But we were financially independent, with a strong balance sheet and a good business model, and they agreed it was a good time to diversify.”

Creating new jobs

ALPA won a contract to provide employment services to two communities and a third was added 18 months later. But King could see little value in engaging with unemployed people when there were no jobs to offer.

“There are kids here who don’t see any point in going to school because their parents have never had work,” says King. “We needed to change that paradigm.”

They began training local people in the skills brought in by fly-in fly-out contractors. They also started looking for opportunities to create new jobs.

“Our primary motivation is to improve the quality of life of our members so, whenever an opportunity presents itself, we always ask ourselves the same questions,” says King. “Is it about health and wellbeing? Is it about training and skills development? Will it create jobs? If we can’t say yes to all three, we’re not interested.”

ALPA now employs 1180 people across three accommodation lodges, a mechanical repair shop, various construction and concreting companies and two labour hire businesses. The most ambitious project to date is Manapan Furniture, which will supply high-end hand-made furniture to the Sydney and Melbourne markets.

“Our goal is to build sustainable businesses so the jobs that go with them are secure,” says King. “Every business must be built to suit its environment, whether that’s crowded and competitive or more like ours. And, as those environments are changing all the time, we must constantly review and adapt our business models.”

The tyranny of distance

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are one of the most disadvantaged groups in Australia when it comes to health and life expectancy. There’s evidence that diet plays a role in the incidence of chronic disease and, as part of its Health and Nutrition Strategy, ALPA uses its stores to encourage the consumption of fruit and vegetables.

“In a mainstream supermarket, fruit and vegetables account for 15 to 20 per cent of total store sales but, in Aboriginal communities, we struggle to get it over seven or eight per cent,” says King. “There are many reasons for this, so we are tackling the problem on a number of different levels.”

One obstacle is cost. Freight is very expensive – about 60 cents for every loaf of bread – so ALPA independently subsidises the full cost of transporting fresh, tinned, dried and frozen fruit and vegetables.

“We aim to keep prices within five per cent of those charged by large supermarkets,” says King.

ALPA also provides education and information about cooking and storing food, and ensures that fresh food arrives in peak condition.

“Produce can sit on a barge or truck for up to six days before it reaches us so we work with suppliers who take this into account,” says King.

When equipment breaks down, the call-out fee for a refrigeration mechanic, electrician or plumber is about $3000.

“We have to hope they bring the right parts the first time,” says King. “It’s hard to retain highly-skilled people in small communities with no restaurant, pub or cinema and no alcohol, not even at home.”

Unity through enterprise

Last year, ALPA returned $1.47 million to the community to support health and nutrition programs, ceremonies, education, medical escorts and community events. It also received the Large Employer of the Year Award at both the 2015 and the 2016 Northern Territory Training Awards in recognition of its continuing commitment to training and creating jobs for indigenous people. It’s not surprising that other indigenous organisations are now looking to ALPA for advice and support.

“We don’t have any ambition to expand into other communities but we’re very happy to help them to develop their own range of services,” says King. “The slogan we’ve had for over 40 years – Unity Through Enterprise – is as relevant today as it was in 1972.”