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The family way

KEEPING the family business together through prudent, conservative decisions has been the way for Fremantle’s Samson family since founder, Lionel Samson, set foot in WA in 1829.

The family has defied the statistics that show family businesses usually do not survive more than three generations and, in the process, has built an empire around its agency business.

The burden of holding the Lionel Samson & Sons together now rests on the shoulders of fifth generation family member Geoff Cook, who took over the responsibility in 1986.

When decision are taken by the family they are not thought of in terms of years, but in decades.

Mr Cook told Business News that being a family member did not mean automatic entry into controlling the business. In the past, family members have been told to move on because they have not performed, and the business has been run by an “outsider”.

“Being a family-member is not necessarily a God-given right to being involved in the business,” Mr Cook said.

The family’s core business, operating under the name of Lionel Samson & Sons, has always been as a trading house for spirits, wines and beer and for a period as distributors of Coca-Cola products.

“Its good that we have got some type of back stop, the other businesses will be built around our agency business,” Mr Cook said.

Following World War II the family bought Fremantle firm Sadleir Transport – now run by Mr Cook’s brother Ian Cook – and expanded it to provide international logistical support with depots throughout Australia.

While keeping the business together has been paramount for Mr Cook, it has not stopped him from taking some “measured” risks, or “sensible business development”, as he calls it.

“It’s a private family company, which is conservative in its outlook. It never got into the entrepreneurial high stakes, which is probably why we are still around,” Mr Cook said.

When Mr Cook took control of the business in 1986 from William Samson, he disposed of the Carvel Ice Cream Franchise and embarked on a period of consolidation.

Then in 1991, the firm diversified

with the purchase of PacCom Internat-

ional, which specialised in the prod-

uction of plastic packaging products.

In 1994, Mr Cook moved into the winery industry as part of a vertical integration business plan, buying Crystal Brook and a share of the Mount Barker Plantagenet Wines. By 1999, Lionel Samson & Sons had taken full control of the winery and vineyard when it purchased founder Tony Smith’s final holdings.

The group currently produces more than 150,000 crushed tonnes from 170 hectares under vines and is expected to increased production to 200,000 tonnes of crushed grapes by 2004.

Rather than sit on its hands and enjoy the wealth created so far, Mr Cook said that, as a manager, it was important he took some risks to add value to shareholders.

“If you hold it together and nothing happens you can fade away. You always have to look for sensible businesses development. Everyone in business has to take some kind of risk. If opportunities arise I will look at it,” Mr Cook said.

Mr Cook hopes that history will look kindly on his performance as family business custodian.

“What I’ve tried to do is put more stability into what we are doing, by becoming involved in the right kind of business. I’ve tried to balance, which creates more stability in the whole organisation.

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