Yukich family tops taste test

09/12/2019 - 15:59

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A series of recent acquisitions has the Yukich family poised to become one of the state’s biggest players in hospitality, fine food and wine.

Kym (left) and Graeme Yukich have big plans for the historic Houghton winery in the Swan Valley. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira

A series of recent acquisitions has the Yukich family poised to become one of the state’s biggest players in hospitality, fine food and wine.

Four generations and 90 years after his grandfather Nikola Yukich planted his first Swan Valley grapevines, Graeme Yukich believes the family business is just starting on its journey. 

As remarkable as that claim appears, it lines up with the former high-flying stockbroker’s ambition to establish Western Australia’s most sophisticated winemaking, gourmet food and hospitality operation at the same site his grandfather planted his vines in 1929.

Nikola Yukich arrived in Australia in the mid-1920s, emigrating from Croatia having been lured by prospects of wealth and a better life in WA’s Goldfields.

“As my brother and I say, we won the lottery when he decided to jump on the back of a truck and go down to the port and come to Australia, especially given how tough life was there throughout The [Great] Depression and WWII,” Graeme Yukich told Business News.

“We were very fortunate he decided to come out here.

“Mind you, he used to say in the first 10 years he was here that if Australia was connected to Asia, he would have walked back, it was that tough.”

Nikola Yukich established a farming operation in the late 1920s, shortly after emigrating from Croatia

Nikola Yukich’s initial Swan Valley farming operations were modest, starting with table grapes and other fruits and vegetables; it wasn’t until the 1990s that the seeds were sown to develop what is now known as the Y Group of Companies.

Graeme Yukich said an opportunity to acquire more acreage adjacent to his grandfather’s land arose in the early 1990s, with then-Houghton’s owner, Hardy Wines, seeking to sell off some of its land.

Up until that time, the Yukichs had sold all of the wine grapes they produced at their estate to other winemakers, but the acquisition of more land gave the family the opportunity to set up its own winery.

“My brother and I sat down and we said we would use the 1990s to develop the vineyard, and the 2000s to develop the wine range,” Mr Yukich said. 

“We sat down and did a 20-year plan. If you work in the wine industry, you don’t work in years, you work in decades. 

“You have good decades and bad decades, because it just takes so long.”

That 20-year plan resulted in the 1998 establishment of Oakover Grounds, which initially processed its grapes at Jane Brook before setting up its own winery in the early 2000s.

And while Oakover grew into a successful business, Mr Yukich said the GFC forced a rethink of how the company would operate.

“The 1990s up until the GFC was a good time for the wine industry,” he said.

“Things were booming and things were looking great. Then the GFC hit, and unfortunately of all of the agricultural industries in Australia, the one that got hit the most was the wine industry. 

“The reason being was our two biggest export markets, the US and the UK, collapsed virtually overnight.

“At our peak in ’07-08 there was $3.2 billion worth of exports; by 2015 it was down to $1.5 billion, which is why you can buy wine cheaper than water down at Dan Murphy’s.”

In addition to the export market issues, Mr Yukich said the rise of managed investment schemes had resulted in mass overplanting throughout the wine industry. 

“We had a massive oversupply issue; it caused prices to collapse and like all wine businesses, we were affected,” he said.

“That led us on to thinking about how to make things economically viable here. We knew we needed to diversify.”

The first step to diversification was the 2011 acquisition of Fiori CoffeeMr Yukich’s favourite locally-roasted coffee brand.

“What I started looking for was businesses that I could actually bring to the Swan Valley,” Mr Yukich said.

“That’s how it started with Fiori; the coffee business was an ideal business to bring to the Swan Valley. 

“The valley can’t survive just on grapes, it needs tourism, it needs other reasons for people to come here.

“I strongly believe that this is an area that can become the food and beverage hub of WA. 

“Most food and beverage businesses in WA are small, there’s a handful of large ones, but most of our food producers are tiny and tend to be family-run businesses.

“They shouldn’t be in the back blocks of Malaga or Balcatta or places like that. If you go to Europe, all of the food businesses are in agricultural areas, they shouldn’t be in industrial areas.”

While the Fiori acquisition was significant, it was the sale of Mr Yukich’s Entrust Wealth Management business to Euroz in 2015 that set the foundation for Y Group’s growth. 

“The Oakover side of the business was growing and growing and needed more attention,” he said. 

“There were some good opportunities in the beverage side of the business at that time.

“Once I sat down with Andrew Mackenzie and Russell Kane and the management team at Euroz, I could see it fitted well into what they wanted to do strategy wise.

“It gave a career pathway for our staff, the clients were going to be well looked after because Euroz had the financial resources, and I knew that would allow me to transition.

“By then I was already 52 and I wasn’t getting any younger. It was the right time, right place.”

In 2016, Y Group acquired Supreme Coffee Machines and Crema Gourmet Coffee Roasters, significantly expanding its footprint in WA’s coffee roasting industry.

The group added the European Foods gourmet import and wholesaling business to its stable in 2018, and continued its growth surge this year by acquiring Blue Cow Cheese and Houghton Wines’ Swan Valley landholdings and vineyards, which has been relaunched to the market as Nikola Estate.

Following that series of deals, Y Group now lays claim to one of WA’s biggest winemaking facilities, its largest cheese importer, as well as the state’s most sophisticated coffee roasting operation.

Adding to the production and import offering is Y Group’s hospitality division – the two wineries in Oakover Grounds and Nikola Estate, an Osborne Park marketplace that’s become known as Perth’s ‘cheese cathedral’, and 100 Cups by Fiori, a new cafe soon to open on St Georges Terrace.

Plans in motion to expand the group’s offering include a new fine dining restaurant and function facility at Nikola Estate, while the family is also seeking to establish a 15,000-capacity outdoor events space on the banks of the Swan River to hold major concerts and food festivals.

Mr Yukich told Business News his ambition for the Y Group was based on a desire to give back to the Swan Valley community.

“We’ve been here 90 years, we’re the third generation and our kids are now involved so they’re the fourth,” he said.

“It’s a case of investing in your local community – if you are going to do something, then do it properly.

“For the valley to survive, it’s got to become a real tourist space and a top food and beverage destination with great hospitality. 

“So I thought instead of talking about it, let’s see if we can do it; it will be a good challenge.”

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