Dr Tim Cooper may well be considered a doctor of beer, but this brewer from the famous Coopers family, is actually a real doctor. He speaks to BFM about what makes a great beer and how to establish market penetration.
Back in 1974 when Fosters was an Aussie icon and not the cultural cringe it is considered today, Tim Cooper was studying medicine at the Royal Adelaide Hospital.
The good doctor – and if his interview manner is the same as his bedside manner he is definitely a good doctor – had made the decision to degree in medicine after his father urged him not to go into the family business.
Tim is fifth generation Cooper and jokes that one day there will be busts of the whole Cooper clan lining the corridor of the famous South Australian brewery. Yet his father, Bill, had urged him to look at another profession at a time when those busts weren’t looking so likely.
“I was just starting year 12 and I told my father I was going to do mechanical engineering, but he said the brewery is in the doldrums and I needed to find something else to do. I was taken aback by that, but just assumed that was the sensible thing to do. If you look back at previous generations the eldest son always went back to the company. That was traditional and I thought I would fulfil that tradition. The company was not doing well in the 1970s and my father said it would be a poor decision to join. That’s why it was strange when in 1986, he told me it would be good to have me back.”
During his time in medicine, Tim took a year off to study brewing at Birmingham University. He had left for England to work with the NHS. The UK was where he met his wife, had kids and established himself in the medical profession. So the decision to come home wasn’t taken lightly. Yet the decision to study brewing certainly had him pulling in a particular direction.
Tim arrived back in Adelaide in 1990 and thus the romantic notion for the family business was fulfilled as this fifth generation Cooper stepped into his destiny.
“I was working as technical manager for a couple of years and as operations manager from 1993,” Tim says of his reintroduction to the business. “I looked after brewing as well as packaging and engineering,”
However the business was still struggling. Tim persisted. He could see a light at the end of the amber tunnel. Strategies had been put in place. One strategy in particular – home brewing – had saved the business during the really lean times in the 1970s.
“My father Bill and his brother Maxwell, who was chief brewer and later became chairman, had been working on trying to preserve wort, which is the liquid extracted from the mashing process during the brewing of beer or whisky. They were trying to improve the beer making process and during that innovation they worked out that they could preserve the wort in 20L plastic bags, fill them and sell that to home brewers. From that the home brew business blossomed and became a runaway success. It continued to grow through the late ’70s and ’80s. When I joined the brewery that is where the profit was coming from. It wasn’t until 1996, that the profit was from beer started having an impact again. But this saved the company’s bacon.”
Today, Coopers is the world’s largest producer of homebrewing equipment.
The other strategic move in the 1980s that had an impact was to sell beer outside South Australia; to this day market share outside the City of Churches continues to grow. Up until this point Australian brewers had sold only in their home states. The rationalisation of the industry led by Allan Bond and John Elliot put an end to this.
However, the decision to sell Keg beer in 1983 in lager form and ale in 1987, helped promote Coopers by having it on tap in Adelaide and interstate.
“This grew the beer volume through on-premise sales,” Tim says.
They also started the Adelaide Malting Company in 1986, which was sold in 2002 and netted $16 million.
“That was a good move because there had been a number of acquisitions that the company had made in the 1980s that didn’t work out, so that sales offset the losses. We had moved into hotels, food companies and radio stations and they eventually caused significant losses.”
While Tim knew about brewing and chemistry and had superb problem solving skills for his days of doctoring, he didn’t really know much about business. So he did an MBA from 1995. For the first 12 years it didn’t matter because he stayed in production.
“When I joined the brewery we had one per cent of the Australian beer market, largely due to our position in SA. Bill and Maxwell had started to do some work outside of South Australia, but by 1990 we were still only 1%. Then we hade the recession and we came back .6% of the beer market. Through the 1990s we grew again, because Lion Nathan, who had bought SA Brewing in 1993, made the excellent decision to sell the pubs that SA Brewing had and that allowed us to get our beer on tap in many of those hotels.
“My cousin Glen Cooper was prominent in getting our beer on tap in Adelaide. Meanwhile I was working on trying to improve the consistency of the pale and sparkling ales and creating a single strain of ale yeast. Pale Ale became a success and we got to the point in 1997 where we ran out of capacity at our Leabrook brewery. I was able to look after the building of the new Regency Park operations, which gave us more brewing capability. So we could produce more.”
So everything had fallen into place. Those dark, Guinness coloured days were over. But there was one more piece of the puzzle that really set Coopers on a positive path.
In 2002, the former marketing director at Fosters, who brought with him an offer to brew Budweiser, approached Tim.
“He recommended that we join forces in a joint venture to promote Coopers and Budweiser.”
The joint venture became known as Premium Beverages and was an immediate success.
“The first three years we had 30% growth. And we have averaged 17% growth interstate over the last 11 years. That was a significant change. We have salespeople now in each of the states and territories and that has been a significant boost to our fortunes.”
There are still ups and down. Drinking habits have changed and statistics show that people now drink more wine than beer. In the 1970s and 1980s, Australia was third behind the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia) and England in beer consumption per capita.
“Wine consumption has supplanted beer consumption,” Tim says. “However, there is a positive in this and that is total alcohol consumption has reduced because community standards have changed.”
Then there was the unsolicited takeover bid by Lion Nathan. This was strongly opposed by the board and by the Cooper family. It was ultimately rejected at an Extraordinary General Meeting when the holders of 93.4% of the shares voted in favour of permanently removing the 3rd tier purchasing rights of Lion Nathan, effectively preventing any current or future takeover bid
Tim doesn’t get to brew or taste as much these days. As MD his main role is to deal with corporate matters and look after suppliers such as MeadWestvaco Pty Ltd, a leading global packaging company with reach into the food, beverage, tobacco, beauty and personal care, healthcare, and home and garden markets.
“MeadWestvaco Corporation (MWV) is a global company providing innovative packaging and machinery solutions. Our partnership with Coopers has been incredibly satisfying for MWV as the Coopers team never compromises their brands or operational efficiency. Coopers’ collaborative approach to supplier partnerships ensures our systems deliver the required results which contribute towards their continued growth”
Tim believes consistency in relationships is just as important as consistency in beer. The move to Regency Park allows him to oversee both.
“When we moved we went from 750 bottles to 1100 per minute. We installed a second line last year and that does the ale line specifically. So we now have two bottling lines.
“As for our suppliers, although we are still a relatively small player with 5% market share now, our suppliers are a critical part of our process and we need to form good relationships. Without them we would struggle to do the good work that we do. We work hand in hand and we have been with some of them for 20 years.”
Coopers long history and contribution to brewing was recognised when Tim was awarded an Order of Australia Medal. Not only was this for brewing, but for sustainable practices and charity as well.
He is humble about the title.
“More than anything it is the fact that the AM recognised Coopers contribution to manufacturing and food and beverage. It was a great privilege and unexpected honour.”
As for sustainability, Tim says this was made easier when he was able to oversaw the purpose-built brewing facility at Regency Park.
“Where we were fortunate is that we could start from scratch and think about how we could do everything possible to minimise water and energy usage. We are more careful with how we use both water and energy components in the brewing process. If you can build something from scratch it is easier to achieve than to retrofit.”
There is a consumer attachment to Coopers, derived in the ups and downs of 152 years of history. Coopers is a different organisation to its competitors who are owned by overseas companies. They are independent, Australian-owned and a family business with a great deal of heritage. And it is these strengths that will allow the business to keep gaining market share and as more of the Cooper clan come into the fold.