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A welcome surprise for Mt Romance

A SANDALWOOD oil refinery and cosmetic product factory located in the State’s south has become an unexpected tourism success story.

The success of Mt Romance is unexpected because the operation was never meant to be a tourism destination, and yet last year the Albany factory attracted almost 40,000 visitors, while turnover is expected to top $4.5 million this financial year.

When Mt Romance (the company) was established in 1990, the factory was on a country property near Denmark, where cos-metic and therapeutic products were made from emu oil.

A decade later, Mt Romance is the proud parent of a $10 million factory in Albany, which extracts the precious gold oil of the sandalwood tree for use in cosmetics; barrels it for perfume export; and scientifically analyses it to determine its possible pharmaceutical benefits.

Tourism is often seen as the offspring of established success or fame but, for Mt Ro-mance, the opposite was true.

According to Mt Romance managing director Stephen Birbeck, the company was on the sharp edge of the financial sword in 1996-7 after the Asian financial crisis slowed export of emu oil products by 40 per cent. At the same time, links with the French company assisting with exports to Europe were strained and the small Denmark factory was working to capacity.

Mr Birbeck and his wife, Karen, reacted by severing ties with the French export company, along with their rights to an emu oil sunscreen, in return for just enough cash to purchase the Albany factory.

The Albany site included a showroom for tourists and it was this last-minute thought that saved Mt Romance. While the business experienced other difficulties and had to make tough decisions, the showroom and factory quickly blossomed into a popular tourist destination.

Taking a stroll through the Albany factory, it’s easy to see why it is so popular with tourists.

The Mt Romance cosmetic product show-room is enough to give any French house a run for its made-up money. Shelves are lined with every conceivable sandalwood oil product, with delights ranging from the traditional joss sticks (good for curing all manner of spiritual woes) to sensational smelling and super soft sandalwood talc, to make-up and skin care.

Next stop is the lab, where the enthusiastic biochemist Valerie Gearon explains the ins and outs of the various compounds that constitute sandalwood oil.

Then there are the stills and distillery process, where the scientific journey of the sandalwood oil is explained. There’s also the lipstick room, where you can watch a vast array of products under the now-famous Santalia label.

Mt Romance also has a restaurant and, along with its cosmetics, makes quite a decent drop of vino.

In the same way that tourism funded the initial research into the cosmetic application of sandalwood back in the 1990s, sandalwood cosmetics are now set to support research into the pharmaceutical application of the oil.

The oil was recently recognised by the Therapeutic Good Administration (TGA) and was entered on the Australian Approved Names list, effectively endorsing the product’s safety as a therapeutic substance.

Various compound within the oil (not all of which have been isolated yet) may have medical applications for everything from cancer to acne.

“The various projects include applications for cystitis, acne, thrush, athlete’s foot and upper respiratory infections, and have already led to confidentiality agreements with several international pharmaceutical companies inter-ested in pursuing potential research partner-ships,” Mr Birkbeck said.

Pharmaceutical applications of the oil currently generate no income for Mt Romance. In fact, research into applications is creating multi-million dollar drain.

But Mr Birkbeck said that, in years to come, income from the cosmetic application of sandalwood would represent only 10 per cent of Mt Romance’s income, with pharmaceutical applications expected to make up the remaining 90 per cent.

Mt Romance hopes to corner 40 per cent of the world sandalwood oil market. Currently, other suppliers include southern India and Timor. The political instability of Timor has damaged exports and scared off likely invest-ment, while the environmental stability of India’s sandalwood plantations has recently come under question.

The maximum harvest of sandalwood in WA is 2000 tonnes a year, Mt Romance is currently using just 500 tonnes a year, with plans to maximise production at 900 tonnes.

The business also has managed to secure a guaranteed supply of sandalwood under government contract until 2013.

The environmental sustainability and supply stability of sandalwood in WA should go a long way to help secure investment in research into the varied applications of the oil.

Already Mt Romance has managed to attract an $800,000 Federal Government research and development grant through AusIndusty.

The company has a strong track record in attracting venture-capital investment, pulling in a combined total of $4 million in 1997 – $2 million from Foundation Capital, $1 million from local Guy Leath and a further $1 million from a European pharmaceutical executive.

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