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Reaping the fruits of their labour: success in the Hunter Valley



Agri-Business | Entrepreneur | Featured | Profiles | Women In Business

By Stephanie Zillman

The romantic notion of retiring and running a vineyard makes Lisa Margan smile.

Sipping chardonnay and looking out across rows of perfectly manicured grape vines doesn’t quite compute with the day-to-day reality of running a vineyard. Not to mention an on-site winery, cellar door, and restaurant.

Lisa is someone who would know. For the past 18 years, she and her husband Andrew have run Margan Estate in the Hunter Valley. Almost a decade ago, they made the leap from a small producer of around 3,000 barrels, to national and international distribution with an output of 40,000 barrels.

As Lisa tells Dynamic Business, with the size of Margan Estate and its growth in recent years, many make the mistake that the husband and wife team inherited the business. In fact, they built it from the ground up.

A trained chef, with a background in teaching, and a degree in applied science and food technology – running a winery wasn’t necessarily where Lisa saw her career in earlier days.

“Well I married a winemaker, and so I got dragged around to wine regions – so that was an awareness! But I’ve had a couple of career paths, and did my masters thesis in organic food production, so it’s funny how it does all come back together,” Lisa says.

When the brand started, Lisa’s husband Andrew used his skills honed after years of working on Tyrrells in the Hunter Valley. For many years, it continued as just a lone shed in a paddock. When the wine tourism industry started booming though, the Margan’s saw their chance to grow with it.

“Adding the tasting room, the restaurant, and diversifying into wine tourism was a response to broader changes in the industry. Changes in wine wholesaling, and with the emergence of more stores like Dan Murphy’s, we felt we were becoming more and more disconnected from our customer, and we weren’t able to control the brand experience our customers were having with Margan Estate.”

“So we decided to create the home of Margan, so we could bring our customers to us, and better control the experience our customers were having with our wine brand,” Lisa explains.

This element of the business – namely marketing, the on-site restaurant, and the cellar door – is now where Lisa spends most of her time. Being a husband and wife team, Lisa says they have found a clear division of roles to be critical.

“We set up our business without a clear goal for the future – when you live and work with somebody, you have to make sure your roles are really clearly defined. So Andrew is across winery and vineyard operations, and I’m across restaurant, cellar door, and marketing operations. We have our own areas of responsibility, each with veto power, and sometimes we’re deadlocked, but if it’s vineyard and winery – I’ll have my input, but at the end of the day, it’s his decision, and vice versa.”

As the business has grown, so too have the number of staff. With 28 full-time employees, as well as a host of seasonal casuals, Margan Estate sticks to a transparent corporate structure and divisions of management throughout the company, leaving Andrew and Lisa with director-style roles.

“We empower our managers to run their department, and then we deal more in the big picture side of things,” Lisa says.

As with any primary industry based business, there are certain things, like the weather, which cannot be controlled. Likewise, it takes commitment, patience, and persistence to be successful.

“In the early days we became very successful very quickly, and to grow in our business means more planting and harvesting fruit. With red grapes for example, you’ve got to plant the fruit, but you wont see a return on your investment for two years. It has to be matured in oak barrels, which is obviously quite a stretch to have your cash tied up for 24 months until you get any of it back.

“Then with wine production, there’s also the expense of all your dry goods, namely your bottles, your corks, your labels, your cartons, your aging vat. And you’re not getting that back for two years. Once you get ahead of that cycle, you can do it – but initially, that became very expensive and just about killed us actually,” Lisa says.

These days, Margan Estate runs as a well-oiled machine and has awards under their belt including NSW Tourism Awards, and Best Restaurant for the last three consecutive years. Yet it’s not been easy, and Lisa says the life of running a winery is far from quaint.

“I can honestly say I won’t be running a vineyard when I retire! Running a vineyard means primary production and farming, and this romantic notion of sipping chardonnay is just not how it is. We love what we do, but it’s tough.”