Fruit2Work: a fruitful partnership creating chances

10 May 2022

Rob Brown and Simon Fenech
– MEMBER STORIES –

Rob Brown says one of the most common misconceptions he encounters in his role at Fruit2Work is that former prison inmates can’t be trusted and need to be managed more closely than other employees.

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“I ran large businesses for 35 years and nothing could be further from the truth,” says Fruit2Work’s Chief Chance Creator.

“I would trust this team as much, if not more, than any team I have worked with across the world.”

Rob runs Fruit2Work with General Manager Simon Fenech as a not-for-profit social enterprise employing people impacted by the justice system.

Fruit2Work recruits people with lived experience of the justice system to process and deliver fresh fruit, milk, pantry items and and vending machines to businesses.

Nearly all its staff has been impacted by the justice system in some capacity, including Simon, a former kickboxing champion.

“I had been released from the justice system and the chances of me finding employment were next to nothing,” Simon says.

“Every job I applied for, as soon as they saw I had a criminal record they would close the file on me. I was very desperate and Fruit2Work offered me a chance of employment. I started working two days a week, I was able to fulfil my corrections orders, and it was a turning point for me in my life.”

Fruit2Work’s inception was driven by the statistical reality that nearly half of all released prisoners are likely to reoffend, particularly through a lack of access to the right support systems.

The idea was to create an initiative that could drive down recidivism through purposeful employment.

“We were tired of seeing people come through the revolving door of reoffending, principally driven by society not giving them a chance to prove they wanted to change. Hence our strapline is ‘Creating Chances’,” Rob says.

Impressively, in the six years since its inception no former inmate has reoffended.

“It’s been stated in numerous studies and from lived experience that, on leaving prison, to avoid reoffending you need three things: purpose, a friend, and a roof over your head,” Rob says.

“We run a culture where there is no stigma and absolute acceptance that you have left your past behind and are ready to make a new start.

“We don’t supply housing but because we pay award rates we provide the means for participants to pay for decent accommodation, unlike those provided on release.

“After six years of zero reoffending, I think we can say our model works, even though I fully expect that we will have some reoffending as we grow.

“However, even if it’s 10 per cent, that’s much better than what other programs are delivering.”

Interestingly, Fruit2Work’s recruitment process mirrors any corporate environment and doesn’t guarantee a spot in the program.

“It actually is as rigorous as any of the corporate processes I used, and ironically the first thing we do is a criminal check,” he says.

“We already know what we are getting but for us it’s the first test of trust and integrity by ensuring the individual is truthful about their past.

“We then do peer interviewing. Our lived experience allows us, as accurately as any other human selection process, to choose people who have genuinely made the decision to change their lives and are ready to take the chance offered.

“Once we hire you there is no stigma and everyone operates across all of the activities of the business unless there is a physical or technical impediment.”

In this line of work, staff turnover is encouraged.

“We are a transitional employer and our program is designed to move people into full-time employment, which we have done almost 60 times now,” Rob says.

“By design there is clear career progression.”

Simon believes there is a higher level of commitment because people are being given the chance to prove themselves in a unique environment knowing that the plan is to transition when they are ready, which keeps them focused.

“It’s all about creating purpose, suspending judgment, removing stigma, leading with humanity and making the individual accountable to themselves and the rest of the team.”

The next goal for Fruit2Work is achieve $5 million in annual revenue to have the capacity to transition 50 people a year.

“This would save the taxpayer $12.5 million per year in incarceration costs, with the additional benefits of reduced crime and victims of crime, prevention of crime through role model behaviour, and reduced burden on the welfare system,” Rob says. 

How the Victorian Chamber can help

Rob cites two key factors for joining the Victorian Chamber: credibility and access to a network.

Fruit2Work first experienced the benefits of the Victorian Chamber’s network in Geelong as it entered the market there.

“As a B2B it was an obvious next step to join the Victorian Chamber and try to access its vast reach in the business sector as well as bringing a unique for-purpose business into the Chamber’s family,” Rob says.

“We are really at the start of the journey with the Chamber but fully intend to exercise every opportunity to network with other members and by doing so create more chances.”

Rob also presented on behalf of Fruit2Work at a Victorian Chamber lunch with Qantas CEO Alan Joyce. That occasion led to eight new customers.

“Had we not done that presentation, those customers would never have known we existed,” he says.

“Access to that level of exposure is absolutely critical.”

Find out more about the Victorian Chamber’s member services here.

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