Looking at Coopers Brewery now, riding high on the premium beer wave sweeping Australia, you would be forgiven for thinking that Tim Cooper has had an easy ride in the family business.
However, it’s not been all plain sailing for the Coopers Managing Director, or for the brewery itself.
Since the early seventies Tim has seen the family business come close to folding twice. And then last year, just as the brewery’s future was looking brighter than it had since the heady days of the late eighties, he had to ward off a hostile takeover attempt that had the potential to split the family.
Right now though, things are looking pretty good for Australia’s number three brewer, the last of the family-owned breweries.
Their current good fortunes have been driven by the phenomenal growth of the premium beer market in Australia. Coopers estimates that this market is growing at 15 per cent a year, compared to the broader beer market which actually fell by one per cent last year.
In this growing market Coopers has managed to outperform each of its major competitors, increasing beer sales by almost 18 per cent for the last four years.
While pleased with these results, Tim Cooper isn’t getting carried way. He’s seen the good times before, but he also knows the bad.
‘Seek your fortunes elsewhere’
So dire has it been at times his brewing career looked to be finished before it began.
When Tim was completing high school in the early 1970s and first contemplating a future with the brewery, Coopers was in crisis. Debt taken on to modernise the plant and introduce new product lines coincided with high inflation, rapid increases in excise and government policies that stripped the company’s profitability.
Bill Cooper was concerned enough that he warned his eldest son against pursuing a career in the brewery.
“By 1976 my father had a real expectation that the company would go bankrupt, that’s how bad it got,” Tim explains.
“So from the early seventies on he was saying to us in the fifth generation, ‘you have to go and seek your fortunes elsewhere’.”
Tim chose to seek his fortune in medicine.
By the time the entrepreneur-inspired boom of the late eighties had rolled around the brewery’s fortunes had changed dramatically. Coopers ales were in demand across the country and the investments in new plant and technology that had stretched the company ten years before were paying significant dividends. With a viable business to run the family had to start considering succession.
“It wasn’t until 1985 that my father Bill was starting to say the brewery’s going to survive, so maybe we should have family pay attention to it, at least from a custodial point of view,” Tim says.
A dilemma – beer or medicine
For Tim, now studying cardiology in England and close to registration – not to mention married with three children – it was a difficult decision.
“It was a dilemma and I wasn’t sure which way to go. There was the uncertainty of a future with the brewery against what seemed a far more certain career in medicine.”
In the end, it was the pull of the family company that won out.
“It was a romantic notion at the time. But because I grew up around the brewery it was in my blood,” Tim reflects.
“On the other side of the world studying in England, the idea of coming back to Adelaide and being part of keeping the brewery going had a romantic appeal.”
As if to test his calling, Tim took a year off from his medical studies to study brewing at Birmingham University where he topped the course. His decision was sealed and in 1990 he joined the company as Technical Manager.
“Even when we made the decision to come back, my wife and I still questioned our decision,” Tim says. “As my wife kept saying, she married a doctor not a brewer!”
Their doubts were only compounded when the good times again dissolved with crashing beer sales during the ‘recession we had to have’ of the early nineties. The downturn saw the company lose all of the hard-won gains of the previous decade.
Homebrew saved us
But even in a recession Australians need beer and started brewing their own with the aid of the homebrew kits that Coopers had pioneered in the late seventies.
“Homebrew was in such a strong growth phase that the company survived on the back of homebrew supplies,” Tim says.
And survive they did, long enough to capitalise on the changing tastes of Australian beer drinkers over the past 10 years.
Coopers recent success gave rise to the third crisis of Tim’s time, last year’s assault by brewing giant Lion-Nathan—brewers of XXXX, Hahn and James Squire amongst others.
While they had long avoided being a takeover target, their rapid growth and new $35 million brewery opened in 2001 made them an irresistible target for the brewing behemoth.
With 90 percent of the company’s shares held by Thomas Cooper’s descendents, the hostile bid might have been seen off quickly. But with Lion-Nathan offering $260 per share and later $310—up from just over $16 in 2000—the offer could have been irresistible.
“For many people the amount of money being offered would have represented a life-changing opportunity,” Tim agrees.
“But I think the shareholders were happy because of the growth phase we had been in over the last few years, and so felt the prospects for the company weren’t being sufficiently compensated by Lion Nathan.”
Reflecting this view, the shareholders voted overwhelmingly to block the sale. The venerable brewery again survived.
Regeneration, diversification and heritage
With 144 years of experience, especially the rollercoaster that Coopers has ridden over the past thirty years, there has been plenty for Tim to reflect on. He has paid close attention.
He believes the family company’s survival and success comes down to three things: regeneration, diversification and heritage.
“The keys to success have been the process of regeneration that we’ve gone through in terms of rethinking our market position to go from traditional ales and stouts to lager production,” Tim explains.
He says that by diversifying into homebrew and malt extract manufacture in the seventies they broadened their product base, a move that shielded them from the economic downturn of the nineties.
“And then we’ve come back to our roots and redeveloped interest in the naturally conditioned ales that represent the same product Thomas Cooper developed when he got the brewery going.”
The man charged with overseeing the next phase of the company’s history says there’s a fine balance between constant change and respecting tradition.
“The market does change but if you’re a constant in that market, representing values to the market of quality, reliability and consistency, those things together seem to represent quite a valuable offering and it’s something that they keep coming back to,” Tim believes.
“They might experiment, but they know Coopers is there as a constant product offering that they can come back to and rediscover.
“The market does change and the way we have to adapt to it is be innovative in the way we present that product, but the product itself is a constant in the cycle.”
As he reflects on cycles and the fluctuating fortunes they bring, Tim considers the wisdom of following his romantic notion.
“I think my wife still thinks it would have been ok if I’d stayed a cardiologist,” he answers with a smile. But it’s a smile that says this is a ride that he’s happy to be on.*A version of this article first appeared in Virgin’s Voyeur magazine in 2006.