If there is one message to emerge from Scott Austen’s journey as an entrepreneur it is the importance of stepping out of your comfort zone. His decision to immerse himself in the life and culture of Japan gave him the confidence to learn, a capability on which he continues to depend as managing director of the Geelong-based family business, Austin Wines.
Scott elected to have a gap year in Japan after attending Geelong Grammar and its Timbertop rural campus which he found “emotionally challenging”.
Having studied Japanese at school he headed for Japan where he lived with a local family for a year. Enrolled at a high school his adopted tongue was put to use when on his first day the principal asked him to address the 1500 pupils.
“Japan gave me the confidence to learn,” Scott says.
Returning to Australia he gained a commerce degree but was still undecided on a career path when his brother asked him to partner in a clothing company. But it would be 2004 when he joined the wine business that had been the dream of his parents from the 1980s. In a bold move, they had bought 1500 acres of land, of which 90 was planted out in pinot noir. It remains today Australia’s largest planting of that grape type, reflecting a goal of “pinot noir for the people.”
From a mere 2000 case of wine and a turnover of $150,000 in its early days to production of 20,000 cases Scott was staring down a challenge of how build a production-driven business quickly, given the need to create a brand and sell increasing quantities of wine.
The multi-generational nature of the business created a further challenge to achieving that objective: the need to make changes from the way his parents ran the business.
Never having had a job interview, Scott believes entrepreneurialism is inherent and a pay packet is not necessarily a driving force. But his Japan experience and the desire to learn was well entrenched so he undertook a Government program to help build the brand and the business.
“The Geelong region has a history of growing good grapes as well as good people, so we identified the need to tell the regional story in order to build a brand and sell product.”
Emerging from that branding exercise, Austin Wines 6 Ft 6 pinot noir is the 3rd fastest growing product by value in the national market, exemplifying the accelerating momentum of the company.
Now managing director of the business, Scott advises that growth shouldn’t be too quick, nor should a company carry too much debt. These principles are complemented by the importance of surrounding oneself with good people an operational level.
He agrees with the mantra of “hire slowly, fire quickly” and to this end he advises getting to know the people you may want to hire. Do less talking than listening to them over a coffee and maybe get them to show you what they can do, rather than just talk about it.
“Don’t be afraid of having three or four interviews for potential senior staff. And, when you do hire them, make them aware of your expectations,” Scott says, admitting to being guilty of having given some staff too much rope.
The very competitive nature of the wine business raises major questions says Mr Austin.
“First, it’s a product that is grown, made and packaged once a year. There are fewer places to sell wine so being production-driven we must get onto the shelves of the major retailers and this is dictated by everything from packaging to how we deal with those companies.
“Along the way we face challenges such as do we change from old to new branding while still holding old stock?”
Participation in the Government program to help build the business laid the foundations for an ongoing move to full vertical integration. This has seen the company recently employ a wine maker on-staff, while an investment of $1.5 million is supporting the installation of an in-house bottling line and the opening of a cellar door to sell the company’s story to consumers “face to face”.
‘Adventuresome’ joins ‘contemporary’ and ‘teamwork’ in summarising Austin Wines corporate values.
“We aim to foster those values in everything we do,” Scott Austin says.
To this end he advises having a succinct vision which staff can embrace. For Austin Wines it is to be Geelong’s leading producer of cool climate wines.
Scott says believe in your product or service because you can’t sell what you don’t like and above all show leadership ‘by doing’ as a guide to your staff. Teamwork is essential, especially for business owners. Teamwork depends on respect for one another and exemplifies an organisation’s values.
The business regards the digital world, including online marketing, as more of a growth opportunity rather than a threat which harks back to the company’s decision “not to sell on price but on its story.”