Tradition and transformation: Brown Brothers CEO and Chief Winemaker on cultivating the family crop
Dean Carroll and Joel Tilbrook, Brown Brothers
A celebrated family wine business now in its fourth generation of vintners and vignerons, Brown Brothers has been hand-crafting wine since 1889. The company issues a diverse suite of Australia’s most popular wines from crisp chardonnays to its richest Shiraz. Alongside their iconic wines, for over 125 years they’ve crafted a formidable reputation as one of the nation’s most reliable names in viniculture.
In the eight years Dean Carroll worked at Brown Brothers before being made CEO last year, he was dedicated to the idea that wine making and selling was a collective endeavour; that a winery should be a vibrant and positive environment.
Working alongside Carroll as Chief Winemaker, Joel Tilbrook shares the vision of a team-based approach, dedicated to innovation. Together they explain what it takes to keep a business relevant and innovative in a changing society while staying true to the wine, the brand, and the family that brought Brown Brothers to pre-eminence.
When I first arrived at Brown Brothers, I didn’t have in mind the vision that I wanted to be the CEO. My philosophy has been: if you work hard, and you’re positive about what you do, you enjoy what you do. And ultimately, if you make the right decisions and you always do your best, opportunities are created.
Thinking back eight years ago, I’d like to think we’ve evolved. We have a company culture that marries the professionalism required to be successful with major retailers with a genuine country family culture, which is really appealing to work within. There are two fourth-generation family members in the business now; one works with Joel in the winemaking team, and another is in PR. The board structure has three family members and three non-family members. It still feels very much like a family business, and we’re proud of that fact.
You create a culture by the way in which you interact with people, no matter the area. We’re not a hierarchical business, we’re a group of people who are open to communication at every level. Respect and integrity are at the core of that, and I think that’s proof of the family values that exist within the business.
You create a culture by the way in which you interact with people, no matter the area. We’re not a hierarchical business, we’re a group of people who are open to communication at every level.
It’s both valuing people’s skills and fostering relationships – I think that’s at the heart of what this business is about. We have a lot of people that have been with Brown Brothers for a long period of time. And for that longevity, there needs to be compatibility – they have the same personal values and work ethic as the family does, and the business as a whole.
To encourage innovation, we have what’s called a kindergarten winery. Basically, it’s a playground for winemakers, and that gives us a drive to innovate. It’s an area of the winery where we have the ability to experiment, to play around and try different wine techniques and varieties that would be challenging to do if you looked from a purely commercial sense. Just having that space there sends a message to everybody in the company that innovation is important to us and there is a need for us to continually challenge ourselves.
The company is always evolving, and a lot has changed over the last eight years. I think in many ways it’s grown up. It was a business that was successful, and was growing strongly year on year. But we hit a bit of a speed hump, as lot of growth businesses do, three or four years ago, and that stirred a degree of maturity to the business. It told us that businesses don’t just grow endlessly; there’s a lot of market forces that work against you. That encouraged us to focus more closely on what we needed to be good at, going forward.
We’re all driven by that common purpose of wanting to be a successful business with successful brands, but we are producing wine which is such a social beverage and therefore it’s quite a relaxed environment. Hopefully that enables people to be themselves, work together and enjoy coming to work.
Joel Tilbrook—Chief Winemaker
I’ve been with Brown brothers since 2004, in a number of different roles.
Dean and I have worked together to an extent, in his capacity of heading up our sales operations, and my capacity looking after winemaking.
In my role, I manage a wine production team. The winemakers each have a portfolio of products that they’re responsible for on a day-to-day basis. And then we have a chief viticulturist, who manages all the vineyard managers, and external growers. And those teams report to me. My role is more managing my production team, keeping things on track.
When I was younger, as a kid I spent a lot of time with my cousins, aunt and uncle, and grandparents farming. It was wheat and sheep farming on the York Peninsula. I really loved that, I had a real connection to growing things, to agriculture, being out on the farm. So as a kid I decided I wanted to do something in an agricultural field. And then, as I got a little bit older, I had an interest in wine – I liked the mix of agriculture, creativity, and science behind winemaking. I was drawn to that.
My first job in the wine industry was for a company called Normans Wines in the Adelaide hills. I was looking for an opportunity to broaden my skills as a winemaker when the job came up at Brown Brothers, which I knew made a wide range of different wine varieties and styles. In terms of my own development, I wanted to be part of a winemaking team that I could bounce ideas off. So I decided to move to Victoria and take on the role. That was back in 2004.
Brown Brothers does have a good culture of trying to challenge the status quo, looking for ways to continually improve, whether that’s our operating efficiency or effectiveness, or quality. And that’s probably why we have been an innovative business. We’re not necessarily happy just to say, “We’ll do this like this, because that’s the way we did it last year, and it worked out”. It’s about questioning. We know where we want to get to, we know this path works, but is there actually a better way to do things, and is there something else we can try? And so we do it. We continually try things in the winery.
Brown Brothers does have a good culture of trying to challenge the status quo, looking for ways to continually improve, whether that’s our operating efficiency or effectiveness, or quality.
Brown Brothers works because we have a culture of including people, encouraging people to give new ideas into the business, of being open, to challenge in discussion about the way things are done. And obviously, you can’t necessarily do everything. Not every idea is going to work, or fit our business. But just because I’m the Chief Winemaker, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m the person that has all the right answers to make wine. That’s a team effort – the role there is about pulling the team together and drawing on our collective information to come up with the best decision. So I think that, hopefully, that’s the sort of environment that we create in our teams. And that’s the case for Dean, and hopefully that’s the case for myself, and the many of the staff.