Picture this: idyllic pastures of ancient, gnarled vines; a historic 19th century castle; and off into the distance, the infamous Murray River.
This inspiring scenery is all in a day’s work for Eliza Brown, chief executive officer of All Saints Estate and St Leonards Vineyard, both located in Rutherglen, in the northeast corner of Victoria.
Australia’s oldest wine region is brimming with passionate local producers and Brown, along with her siblings, Angela and Nicholas, are fourth generation wine makers contributing to the future of the Brown Brothers family dynasty.
After finishing school in Melbourne, she initially dabbled in photography before realising she “was terrible at it and would never make any money”, and moved into advertising. Eager to bring his entire brood into the business – Brown’s sister was a graphic designer for the wineries and her brother was studying wine making in Adelaide at the time – her father, Peter, used to ring her up every week with a job offer.
“I’d say, ‘You have to be ridiculous, there’s no way I’d live in the country – no shops and no sushi’,” recalls Brown. And then one Monday morning, Peter called to mention there was a job going at All Saints to run the cellar door. “He suggested I give it a go for a year and if I liked it, then either stay and move in the business, or go.”
Shock to the system
Brown moved to Rutherglen in 2001 and was given a “baptism by fire”. She was living in a little cottage on the property nicknamed ‘the rat house’ and after a year running the cellar door, she moved into a sales and marketing role. Compounding the culture shock of leaving the buzz of her inner city warehouse was a growing sense of loneliness. But this didn’t last for long.
“I realised there were quite a few people in the region working for their family’s winery as well, so I started up a group called the Young Bloods,” she says. “There were six of us, so we got together and put events on for Rutherglen to try and re-energise the area.”
The initial relocation niggles were nothing compared to the challenges that were yet to come. In 2005, Brown’s father passed away after a tragic accident. He was one of the original Brown brothers of Milawa and at the time, was running All Saints and St Leonards under the Peter R Brown Family Vineyard flag.
“My brother and sister and I had to make a quick decision about what we were going to do going forward, and like all family businesses, you hope that you share the same vision,” says Brown. “Luckily we’re all fairly close and we had three options – get someone to run it for us, sell it, or run it ourselves and we made the decision to run it ourselves.”
The siblings tapped into their other ‘brother’, Dominic Pelligana, who had been the business’ long-serving accountant. “Dad had always asked us to put together a board of advisers. So the three of us and our accountant Dom had monthly meetings, but we had to decide who was going to run the business. I put my hand up, crazily enough – at the time I was three months pregnant.”
The show must go on
Brown has often been asked how she dealt with the gravity of the situation, and she explains that they didn’t feel like they had any other choice – it was simply what the newly formed board wanted to do. They were also driven to run it successfully in order to honour the memory of their father. One stipulation was that if the business ever came between them, they would sell it – their close relationships would not come as a cost of their decision.
A further concern – particularly from family members – was the fact that Brown was pregnant. “I didn’t really see it as a problem other than taking time off to have my daughter,” she says. “I took six weeks off – looking back now it was a pretty short amount of time – but it hasn’t really made any difference to her development.”
Keen to be viewed by her daughter as a strong role model, Brown herself has been mentored by Marcia Griffin since late 2007. Griffin is one of Australia’s most successful entrepreneurs and has been a key sounding board for Brown, who was reluctant to go to others in the wine industry with her business issues, particularly as finance was her weakness.
What she gained from an ‘outsider’ opinion was an understanding of what other industries were doing, and how they were managing the ups and downs. The estate’s general manager and sales and marketing manager are both from nonagricultural backgrounds.
“From a CEO’s point of view, you tend to employ people who are like you, and that’s really not good. I really had to look at what I was good and bad at and make sure that I was getting people who weren’t necessarily going to agree with me, but could bring other talents to the table.”
Upholding the vision
In her time as CEO, Brown has identified that running restaurants wasn’t one of the business’ strengths. It is now leased out and after a restructure, the number of staff was reduced from 45 to 21. Brown found this difficult and “had lots of sleepless nights”, but knew that the company had to make a transition and be backed up by people who were as dedicated to the vision as she was. The business was brought back to basics: making the finest wine possible.
“We had to look at our business and identify what we were here for,” she explains. “And then it’s all about communication: where you want to go and what sort of people are going to deliver that vision. It’s very easy to get people on board if they understand that – people don’t like following someone if they won’t make a decision on things.”
Brown has instigated company-wide training and development programs, such as public speaking and money management, and runs new product launches specifically for staff where booklets of the company’s vision and values are distributed so everyone can feel like they’re working towards common goals.
And as for her daughter’s future development, Brown is adamant that her choices will not be limited by gender. “I hope that she doesn’t look at herself as a woman in the business world [but rather] as the best person for the job, so that no one can ever say she got the job because she was a woman, but because of her skills. I think that’s really important.”