Nearly 150 years on, it is not only one of the largest undercover markets in the Southern Hemisphere but Adelaide's most popular tourist attraction.
82 stallholders generate an annual estimated turnover of $270-$320 million as nine million visitors stock up on fruit and veg, meat and poultry, seafood, cheeses, bakery, small goods and health foods, and enjoy some of Adelaide's most popular cafes and eateries
It's an institution, and the city is unimaginable without it. Yet five years ago its administration was a shambles.
In 2012 the Adelaide Central Market Authority was established as a subsidiary of the City of Adelaide to administer the Market, only to see 4 CEOs come and go in 2 years. This chaotic situation was famously depicted by local cartoonist Valdman as a Food Fight! and culminated in the resignation of the entire Board.
A new Board took the reins with experienced Company Director Nick Begakis AO in the chair, and Aaron Brumby came on board as General Manager to face the daunting task of creating an effective management structure virtually from scratch.
In concert with his Chairman, Aaron set about rebuilding relationships with the traders, whose average tenure at the Market was 45 years - including one stall that has traded for 102 consecutive years!
The first job was to change the narrative, from being debt collectors for the Council to one based on creating prosperity for the traders. A bold new vision - to make Adelaide Central Market the number one produce market in the world - was firmly nailed to the mast.
The second imperative was better communication with the traders, ensuring that any decisions affecting their Market were shared with them first-hand, and not after the event through local newspapers or other second-hand sources.
The Board's strategic plan set out a number of initiatives designed to revitalise and grow the operation, built around 3 key pillars.
The first was a new regional strategy. The fact that the Market is able to offer produce that is unavailable anywhere else represents a sustainable competitive advantage over supermarkets and other produce-related businesses. The Kangaroo Island stall, for example, used one local business to aggregate produce from 30 other small businesses, half of which had never sold outside Kangaroo Island before. Other regions followed, allowing the public to taste, try and buy the state's very best produce, while providing a welcome boost to regional economies.
Improved access was the second, to make it easier and cheaper to get to the Market's first floor carpark, the second biggest in the Adelaide CBD. An extra 150,000 vehicles per annum are now using the carpark.
The third core strategy was to take the Market to the people via new entrepreneurial opportunities like the very successful Producer in Residence stall. This gives emerging producers the chance to present their products for three weeks to about 500,000 Market shoppers, generating valuable experience, exposure and seed capital. The Market is also the first in Australia to embrace e-commerce, providing free wifi throughout the site, a new app allowing customers to order online and have their items ready for collection, and a new home delivery service on the horizon.
We also need to remember that this is Adelaide's number one tourist destination, even if tourism is not a key driver for Aaron and his team. Nonetheless, the Market is an important shop window for South Australia in all its diversity of produce, multicultural cuisines and regional specialities. Giving out of town visitors an exciting taste of local shopping and what the state has to offer.
So in light of the many obstacles Aaron has had to negotiate, what have been the successes that make it all worthwhile?
It's hard to go past Father Christmas! When David Jones decided to mothball its famous 17 metre Father Christmas, a local icon dating back to the sixties, Aaron managed to acquire the jolly old fellow and give him pride of place on the historic Market Tower where he now gives Christmas shoppers the biggest Santa welcome in the world.
Another point of pride is the Community Kitchen, where different communities and cultures are provided with professional kitchen facilities to prepare and share their national cuisine in the central dining area. With 150 events a year, it's become a popular part of Market life and another great way of connecting with the community.
Then there's the success of the Producer in Residence program which provides an ever-changing taste of new and exciting artisan produce, not to mention regular fodder for the Market’s rapidly growing social media presence.
Taking the Central Market position was a formidable challenge, and Aaron quickly joined The CEO Institute to help him through.
"I've got to say I've leaned on them several times for suggestions on ways I could resolve issues and challenges that I’ve had at the Market,” says Aaron. "It's been comforting to find, as a new CEO, that the challenges I face aren’t unique to myself."
He relishes the honest and open conversations the Syndicate provides with such a diverse cohort of experienced business leaders. And adds:
"At the same time I've had a hell of a lot of fun!"
The CEO Institute, established over 25 years ago, helps business leaders like you connect with your peers to share skills, insight, and experience. The CEO Institute's leadership programs are available globally. Click here to read more member success stories.