CEO Brown Brothers
accepts an “appreciation” from
Competition Director, Warren Mason
What is it about the wine business that creates such a love
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
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
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
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
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
To sit on the veranda and share a bottle of your own wine is
still the simple dream, not to be missed.