Château Tanunda Owner John Geber Takes 15 Minutes

Thursday, 18 August 2016

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Tell me about your business?

Château Tanunda is an icon and cornerstone of the Barossa wine industry. Established in 1890, it is Australia’s largest and oldest Château. We are also one of Australia’s most successful wine makers in Continental Europe where there is a very strong and loyal wine culture.

While the Château is 125 years old, the Geber family have only been the proud custodians for the past 18 years. Over that time, we have focused on growing business in Europe, China and the US. Our next focus is the competitive Australian market where we believe we have enormous potential and opportunity.

 How did the idea for your business come about?

It was true serendipity. I was out riding my bike when I came across this grand, old heritage abandoned building owned by Penfolds. I called a winemaker contact of mine and was given to the property manager and bought it over the phone. The next call was to my wife to tell her after the fact. Let’s say that was a memorable phone conversation! After absorbing the news, she had questions about the layout and ‘how many bedrooms?’ and I literally had no idea – I had never been inside.

While I had some experience with wineries in Cowra, the real expertise I brought to this venture was my background in the tea and coffee business. What most people don’t know is there are many similarities between tea and wine, such as the differences between produce from higher regions to lower, flavours and blending. In fact, blending a great tea can be a lot harder than blending a great wine. In my view it’s important to have a winery owner who understands regional variances on produce and the power of blending. The ‘blend is your friend’.

How long have you worked with ESV and what do you value the most from the relationship?

We have worked with David Robinson (the principal of Harvey’s who merged with ESV last year) for 26 years so it’s been a long-standing and trusted relationship. We want to work with a firm that really understands our business, our vision, our goals and our growth strategy. We also value ESV’s international perspective, knowledge and contacts within Europe. 

 What would you say are the top three skills or attributes needed to be successful in business?

First and foremost, you need to have vision. It’s vital to start there and work backwards.

Secondly, you need tenacity. Downright stubbornness at times. And thirdly, you need the ability to be able to take a knock and get back up again. And the knowledge this will happen several times throughout your career.

One such experience was the path that led me to Chateau Tanunda. My former business was the agent for Tetley tea and we landed the “All Rounder” teabag which was extremely successful taking market share from two percent to 33 percent. Circumstances beyond our control forced us to walk away from that business and it was a difficult time. The upside is that it was the turning point that moved us to a completely different industry – wine making!

  How do you define success?

Having a clear vision and one you enjoy chasing. You’ve also got to be passionate. Yes, it’s great to earn money along the way however it’s your passion and drive that should define the work.

Chateau Tanunda is also a family business. My wife manages the finances, my son the accommodation and my daughter is in marketing. I consider being at the helm of a thriving family-run business a great success and anyone who combines business and family would understand why.

 What have been some of your failures, and what have you learned from them?

When we initially took on the winery we focused on wines around the $20 price mark. We thought the best strategy would be ‘to be all things to everyone’, including both the tourism and wine markets. We now realise this strategy was flawed and that focus and differentiation are key.

Today we have a laser focus on producing high-end wines sitting amongst the top varietals in the world. We’ve switched off all other events and tourism and found our identity as an icon winery. We probably took this step 10-years too late, however I could also probably argue the vineyards weren’t ready to produce the quality of wine we needed any time prior.

 What motivates you?

I have always been motivated by taking on projects that everyone says you can’t do. When the vast majority of people say it’s impossible, I see it as a challenge to step up and see how I can make it happen from the other side of the coin. It seems to work most times.

 Excluding yours, what company or business do you admire the most?

I have always admired Richard Branson and Virgin is an incredible story. Branson is the epitome of an entrepreneur who did things everyone said he couldn’t. I like his cheekiness, his energy and that he builds success in his own unique way. He has also taken on huge challenges against all the odds and not been afraid of reinvention, often with zero experience in that industry.

Where do you see yourself and your business in 10 years? 20 years?

The Barossa is acknowledged as the home of Australia’s finest wines and the world's best Shiraz, and I can tell you Australia makes wine that is as good as the most expensive wines in the world. Our wines currently target the ultra-luxury market (upwards of $300) with our flagship product, a 100-year-old vine Shiraz, recognised as the best in the world with a bunch of trophies to prove it.

Chateau Tanunda will emerge as one of the top wineries in the world, in line with ‘First Growth’ of Bordeaux but in an Australian new world way. Bordeaux first growth wines command an ultra-premium price point commensurate to their superior quality, and are widely known among those in the wine industry. When wine lovers think of an equivalent of first growth in Australia, they will think of Chateau Tanunda.

 In one word, characterise your life as a business owner.

I need two words. In a family-run business there really is no separation between personal and business. Therefore, I would characterise it as “intertwined commitment”.  You’re either in or out.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to others hoping to start their own business?

When you start out make sure you have a secondary cash flow. Also, set great targets but acknowledge they may take twice the time to achieve. I expect after a few years you will end up in quite a different execution than what you previously envisaged.

For us, we have lived the classic Australian story. We had to gain international validation to earn credibility in our own backyard. We joke about being like Aussie actors or pop stars – once the US, Europe and the UK acknowledged our talent we knew it was time to tackle the competitive Australian market.

We truly are one of the hidden gems of the wine world and I am just so happy that I saved the damn thing!