Eight years on from an attempted buyout by a competitor, South Australian brewery Coopers is expanding and increasingly comfortable with its position in the fast lane.
An awkward conversation has broken out in the Coopers Brewery tasting room. Today’s tour group is larger than normal and quite vociferous.
“Why’d Coopers drop from the 375ml bottle to the smaller bottle with the Celebration Ale?” – that’s the first question from the group. Others around the questioner begin to murmur, expressing their keen interest in the answer.
“Celebration was launched as a 355ml bottle for the craft brew market,” replies our tour guide-turned-beer-pourer, Frank Akers. “If anything we believe our customers are getting 20ml more than the industry standard of 330ml,” he adds, but the crowd is still not satisfied. More questions are peppered at Frank, like the media to a politician. These tourists care about Coopers and they want to know what the company has planned for their beloved beer.
“Look, it’s something we respect about our customers,” says Frank as he leads CityMag across the visitor carpark, past the lush and perfectly manicured front lawns (complete with three hole golf course) of the Coopers Brewery at Regency Park.
“Our customers are passionate about our product and we’ve got to match their love of what we do now with what we need to do to ensure future customers love us too,” says Frank.
Coopers Brewery, started in 1862 in the backyard of a Norwood home, is a company as much defined by its vision of the future as by its proud heritage.
Spanning 150 years, the company’s history is close to the heart of the string of family directors who head it. This continuity means its traditions are constantly being married with its practice. Cam Pearce, national marketing director for Coopers, is one of the links in the family chain that keeps this continuity sacred. His father-in-law, the late Maxwell Cooper, was the company chairman.
Sitting in the company boardroom around a table fashioned from salvaged timber from the old Leabrook site, Cam pours out a couple of cool glasses of water. CityMag’s photographer begins snapping and, as if from motor memory, our host leaps out of his chair to fetch a beer from the fridge. “It’s probably a better look for a brewer to have a beer,” says Cam as he decants a Pale Ale from the iconically green-labelled bottle.
“You’d reckon Thomas Cooper knew something about design,” Cam says setting the bottle down next to his glass. “That barrel and roundel motif has been on our labels pretty much since the business started.”
It’s a simple sentiment, but this genuine fondness for the product amongst the company’s higher-ups is at the heart of understanding why Coopers have survived and why they’re growing.
Since its peak in the mid ’70s, the beer category of the alcohol market in Australia has been in steady decline. Previously, Australians drank around 140 litres of beer per head, per annum – but we are now consuming about half that. Despite this, Coopers has managed to grow its market share, add to its product portfolio and diversify its holdings.
“For a company to survive and thrive it needs innovation and ingenuity and to develop new products and services,” Cam says matter-of-factly.
Statements like this read like a how-to guide for running a corporate identity. But Coopers knows what it’s on about – after developing from a sole trader in 1862 to a sophisticated, un-listed public company in 2013, it would be fair to say the company has gone through almost everything a business can – and survived.
At the heart of the operation are just four ingredients: malted barley, hops, yeast and water. It’s a simple formula and one that Coopers proudly defends with its “no preservatives and no additives” mantra.
“It’s very much a product rooted in its agricultural parts,” says Cam. “Often people, I think, don’t appreciate the agricultural element of the beer but you go out to the Yorke Peninsula, the Eyre Peninsula and you can see the barley fields,” says Cam.
This straightforward approach to brewing keeps Coopers in a position of growth. Cam describes the 2001 move from the Leabrook site to Regency Park as a “risk”, but it’s taken the brewery’s output from 26 million to 70 million litres. The company’s compound annual growth in volume over the last 20 years is 9.8 per cent on average. But far from indulging in a sense of parochial satisfaction, Coopers is using its success to invest abroad.
Perhaps fuelled by an attempted takeover bid from a multi-national, the company looks to be positioning itself as a premium beverage brand on the global stage. Last year it acquired an 80 per cent interest in the US’s largest home brew brand, Mr Beer, and the brewing contracts for goliath international brands Sapporo (from Japan) and Carlsberg (out of Denmark).
“They’re both substantial global companies who have confidence in Coopers, a relatively small Australian company in the scheme of things, to brew their beer and brew it to their specifications and requirements,” says Cam.
By staying focused on beer, the company has been able to maintain a strong identity; an identity that ultimately saved them from the proposed $360 million buyout offer in 2005.
Melanie Cooper, director of corporate affairs and chair of the Coopers Brewery Foundation, is a fifth generation Cooper and joined the company’s board of directors in 2009. As much as working for the company, Melanie is also an important part of its evolution – and is the reason the brewer altered its name from “Cooper & Sons” to Coopers Brewery Ltd in 1985.
The philanthropic foundation Melanie heads was established as a direct result of the 2005 takeover bid. The company had received a tremendous amount of public interest following media coverage and wanted to formalise its commitment to charity while keeping it separate from sponsorship and marketing.
“It’s not something that we go ‘round beating our chests over,” says Melanie. “It’s been a really subtle ripple and it’s something we’ve done very low key but all up we’ve hit over $2 million in funds raised and 100 per cent of that goes to charity.”
Melanie lists the ways in which Coopers finds its funds, divulging to CityMag that $365,000 has been collected in recycling alone; where scrap metal, cardboard, plastic – everything – is turned into a dollar and given to charity.
“The administration of the foundation costs around $35,000 a year and the company pays for that,” explains Melanie trying to give context to the importance she places on transparency.
The brewery tour, that ends with a generous sampling of the product itself, costs $22, with all of that going to charity (except the $2 GST the government collects). Dredging up some statistics from the ’70s on government tax and excise, CityMag questions Cam on the current level of taxation and whether it had abated to reflect the depression of the overall beer market.
“The first point about alcohol taxation,” says Cam, “is that it’s with our politicians. About half of the wholesale price of a carton of beer is excise and the fact that the excise goes up twice a year with CPI means the price of beer continues to rise for consumers.”
For Coopers, tax is part of the beer business. It makes their product more expensive every six months but, it’s out of their control – and the company accepts that.
If Coopers is going to stay relevant, keep consumers engaged and continue to grow its market share then it will not get too stuck on accounting, but instead stay with what it knows best – brewing. And that’s what they’re doing really well right now, just as they have been for the past 150 years.