Forty years ago Leo Ryan decided to open a grocery store on the corner of Norman and Doveton streets in Ballarat North. Working as a company representative for Arnotts biscuits, he'd seen the inside of plenty of supermarkets and small shops, and thought he could make a go of doing the job himself.
It also seemed, says Leo's son Ben Ryan, a good way to secure a future for his young family and put the children through school.
IGA Ryan's now operates three supermarkets across Ballarat - Northway, Pleasant Park, Mount Clear - and stores in Torquay, Kyneton and Beaufort. It also operates two standalone liquor stores, and employs approximately 400 staff.
So how does a grocery business thrive in the face of what is, essentially, a behemoth duopoly of supermarkets in Australia - the overwhelming power of Woolworths and Coles?
The answer, says Ben Ryan, is listening to your customers and acting on their wishes, needs and feedback.
"We want to be the right fit for the community," Ryan says.
"Our focus really is ensuring we treat our customers like family, and we want to treat our team as if they were family as well. When we talk family, we're talking family on a broad scale, rather than a narrow, traditional family terminology. From the customer's point of view, what is the right thing to do by customers?
"What's the right thing to do for the long-term, rather than just short-term thinking? One of the benefits of a family business is you're not at the behest of a short-term shareholder focus. You can take that longer-term view rather than something short."
Ryan says the big two supermarkets have an overriding commitment to one outcome: returning profits for their shareholders above all else. If that means dropping local products and forcing those suppliers who remain to take reduced prices, then the big two will do that.
The strategy of Coles and Woolworths in recent years has been to drastically reduce their losses by cutting brand names from their shelves - and forcing those who remain to deliver at reduced prices. It's been a brutal and public process, as shoppers complain about being no longer able to purchase brands they may have known all their lives.
Instead they are confronted with 'home' brands, and brands ostensibly independent, but in reality also owned or franchised by Coles and Woolworths. The practice has laid waste to local producers and brands, who now rely on the smaller players such as the Metcash group of retailers (which includes the 1300 independent grocers who make up the IGA) to sell their products.
For Ben Ryan, what Coles and Woolworths reject as non-core to their business plan, he sees as central.
"Our focus is very much on our customers, and what is right for our customers in terms of range, service price and so on," he says.
"An integral part of our business is our suppliers, and we do as much as we can to buy as locally as is possible. Of course, we deal with national companies, the Coca Colas of the world. But we also want to support as many local suppliers as we can, because that money's in the local community, and - obviously - hopefully some of it comes back to us.
"But it's also the right thing to do for our community in terms of employment, showcasing local ranges and so on. And it's obviously what a lot of people want as well; they want that local product as well as products available nationally."
An example of Ben Ryan's forensic attachment to supplying both locally and seeking the best product for his customers is demonstrated in his sourcing of that staple of supermarket sales: milk.
There's so much packaging: It's not sustainable and it's not right. Particularly when you talk to younger customers, they are passionate about itBen Ryan
When the big supermarkets began to slash prices for milk in a race to the bottom three years ago, causing financial and emotional distress for dairy farmers throughout the country, Ryan's IGA entered into a marketing agreement with Warrnambool Cheese and Butter (WBC) to stock the 'Sungold' brand.
At the time, Ben Ryan said WBC had a very good reputation for offering probably the best price in the market.
"The... thing for us was whether we could partner with dairy farmers who were in our local area, so we could not only get them the highest price, but if that money could circulate in the local community, then it was better for the local economy," he said.
Three years later, Ryan's are still committed to the brand and to local farmers.
"It's a great product," says Ryan.
"Milk was getting a lot of attention at the time, farmers were under pressure. And what we did is we spoke to local dairy farmers, and said to them, 'We're a supermarket; we obviously sell milk. How do you think we can best serve dairy farmers?'
"And the message we got quite clearly, locally, was if we were supporting Sungold, which is processed in Warrnambool but there was milk coming out of the Ballarat region; if we were supporting Sungold, not only was it a local milk, but at that time, two or three years ago, the price that Sungold were paying to local dairy farmers was higher than the other companies.
"I don't know whether that's the case today; I suspect it still is. When we talk to dairy farmers now, they are still very happy to support Sungold. So based on those discussions, it had ticked a number of boxes for us: one was was obviously a local product; two, in talking to the farmers, they were happy they were getting supported as best they could by the milk producer. So on that basis we moved our major range of milk across to Sungold."
Ryan's have been similarly forward thinking in their approach to niche-marketing such consumer needs as vegetarian and vegan lines of food, and gluten-free ranges. He says walking the aisles of competitors made it clear their focus lies elsewhere to the approach of Ryan's - which is local and unique product.
"As owners of the business we can talk directly to customers and we've noticed - oh, five, six or seven years ago - there was quite clearly a move to wellness products.," Ryan says.
"Customers were talking about buying less soft drink and more water, for example. I was walking the aisles and you would see customers noticeably reading the ingredients and the nutritional panels on products."
Ben Ryan says he is still looking to change and grow the Ballarat IGAs. He's learning now about the growing dissonance over packaging.
"There's so much packaging: It's not sustainable and it's not right. Particularly when you talk to younger customers, they are passionate about it - and if there's one thing supermarkets do, it's react to customer demand."