January 31, 2013

The Cook and the CEO

Beyond the cook’s toque, NAB Agribusiness customer Maggie Beer wears many hats − farmer, gourmet food producer and sometime television presenter. But her least celebrated role may be her greatest achievement given the challenges of her industry - businesswoman.

One of Australia’s most inspirational businesswomen, Maggie Beer, shares her method for business success.

“My way of running a business is very different;  it’s very organic and very creative. I’ve never made a decision based on money.” So comments Maggie Beer, Australia’s favourite cook and the enduringly popular face of Adelaide’s Barossa Valley – the rural idyll that’s also headquarters to her multi-faceted farming and food production business.

She’s graced the small screen – from the quiet brilliance of her iconic ABC show, The Cook & the Chef, to the mass market juggernaut that is MasterChef – and along the way become a significant part of the bigger picture of Australian cuisine.

Her extraordinary cross-demographic, cross-generational appeal, which has seen her act as the South Australia Ambassador for Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Garden programme for primary school students and recognised as the Senior Australian of the Year in 2010, has underpinned a 100-strong business that relies absolutely on the ability to attract incredibly diverse consumers and manage their sometimes competing needs.

Managing the natural tension between being a supermarket brand and a gourmet favourite is the central challenge of her business. “It’s critical for us to maintain a core of our products in supermarkets – without this channel we wouldn’t have the economies of scale to make our products accessible, which has allowed the business to grow,” says Maggie. “Being cost effective is always a challenge as we spend so much on the quality of our local ingredients and I refuse to take any short cuts.” At the same time, it’s crucial to be more than just a supermarket brand. “We are a gourmet brand with a very strong direct mail business through our website that operates through the Farm Shop,” she explains. “These consumers expect an ever-changing and exciting mix of products.”

An unlikely beginning

Balancing the supermarkets and the gourmet markets is clearly both a challenge and a real opportunity. Maggie’s openness to this kind of diversity reflects her somewhat eclectic beginning.

Her CV reads like a Girl’s Own adventure story, with early jobs spanning lift driver in New Zealand, to Assistant to the Senior Geophysicist for British Petroleum in Libya. “Libya developed my adventurous side and I absolutely loved the souks, which gave me a new perspective on food and flavour,” she recalls. “It was one of the many things I did that make up the jigsaw of my life and gave me the strength to try anything.”

In 1973, Maggie and husband Colin settled in the Barossa Valley and began farming pheasants on their Nuriootpa property. They opened the Farm Shop and then the iconic Pheasant Farm Restaurant in 1979. After nearly 15 years, they closed the restaurant and shop in 1993 to focus on producing a range of gourmet foods. The process sounds more strategic than it was. In reality it was a risky, creative journey, born out of Maggie’s restaurant burnout. “We ran the restaurant at a loss for around 11 years – it was supported by our vineyard, but my husband never discouraged me. And the restaurant was really the springboard for everything else that has blossomed since.”

And blossomed it has. In 1999, the family came full circle, reopening the Farm Shop – and they haven’t stood still. In 2001, Beer was awarded the Centenary Medal for service to Australian society through cooking and writing, and in 2009 the family opened a magnificent function centre at the farm, perched on the edge of a huge dam.

Making connections

Farm Shop allows people to taste all of the 50 or so ‘Maggie Beer’ products, most of which are made at her Tanunda kitchens. Though many are sold through distribution Australia-wide, the Farm Shop includes all the products made in the smaller seasonal kitchen, including Colin’s Pheasant Farm wines and Beer Bros Wines – produced with brother Bruce.

In spite of the success of the online and supermarket distribution, the physical premises are clearly critical to the brand. The team demonstrates daily in the very kitchen used in The Cook & the Chef, cooking from Maggie’s seven cookbooks. “The Farm Shop visit is the catalyst for understanding more about the philosophy behind the brand,” explains Maggie. “It brings a feeling of connection to how it all started with me cooking pheasant and quail, and making pate at the counter of the Farm Shop so long ago.” Maggie maintains the sense of connection through Maggie’s Food Club – a web-based community that includes a monthly newsletter.

Maggie’s ability to connect across an incredibly diverse spectrum – one of the real keys to her success – is, perhaps, most graphically demonstrated in her stellar but similarly divergent TV career. “We built up years of steady support from lovers of fresh, quality food – but it took 20 years to be an overnight success,” says Maggie. “The Cook & the Chef really contributed to that, but everything snowballed with MasterChef.” Maggie has appeared on the show just six times, but there’s no doubt that MasterChef has been a catalyst for growth. “The feedback was amazing and really underpinned our move out into a larger market as not everyone watches the ABC,” she comments.

While acknowledging the importance of different media to her business, Maggie is careful to remain focused on the fundamentals. “TV and books have been important to our brand, but we always make sure we don’t deviate for the main game of developing quality gourmet food.”

The business of recycling

In Maggie’s creative economy, the overriding motto is ‘nothing is wasted’. In fact, this philosophy has driven both the creative and business agenda in her epicurean empire. “One of our most popular products is our ice cream, which I began to develop simply because I had so much quince peel and so many cores left over from making quince paste,” she explains. Something had to be done with it. “I knew I could make a syrup, but what should I do with it? Make an ice cream of course!”

Her most recent product – Maggie’s Heritage Apple Cider – released in August, is another classic example of the unique blend of passion and business savvy that Maggie brings to the table. “In November 2011, against the advice of our accountants, we bought our neighbour’s orchard. It was a sentimental buy – we wanted to preserve a beautiful orchard, but we had to add value to it as we weren’t ever going to physically work it ourselves,” explains Maggie.

“My business is all about using all the produce I have to hand without wastage and all of a sudden I had an orchard of several thousand apricot, peach, pear and apple trees. The natural next step was to bottle the beautiful Pink Lady apples for juice and make cider.” Even missteps are recycled in Maggie’s world. “We’ve made many mistakes, but the biggest was probably going into a business in Adelaide which we were quite physically separated from. We didn’t have the right skills to manage the business and we went into it for the wrong reasons – but we learned a lot,” she acknowledges.

The lesson has served her broader business well. Maggie’s brand continues to flourish, even against the backdrop of the global financial crisis, which has wreaked havoc on the food industry. “It’s been a time of continued growth for us. The loss of disposable income to go to restaurants meant people still wanted to treat themselves in small ways,” says Maggie. “And our brand has been around for so long they trusted that they were getting value for money from our products, even though they were a little indulgent.”

Attention to detail

There’s more than creativity at work in Maggie’s kitchen. “I do believe in creativity and flexibility, but I also believe in procedure and process,” she comments. With around 100 staff managing farming and production, maintaining consistent standards is important. “I’m a micro manager – a headache to many – and I don’t apologise for that,” she explains. With so many staff it’s impossible to be across every detail of the business – but she comes close. “Food is about quality and attention to detail, and I won’t compromise on that.”

Maggie’s commitment to sensational blends extends to her staff. “One of the most necessary and often most challenging parts of running a business is bringing in the skills you don’t have,” she notes. “Creative entrepreneurs who are lateral thinkers like me can be a real pain in the neck to lineal thinkers. Just ask a few of my management team. It’s a perennial challenge to make the blend work, but it’s necessary because it generates the creative tension that produces fantastic results.”

With this philosophy in a business of this size, trusted staff is absolutely critical. “There are so many in the team it would be difficult to impossible to work without,” she comments. Equally important is the support and the counterbalance of her husband. “Colin is my whole backbone. Back in the 1970s it was his inspiration to breed pheasants, and to this very day he remains a counter to my erratic ways.”

As to where Maggie’s next journey will take her – the world is her oyster. After putting the export business on ice due to the volatility of the Australian dollar during the global financial crisis, she’s working on something exciting that she hopes will lead the brand back into Asia. “In the past we never had quite the right offering for the Asian market but I have a totally new idea which may work for this market,” she reveals.

And ideas aren’t something she’s short of. “I have more ideas than I’ll ever have years to develop them. They have little to do with what’s ‘good’ for business – they’re all about what I want to do.” That’s the way to keep the passion fresh.

Maggie Beer’s methods

  • Be adventurous: Pioneering can be risky, but highly rewarding.
  • Be positive: You can find solutions with positive thinking.
  • Keep the passion fresh: My ideas have nothing to do with what’s good for the business – they’re about what I really want to do.
  • Manage your product closely: Quality is irreplaceable and can’t be compromised.
  • Connect with people: Farm Shop is all about connecting with people who love food. Engaging with them constantly is the real basis of the business.

This article was first published in Business View Magazine.  Read more Business View Magazine articles.

More from NAB: