Taste of Success
“We lived just down the road from the old original brewery and I used to go there on weekends when Dad would check the brew,” Glenn Cooper shares, a smile creeping across his face.
“In those days we had those little roller conveyor lines and I would get inside the old beer boxes, they were wooden boxes in those days, and I would sit in them and have a ride down the roller line like a roller coaster. It was a good place to grow up.”
Glenn refers to his childhood at the brewery as the “old days,” but in perspective to the family business’s considerable history, they weren’t old days at all.
The Coopers Beer story began in a newly established colony with a brilliant accident in 1862. After turning his hand to a number of trades, Thomas Cooper discovered his talent as a brewer by mischance; when he created his first batch of beer as a tonic for his ailing wife Ann.
At that time, South Australia was only 26-years-old and although there were a number of well-established breweries, most settlers preferred to drink imported beer from the mother country rather than colonial beer.
And so Thomas Cooper saw the opportunity to create a beer free from the ‘peculiar flavour’ of colonial ales and introduced an all-natural beer from the “very best ingredients”.
“In the very old days it was really only a small brewery in South Australia, they had no interstate connection and it was virtually unknown around Australia and relatively unknown in South Australia, not like it is today,” says Glenn.
Growing up in the Cooper family, it would be fair to assume Glenn’s first taste of beer was much younger than yours or mine, but as he reveals, through reminiscent laughter – that’s quite a story.
“The family was at a park in the Adelaide Hills and in those days to keep ice cream cold they’d have a pack of dry ice,” he says.
“The old man got one from the bottom, that had been sitting on the dry ice, and when I licked it my tongue stuck to the ice block and was burning because the dry ice burns you.
“He and his mates were sitting there drinking a tally of sparkling ale and I was screaming and all he did was put the bottle all over my mouth and on the ice block and it came off my tongue. I was probably about five or six.”
In the very old days it was really only a small brewery in South Australia, they had no interstate connection and it was virtually unknown around Australia and relatively unknown in South Australia, not like it is today.”
Despite that early taste of success, it wasn’t until many years later that Glenn joined the family business, after first going out into business on his own.
“There was no choice because the brewery was struggling and it didn’t look like it was going to survive, and they said, ‘We think it’s going to go broke, we’ll stop making anything further than fourth generation, so better start looking at doing your own thing’.”
That’s when Glenn studied electrical engineering and went on to work for a few computer companies before establishing his own business.
In 1988, the same year Coopers changed its name from Cooper & Sons Ltd to Coopers Brewery Ltd, Glenn was appointed to the Board after the retirement of his father Ken.
Glenn says he made the decision to join the family business when the fourth generation Coopers approached him and his cousin Tim, who he used to play with in the brewery as a child, to come on board.
“We’ve had substantial growth since then, particularly after 1998 when we really started getting some interstate workings going on and the big momentum occurred when we made the decision in ‘98 to build a brand new brewery because it was struggling for room at the old site. The new brewery opened in 2000 and then it really took off.”
A decade ago, on 1 September, beverage company Lion Nathan launched a hostile takeover bid for the company.
“The two major reasons why Lion wanted us was they didn’t have any ales – we had sparkling and pale ale and at that time ale was really doing well all around Australia,” he says.
“The other reason was their brewery, here in Adelaide, is fairly close to the city and has little room for expansion – we had a brand new greenfield site brewery, environmentally friendly with plenty of room.”
But in December, 2005 Coopers’ shareholders voted to change constitution to effectively defeat the Lion Nathan takeover bid.
“You’ve got to remember we’re fifth generation and the brewery was going really well, probably the most successful period of its time and we didn’t have any debt of great note; we were going well, had good plans,” says Glenn.
“The only reason you would sell was because of greed, but remember we didn’t start it, we didn’t get it through the tough times, so it was really a fact of why would you sell other than to put money in the fifth generation pockets.”
While the takeover bid was the biggest challenge in Coopers’ history, the company has faced other hurdles, but always prevailed.
“We made a conscious decision to market ourselves distinctively different, people were moving away from VB and XXXX and that sort of thing, they wanted beers with flavour and it was this younger generation that was coming through and saying, ‘I don’t want to drink the same as my father did, I want something different,’ and Coopers was already there being different.
“It’s been more competitive for us because we’ve had more people moving into what we call our arena, although it’s become more competitive with more people doing our style of beers, it’s moved more people into being more experimental with their drinking. That helped us because it moved people away from general lager beer.
“People say, ‘You’re too big to be craft now’, but I like to say we are the grandfather of craft beer.”
Coopers is also the world’s largest in home brew around the world and is now a substantial product exported around the world.
“When home brew came out in the late ‘70s it really did save the brewery, because beer was struggling,” Glenn reveals. “Now it contributes to the brewhouse operations and efficiencies and we are a world leader, we also own a home brew distributor in the USA called Mr Beer.”
During his time with the family business, Glenn has played a pivotal role in its growth and success and last year retired from executive duties, passing on the sales and marketing directorship.
“But I’m still very busy,” he admits. “I’m still a chairman of the company, I’m also their appointed ambassador and I look after USA export and Asian market export.
“On top of that I’ve got another couple of board positions, one of them is chairman of Australian Made Australian Grown, and two family company boards of Australia Bundaberg Ginger Beer and Haymes Paint, which is the fourth biggest paint supplier in Australia.”
So Glenn is quick to say he’s “not on gardening duties” in retirement, although he does enjoy the occasional round of golf when time permits.
The father-of-two also has a beach house in York Peninsular, where he spends much of his downtime with his wife Elspeth, “I love the fishing and I love mixing with the farming community in York Peninsular, where a lot of our barley comes from”.
Glenn also enjoys coming to the Sunshine Coast to visit his older brother, who lives in Buderim, and says they’ll be squeezing in a game of golf when he’s here on 4 September, for a Think Speakers and Events breakfast at the Maroochydore RSL. Cheers to that!