ROBERT GREY: 1936 - 2022
When 'milko' Bob Grey rallied his troops to defend NSW from cheap Victorian milk being sold in Sydney in the early 1980s, it was big news.
He gained national attention as milk vendors' trucks and vans blockaded Jewel Food Stores' supermarkets, and again when they blocked Macquarie Street for two days demanding NSW Premier, Neville Wran, give them a better deal from the regulated retail milk price.
Protests at Victoria's Midland Milk at Shepparton were also guided by the former Amalgamated Milk Vendors Association boss.
The one-time South Coast farm boy, turned milk vendor, became a master strategist in various dairy industry feuds, challenges and revolutionary changes prior to deregulation of the national milk market in 2000.
He has been remembered as "the milko's milko" after his death on October 29, aged 86.
Robert Gordon Grey was born into a pioneering third generation dairying family in NSW's Kiama and Albion Park area, where his parents Keith and Edith, were dairy farmers and "dairymen vendors", delivering fresh milk to households and shops.
At 13 he suffered a life threatening experience, hit by a truck on his way home from school and then spending months in hospital recovering following extensive surgery on his legs.
The accident ended his formal education and young Bob was effectively self-schooled at home before joining his father and brother on the milk run, which he later took over.
At weekends his milk run became a family affair with his wife, Judy, driving the truck and Bob Grey reading the orders while their children Neil and Helen delivered the milk.
He was active in community service, becoming president of his local Apex club and championing development of the Tawara support centre for the intellectually disabled, and as secretary of the South Coast Milk Vendors Association.
In the milk industry he worked for greater co-ordination between independent country vendor groups and state organisation, the AMVA.
Ultimately in 1984, during dairy industry turmoil which threatened the viability of many milk vending businesses, he was recruited to take over as AMVA secretary.
The first of the infamous interstate milk wars between Victoria and NSW started in April that year.
Supermarket chain, Jewel, sourced milk from Midland Milk in northern Victoria and sold it in NSW at a discount rate initially nine cents below the standard NSW price (for 2 litres), then for $1.49 instead of $1.55.
Grey organised vendors to blockade Jewel supermarkets and joined forces with dairy farmers blockading the retailer's receival and distribution centre at Horsley Park in Sydney.
His vendor members also supported Riverina farmers blockading the Midland's Shepparton factory.
In a bid to match the interstate price competition the NSW Dairy Corporation reacted to the Victorian offensive by unilaterally halving the regulated vendor price margin for milk, effectively destroying the value of every milk run in NSW.
Grey responded by calling mass vendor meetings in Sydney and the AMVA raised a fighting fund and then swamped government ministers' offices with "truckloads" of consumer petitions.
The vendors also took their fight to Macquarie Street where hundreds of their trucks blocked the street in front of Parliament House.
Their action gained considerable media coverage and the attention of politicians including, Premier, Neville Wran, who met twice with milk vendor leaders to negotiate a pricing deal.
Consequently, the dairy corporation adjusted all industry sector margins for farmers, processors and vendors equitably to meet the cheaper Victorian retail milk price.
Grey proudly, and rightly, saw this as one of his greatest achievements, although more incursions of discounted southern milk entered NSW in subsequent years.
He played a key role working with other sector leaders developing strategies to counter the challenge.
Meanwhile, he also began restructuring the vendor sector to improve efficiencies, including uniting all vendors under the AMVA banner, working co-operatively with other industry sectors and the NSW Dairy Corporation.
The changes also rationalised supermarket runs, and introduced a single computerised supermarket milk billing system, Milkbilco.
Under Grey's strategic stewardship the AMVA transformed into a financially viable and effective advocacy organisation for milk vendors respected by government and other industry sectors.
He had the foresight to recognise the political push at federal and state levels toward microeconomic reform and national competition policy in the late 1980s and the 1990s meant milk market deregulation and free trade between states would be inevitable.
As he saw it, the vending sector had to "deregulate or perish".
Grey led meetings across state after which AMVA members agreed to an industry-staged five-year plan to deregulate the milk processing and distribution sectors.
All industry sectors also agreed to contribute deductions from their margins to finance rationalisation of vendor businesses via a buyout program.
This would result in fewer and larger vendor businesses capable of adjusting to a free market.
Throughout this tortuous and complex process Grey proved a master tactician and together with Jim Forsyth, who chaired Milk Distribution Services (the company established to implement the program) and with NSW Dairy Farmers Association executive director, Winston Watts, they achieved what was widely considered the best possible outcome for these sectors.
Grey also represented vendors on the peak industry body, the NSW Dairy Industry Conference, where he not only advocated on milk distribution issues but also for the betterment of the dairy industry.
He was a NSW Agriculture Minister's nominee on the board of Milk Marketing Limited and a keen supporter of promoting the highly successful and profitable industry brands such the modified milks, Lite White and Shape, and Moove flavoured milk.
He was also a strong advocate for developing the industry-backed school milk program, including providing teachers dairy nutrition education material, and milk refrigerators to schools.
He was also on NSW Dairy Corporation's milk pricing advisory committee.
This powerful committee also included dairy farmers' chief, Winston Watts, processor representative Jim Forsyth and Dairy Corporation general manager, George Davey.
The Milk Mafia: Milk processing boss, Jim Forsyth, "The Godfather"; milko, Bob Grey "the consigliere"; NSW Dairy Corporation managing director, George Davey and Dairy Farmers Association of NSW executive director, Winston Watts.
The group became known as the "milk mafia".
Grey anointed Forsyth as the godfather and himself as the consigliere.
The "milk mafia" played a lead role in directing the industry to address many challenges threatening its viability at the time, including making recommendations to governments on the path to deregulating the whole industry.
NSW Agriculture Minister, Richard Amery, was not easily convinced the industry's plan to deregulate was a good move.
In 2007 the Dairy Industry Association of Australia awarded Grey the John Bryant Gold Medal in recognition of outstanding and long service to the sector and he later received life membership to industry advocacy body, Dairy Connect, for a lifetime of substantial contributions.
He was a humble man who left a significant legacy to the milk distribution sector and the wider dairy industry.
Grey, a milko's milko, was a hero and leader who truly had milk in his veins.
Bob Grey is survived by Judy, his wife of 59 years, son Neil and daughter Helen, and three grandchildren.
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