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FINDING SUCCESS AND RETAINING THE PASSION IN A DRAMATICALLY CHANGING WINE BUSINESS.
Ross Brown, CEO Brown Brothers

Ross Brown
CEO Brown Brothers

accepts an “appreciation” from
Competition Director, Warren Mason

What is it about the wine business that creates such a love and passion?

It all seems  so simple “wouldn’t it be nice to have a vineyard around the house and my own wine to share with my friends”,  is this the hook?, the line and the sinker!!

How good is it to grow something, to make something  iconic that bears your name and reflects “the fruits of your labours”. That big wide veranda, endless parties and socializing all come to mind. Yet living and breathing this business for 50 years the reality is very different.

Sadly it’s not simple and not static, and in order to be sustainable, growth is inevitable.

There is a big step from being a “weekend wine producer” to making it your sole primary business and career.  ‘Keep your day job’,  has been my endless advice to those who have “the veranda” in mind and are yet to experience the realities.

The 1970 & 80’s for me were the most exciting years, we were going somewhere but had no idea where we were going. The business was growing 20/30% per year, there was Mum, Dad and my three brothers witnessing a revolution around us, the family farm was becoming  a serious business.

There was a very special culture; we would meet every day for morning tea. This was a de facto board meeting, all the stakeholders, all the decision makers in the one spot. Decisions were quick and implementation easy, and more importantly there were no accountants, no solicitors and no bank managers, that is what made it so easy!!  Can you imagine….

The tea lady, my mother, was really the GM, she listened, she asked questions and when there were decisions she always had a contribution. If you missed morning tea she would bring you up to speed with the proceedings.

She loved this interaction with her sons.  She was canny, heating the cups so hot we would have to share time together for ½ hour just to start to drink the tea.

The disciplines of having the stakeholders, fully informed, reviewing regularly your achievements and having a dynamic communication base is what MBA’s are built on, this continued for 20 years and Brown Brothers grew from a family farm to a large business.

There was a division of labour that came naturally, John the eldest had a love of science and took the winemaking helm, Peter loved the outdoors he managed the vineyards, and me who was always prone to talking too much, took on business and sales. My younger brother Roger developed the cuttings and nursery for future development.

We were a great team always looking forward and never in the rear vision mirror.

This sound like happy families, and to a large extent it was, but we were farmers, there was frost, drought, terribly wet years and there were many times you wondered why? But the business kept on growing. There were new vineyards, new grape varieties and new export markets, endless opportunity.

But eventually the wheels started to fall off, there were no job descriptions, no HR, no OH&S; there was work to do and people were given jobs. The turning point was finding ourselves working 18 hours a day and going backwards, it was no longer much fun, we had created a monster.

We did get lucky, a couple of learned business men, sick of living in Melbourne,  moved  to our region looking to retire but got caught up in our development. Their wisdom saved the day. We started to do something really scary, planning. I hate planning, it takes away so many surprises it becomes almost boring!

John, my eldest brother, stepped away from hands on winemaking and became CEO. He methodically studied family business and world best practice and he bought an extra ordinary level of structure and formality to the business that gave a frame work for the next 20 years of our development.

Now there were job descriptions, a HR team, a quality system more rigorous than Demming could have envisaged. We were no longer the family farm, we were a business with a formal Board, endless external advice and debt.

This was a very different company.

John and I enjoyed the formal structure and the freedom that this gave us to get things done, my brother  Peter hated it, as it took away the flexibility to shoot from the hip, and make decisions on the run. It took away control.

We had bought the financially embattled All Saints Estate in Rutherglen in 1992, an iconic property that we thought could be the direct marketing vehicle for the group. This didn’t happen easily and we contemplated putting it back for sale, but Peter saw it as the ideal small winery, that he could call his own. Under his stewardship, and now his children, it has flourished, primarily as a cellar door and mail order operation. It’s very personal and has all the values that work for a small winery, where aspirations are managed away from, export and national chains.

It’s a standalone pure wine business that is doing really well and the passionate wine business of Eliza, Angela and Nick Brown.  It has not split the family but developed a very clearly defined “other business model” to engage the family in wine. In reality it has broadened the base and kept the next generation involved in the wine business.

Like all Australian wine businesses the last 5 years has been very difficult, the collapse of export markets, stock pushed back onto the domestic market and a couple of less than perfect vintages, says it all. No one has escaped, and every day has been about finding ways of reducing cost and achieving more with less. It has been in this environment that our Scottish ancestry has come to the fore, but always with the firm belief that this is a cycle and we have seen them before. Things will get better??

Innovation has been our outstanding success factor underpinning  our growth and sustainability. Innovation is a business buzz word, now attached to most strategic plans, however to be effective it has to be an engrained business culture. John Francis Brown our founder in the 1890’s saw the opportunities of table wine when more than 80% of wine produced was fortified.  Cold fermentation, pre-draining white wines, botrytis Rieslings were all legacies of my father John.

John Graham my brother developed Tarrango, Orange Muscat & Flora and eventually built the Kindergarten winery, in our centenary year, making innovation and research an art form. This is a dedicated miniature winery for research and development that has championed our leadership with new varieties and wine styles.

We could never have envisaged its impact a ‘from the heart investment” devoid of any anticipated pay back, the investment has been one of the best pay backs ever. Wine styles and varieties like Prosecco, Moscato, Dolcetto are examples, with new and innovative wines making up more than 60% of our sales.

Innovation is just what we do, it is an expectation of our brand and our customers trust us, and give us a go.

This combined with cool climate vineyards has enabled us to achieve great success with Method Traditional Sparkling, and Pinot Grigio and enjoy a strong following for our traditional Shiraz, Cabernet and Chardonnay, elevated at the top end with the ‘Patricia’ range.

The’ Patricia’ range is luxury, I mean for the wine making team. There is no budget just make the best. This is even more important, when at one end you are pushing the envelope into new territory, and at the other you have the endorsement of the classic varieties at their very best. There is also a lot of emotion around celebrating a mother’s 6o years of devotion to the family and the business.

When asked if we could use her name on the label her quick reply was they better be “bloody good”.

The decision to buy vineyards in Tasmania has been our most recent excitement and clearly the Tasmanian brand and the superb quality of the wines has found a soft spot.  They are selling exceptionally well and give us a lot of vision of what Tasmania can achieve in the future.

My love of Tasmania goes back many years, with memories of fly fishing and camping, consequently when the “project team “ looked at a Tasmanian opportunity I was taken off the team.  They knew I would not be objective!!

The opportunity to make the best Pinot Noir in Australia rekindles many previous desires and provides boundless excitement. It’s this endless opportunity, and belief that you can be the best, that retains the passion.

To sit on the veranda and share a bottle of your own wine is still the simple dream, not to be missed.


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