PATIENT CAPITAL: Alexandra Burt is the second-generation leader of family-owned Voyager Estate. Photo: Attila Csaszar

Burt immersed in a voyage of discovery

Monday, 30 May, 2016 - 11:03

A family affinity for agriculture gave her a start, but Alexandra Burt has found Voyager Estate an enriching experience.

ALEXANDRA Burt admits she hadn’t planned to be in the wine industry when she immersed herself in the family business in 2002.

Now the managing director of Voyager Estate, Ms Burt became involved in the winery as just one of a host of interests, following the investment decisions of her grandfather, Peter Wright (Lang Hancock’s business partner), and her father Michael Wright.

“I suppose it is a bit of business accident that I am in wine,” Ms Burt told Business News.

“My father and his father before him had multiple businesses; it was really about being involved in the family business, rather than wine.

“Initially it was probably the enticement of being able to explore both wine and other industries from the family business.

“Having said that, wine is an extraordinary thing to be involved in.

“It’s hard to imagine I would have got as excited about anything else as I have about wine.

“I only realised that when I got started, it gets you quite quickly. We always talk about it as a vortex; people get trapped in the industry a very positive way.”

Voyager is unusually prominent asset in the empire inherited by Ms Burt and her sister, Leonie Baldock. Previously called Freycinet Estate, the business was acquired in 1991 by Michael Wright, a non-drinker.

He invested heavily in both the production and the aesthetics of the Margaret River site, to create a leading brand in the prized wine region.

The patient capital Voyager had over 25 years has clearly been an advantage, especially in a field where patience is rarely in short supply but capital is often desperately short.

It is one of the biggest issues confronting the sector according to Ms Burt, who has been involved in the Winemakers Federation of Australia.

But she is clear that Voyager was never a whim or a fancy of her father, or his heirs.

“Nothing we have done has been with the objective of not making money,” Ms Burt said.

“He (her father) had the luxury of having more time to get there.”

Discussing the strategies driving the business, it is clear the Voyager boss is focused on the fundamentals that underscore any business, even one with romantic overtones that entice both the consumer and the investor in equal parts.

The business has completely reworked its cellar door retail model, it remains focused on independent channels to market without ignoring the major retailers, and is very much at the cutting edge of research and development of the best varieties for its site.

All of these are costly choices that can only work for a brand chasing the top end of the market, rather than the volume. Business News’s own records are testament to that, with the 2002 Book of Lists recording Voyager’s wine production at 270,000 litres. In the intervening 14 years, its output has grown just 11 per cent to 300,000L.

And, with about 40 full-time staff, Voyager tops the list in terms of numbers of employees, despite sitting 24th when it comes to production. That reflects the business’s commitment to its extensive gardens as much as it does the quality of its vineyards, hospitality and marketing operations.

The 2012 remodelling of Voyager’s cellar door operation is a good example.

Voyager cut back the generic Margaret River merchandise and introduced a richer choice of wine tastings, with an emphasis on ‘curated experiences’, which Ms Burt said was designed to deepen the engagement with customers.

“It is coming up for four years,” she said.

“In the early days it was difficult for consumers and visitors to grasp what we offered because no-one else offered it that way.

“As we have improved the (market’s) understanding we have improved the tastings we offer and we have also then improved the conversion rate for tastings.”

Ms Burt said the business had a strong loyalty program with a well-managed subscription base of close to 10,000, mostly the recipients of a regular magazine.

In terms of wholesaling, she said the independent retailers and on-premise restaurants and bars remained the focus of Voyager, although the business also had a long-term strategy to remain on the shelves of the more high-end outlets controlled by the major supermarkets, which have increased their market share.

While Voyager had stayed the course, the market had changed.

“Our strategy has not changed in the past 10 years,” Ms Burt said.

“What has changed is the dynamic in retail; the number of independents has been shrinking.

“On-premise opportunities are plentiful but what has changed in the past five years is the restaurateurs and sommeliers have got a lot more savvy about their wines.

“New restaurants are often looking for wines that are not the usual suspects. We fall into that category of an established producer.”

But relationships, although costly in marketing terms to maintain, remain important and can outweigh the risk to hospitality providers that comes with more ‘edgy’ suppliers.

“At the end of the day, if a sommelier has a good relationship with the winery and the product stacks up, the chances of having them take you and keep you on the list are greater than if you just have good wine.”

Another significant short-term expense that Voyager wears in order to improve its long-term performance is research and development in the vineyard.

Ms Burt said Voyager had developed expansion space over the past 20 years but the additional vineyards were not to raise production so much as to allow rejuvenation of existing vines.

The estate has a constant vineyard renewal program, which allows for constant testing of new clones and, in some cases, the replacement of older vines with ones better suited to the winery’s needs.

“It allows us to improve the soil-vine relationship,” Ms Burt said.

“Trials with vineyards take at least five years.

“To have that opportunity is, I think, one of our strengths and gets us excited.

“We are not ruthless but we are discerning.”

She said while it was not always clear what others were doing in terms of development, Voyager’s development was an internal mission, not part of some viticultural arms race in the region.

“We don’t really look outside for the impetus to do that work,” Ms Burt told Business News.

“It comes from inside. The overarching philosophy is to develop wines that show off our site as among the world’s best.”

It is part of a holistic approach to Voyager’s development that has Ms Burt looking at constantly improving the environmental management of the site, including the potential to grow more food for to supply the winery’s restaurant.

“In our family, agriculture has been a very strong connection through everything we do,” she said.

“The things that interest me more and more in the future are things that are focused on the land and what we can do to preserve our site from an environmental point of view.”

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