Despite being involved in one of the world’s most competitive industries, Coopers has prospered for five generations as a family business. Peter Waters reports.
“We are now in the brewing industry”.
These are the immortal words of Thomas Cooper in a letter to his brother John after establishing a brewing enterprise in South Australia in 1862.
Since Thomas Cooper began his one-man operation more than 140 years ago, 27 descendants from four succeeding generations have contributed to the business as partners, directors and employees.
Today Coopers is the only remaining family owned brewing in Australia!
In the early days, Coopers was not without plenty of stiff competition. By 1868 there were 10 metropolitan and 33 country breweries in South Australia alone. Of course today the bulk of Australia’s beer production is carried out by a few multi-national companies.
Thomas, a stonemason, discovered his brewing talents by accident. His wife Ann asked him to brew up a batch of ale from an old family recipe to help cure an illness. It wasn’t long before Thomas was delivering his Sparkling Ale and Extra Stout by horse and cart to a brand of loyal customers.
Thomas was married twice, to Ann Brown in 1849 and to Sarah Perry in 1874 and it is the descendants of “both families” who run the brewery today. Glenn Cooper, 54 (from “side A” of the family) is marketing manager and Tim Cooper, 48 (from “side B”) runs the brewery.
But according to an unwritten family edit: “You don’t automatically come into Coopers because your name is Cooper.”
Glenn and Tim pursued other paths before they entered the family business. According to Glenn, times were tough in the brewing industry when it was time for him and Tim to leave school.
“Tim and I were both told that it was unlikely the brewing would survive,” he said. “In the late ’ 60s, early ’70s there appeared to be no future for the business. There were new beer taxes, we were operating a lo-tech old brewery, lagers were a hot item and our Sparkling Ale was just plodding along.
“Home brewing tended to save the brewery. Uncle Max developed technology to put sterile wort into a bag and that was the start of home brewing.“When Glenn left school in the late sixties he went into auto electronics. Tim studied medicine.
According to Glenn, he received some sage advice early in his studies, not from a senior family member, but from a lecturer at the South Australian Institute of Technology (now part of the University of South Australia).
“He told me I wasn’t a very good engineer but ‘you’ve got a big mouth, you should go into sales’. It was the best advice I’ve ever had.”
Glenn followed that advice and within a few years was running his own computer company.
Tim had graduated in medicine at the University of Adelaide and went to England for more experience. He worked in London, Bristol and Cardiff where he became hospital registrar in cardiology.
In the late ’80s both were encouraged to join the family business. The brewery at that time was being run by the fourth generation of Coopers? Bill (Tim ’s father), Max and Ken (Glenn ’s father).
“I was put under the marketing manager and Tim answered to the brewing manager,” Glenn said. “We were watched over by the older Cooper and there were no favours given.”
In the late ’90 the decision was made to establish a new brewery and $40 million was spent establishing Regency Park. Max had retired in 98/99.
Bill stayed on until the new brewery was established and retired in 2000.
The new brewery was opened in 2001 with output 21/2 times that of the original operation at Leabrook.
“We changed our PR and advertising company and the new blood really started to show.” Glenn said.
They made the decision to: “Take this bottle and put it in front of people?s faces.”
“Output has doubled in the past five to seven years. It is now a $100 million a year business that employs 103 people. In the old days we employed 150 people with much less turnover.”
Coopers is firmly established as a South Australian business and family icon, what of sixth generation taking the reins?
Glenn has two children; Rachel and Andrew, and Tim has three; Louise, Sarah and Lain.
Do Coopers have a succession plan in place?
“We do and we don’t,” Glenn said. “It’s not fully documented, but it’s not urgent at the moment. I’m 54 and Tim’s 48 and we would like to select the appropriate people from the sixth generation when the time comes. ”