Vittorio De Bortoli and his wife, Giuseppina, started their Australian wine business as newly arrived Italian immigrants back in the 1920s. Today, third-generation Leanne De Bortoli runs the family business’ beautiful Yarra Valley property along with her winemaker husband, Steve Webber.
The mother-of-two “fourth gen-ers” took a moment out from their bustling 2017 vintage season (six to eight weeks during which all the grapes are picked and made into wine) to discuss how running a family company is just like developing a fine wine.
Start with the right soil
“When a business passes onto the next generation, you’ve got two choices – either make it better or completely muck it up. We’d like to think we can continue to build a really healthy, viable business to pass onto our next generation.”
Plant for the future
“The beauty of a family business is we can have a long-term vision, not just make decisions to satisfy shareholders every quarter. We may decide to pull out productive vines to plant a variety that is not so well-known but we feel there is a big future for it. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut and say, ‘There may not be a market for this now, but there will be.’ So it’s not just looking forward to the next quarter; it’s having this long-term vision. Of course you’ve got to look at cash flow, paying your bills and making sure you can pay all your employees. But you need to be able to look longer term to stay competitive and to continue being relevant.”
“Business is important, but family is very important.”
Listen to experts
“Sometimes it’s hard to separate [family and business]. When you’re looking at things like how family members who work in the business are remunerated, it’s quite difficult because we can all look at ourselves and say we’re worth this much but if the prevailing feeling around is, ‘Well, what the hell are they doing for that?’… With my brothers and myself, when we first formed a family board, we had an external company come in who interviewed us and some of the staff and other senior management to try and get a handle on what each of us actually did. Then they came up with this banding of where they felt what we were doing sat out there in the general market.”
Be flexible with the harvest
“The third generation are all working in the family business, but now we’re looking at how we set it up for the next generation. Between my brothers and myself there are 13 fourth gen-ers. As we get older, and assuming some or most of them come back to the family business, there’s probably going to be an expectation from them about, ‘Well, what about giving us our chance?’ We need to plan for that transition and be prepared to step aside to give them a go. My brothers and I came into the business when it was going through enormous growth. There was room for us to come in and we all found our niche. It’s going to be different for the next generation so we need to prepare them for it but also know when it is time to step aside.”
See the variety in seasons
“There is no ready formula for family succession planning, no one size fits all. You can look at what happens with other family companies who are moving their business into the hands of the next generation but ultimately you’ve got to find what’s going to work for your own situation. And it’s not easy. In any form of partnership, you have to talk about all the unknowns and the what-ifs – with death or divorce or disenfranchisement what do you do? It’s better to discuss it as a family and come to some decision early on. We’ve been working on family succession planning for the last 10 years. Usually these events happen because the original founder becomes sick or dies. In our case it was when my father passed away in 2003 and suddenly we had to sit down as a family and say, ‘Well, where to from here?’ For us it’s looking at what we feel is the best for the family but also what’s best for the business.”
“Part of the succession planning is how do we allow entry into the business? For starters, in our family the next generation are encouraged to go out and get a degree or learn a trade. Then the expectation is they go out and work elsewhere for a couple of years before coming back into the family winery. Basically be a little fish in a big pond. So when they do come it’s not just perpetuating the same old. We need them to contribute new ways of thinking, doing business and being creative. Creativity and imagination are as important as learned skills.”
Know when to put a cork in it
“Business is important but family is very important. Sometimes as individuals you might have certain ideas about how things should be done or how the business should be run but you’ve got to come together as a collective and make the decision that you feel is best for the company. Sometimes you’ve got to take a step back so the business can move forward.”