Hard-learned Succession 

By Deborah Tarrant

 

 

Rising from family tragedy, All Saints Estate winery is flourishing under fourth-generation family stewardship. 

 

“If I die, look here.” instructs a file on Eliza Brown’s computer at All Saints Estate, the Rutherglen winery that spearheads the growing wine empire she runs that includes several vineyards, hospitality and an accommodation business. Unlike her father, the late Peter Brown – a viticulturist who liked handshake deals – All Saints’ current CEO refuses to keep business details solely in her head. 

 

“Agricultural businesses are better run by families,” insists Eliza, who also took over her late father’s role on the board of wine company Brown Brothers. Sharp learnings ensued. Her uncles, John and Ross Brown, “left me to run my own race – and I’m grateful for that”. 

 

Robust procedures for business operations, updated contracts and other essentials are prominently filed. But Eliza learned this method the hard way. She’d been working for four years running the cellar door and marketing at All Saints when she was catapulted into the top job the day after he father died in a motorcycle accident in 2005. The only one of the three children working in the family business at the time, her initiation came on day one with the untimely arrival of a bank rep with loan documents for her to sign. 

 

A conversation with her siblings, winemaker Nicholas and graphic designer Angela, soon followed in which the three decided they’d “have a crack” at running All Saints. 

 

In the absence of any financial insight and plans – details of several businesses Peter had underway were opaque – Eliza acted quickly on the only succession advice she’d extracted from Peter: to appoint an advisory board. The board remains in place today, with sage advice coming from KPMG’s Dominic Pelligana and, more recently, Brian Walsh, chair of Wine Australia, a winemaker, marketer and mentor. The business produces 25,000 cases of wine annually and is targeting 30-40 per cent of sales through export. There are five family members among its staff of 24, including Eliza’s husband, chef Denis Lucey, Nicholas’ wife, Lucy, who runs Airbnb bookings. 

 

While the three siblings – the fourth generation to own and run All Saints – are usually aligned, the advisory board helps with strategic heavy lifting, including the posthumous realisation of Peter Brown’s ambitions to buy Mount Ophir estate of part of a succession plan. 

 

Eliza’s grandfather missed out on purchasing Mount Ophir – once the largest winemaking facility in the Southern Hemisphere – at auction in 1955. This piqued interest of Peter Brown 13 years ago. As part of an informal plan for his family, he bought All Saints and St Leonards vineyards from Brown Brothers, developing them independently because “he saw eight grandchildren potentially involved in Brown Brothers”. “I don’t think he knew how that was going to work out, so he wanted to buy three wineries for his three kids,” says Eliza, who also engages in public speaking on the importance of transparently getting things right for the next generation. She says she watches people’s eyes glaze over when she talks about not leaving a mess for others to sort. “Bring in outsiders to do it for you,” she insists.