Maggie Beer: full of grit and determination.From the outset, Maggie Beer is adamant she has no plans to launch a beer in her name. “Goodness no! My youngest daughter’s a beer drinker and she would love to. But it would seem like cashing in. But we do make wine and cider,” she laughs.
Maggie, alongside her husband Colin, runs a veritable foodie empire from her base in South Australia’s Barossa Valley. It’s an impressive feat given how tough the food business is.
She has been in business since 1978 when she and her husband established, of all things, a pheasant farm and restaurant in South Australia. But what possessed her to start a pheasant farm when, at the time, there was no market for pheasants and they had no experience running a game bird farm?
“It was just an idea and we thought, why not?” Maggie explains. Her husband, in the course of getting his pilot’s licence, had flown over game farms in New Zealand, which had given them the genesis of the idea. Although Beer was born and raised in Sydney, her husband was from the country and hated city living, which is what let them to move from Sydney to SA to establish the Barossa Pheasant Farm Restaurant.
Colin subsequently won a Churchill Fellowship to study game birds, but Maggie acknowledges there were many technical and bird husbandry issues at the start. As to how the couple was able to make the farm a success, Maggie says a light-bulb moment happened when they visited a turkey farm in Scotland. The farm made sure not a single bit of its birds were wasted. She bought back this philosophy to the pheasant farm.
“I’d sell raw birds and show people how to use them, even down to how to cut them up when they were having picnics on the side of the dam,” she explains.
Not much has changed in her approach to business since then. She’s fanatical about using as much local produce as she can and turning any waste products into something useful. For instance, instead of discarding the waste from the quinces she mills for her famous Maggie Beer Quince Paste she uses it to make syrup that’s added to her ice-cream.
‘That’s the way we roll,” she says.
Maggie comes from a business background. Her parents had a manufacturing business, so it’s no surprise she’s been so successful. But it was the failure of this business that established her work ethos.
“My parents went bankrupt and we lost everything. So I had to leave school at 14 and I, along with my brother, who was two years older, helped to keep the family. I was lucky because I had grit and that hardship game me such strength. So I learnt great resilience and drive from an early age.”
Today, a cornerstone of her business is her export kitchen, which has grown to a staff of 110. The business now has a CEO and Beer says it has grown by 20 per cent each year for the past 10 years.
Maggie still drives product development and works a 70-hour plus week and will celebrate her 70th birthday next year. She says her obsessive, micro-managerial style is balanced by her husband’s more laid-back nature. But she says they are both risk-takers, lateral thinkers and troubleshooters.
As for what’s next, she says she still has so many ideas it would be impossible to execute them all in one lifetime.
“I’m like the monkey on everyone’s shoulder. To me, ideas, quality and relationships are so important. I get great joy out of seeing the ideas I work on every day come to fruition,” says Maggie.
“The food business is very hard. No matter how ethical you are, new regulations are always coming and there’s always new ways of doing things. The business is like another child for me. I’m not day-to-day, but I can’t just step back. I’m driven by maximising our produce and the ideas I have because we live in such as amazing place.”
Maggie Beer has recently been inducted into the Australian Businesswomen’s Network 2014 Hall of Fame, which recognises the achievements of female entrepreneurs from diverse industries.