Client Profile: Food And Beverage Australia Limited (FABAL)

From grapevine to glass. Meet the expert innovators who make sure Australian wine walks the talk.

In 1982, a group of wine-loving Australian legal students had an idea. Now, as it nears the end of its fourth decade, Food And Beverage Australia Limited (FABAL) is a national treasure, as one of the country’s leading vineyard management companies with a reputation for top-shelf viticulturists. As the FABAL Group continues to grow and diversify, developing its own tourism-focused agribusinesses supplying premium wine, chocolate and skincare, CEO of FABAL Operations Ashley Keegan shows how they kept achieving in an extremely challenging year and shares some futuristic insights.

Firstly, what does FABAL do exactly? Where does the organisation fit in the big picture of how grapes find their way into our glass? “We provide a full range of technical and commercial vineyard management services to a wide range of wine clients”, Ashley explains. “Our services range from being a simple ‘second set of eyes’ onsite for growers as they troubleshoot technical problems, through to a comprehensive turnkey operational service for international owners, enabling them to do business with their hands-off’.”

FABAL has spent a quarter of a century working very hard to build long-term strategic relationships with most Australian wine companies. The wine industry is by its very nature cyclical, and Ashley strongly believes that understanding the importance of longer-term goals in the supply chain is critical. “Viticulture has a relatively long cycle to production, and it’s imperative for all stakeholders that there is clearly communicated commitment to underpin all capital investments. At the same time, we need to be ready and able to adapt in an increasingly dynamic marketplace, with variables at every stage of the supply chain. Ultimately, FABAL sees ourself as supply chain partners, and we take a long-range, generational approach to strategic alliances – we think as much about our customers’ commercial position as we do our own.”

Saving the ‘pay day’ in the pandemic

As you would expect, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the vineyard industry in many ways. As the initial stages of the pandemic evolved, FABAL was in the midst of the 2020 harvest, their single most pivotal time of the year, which delivers what Ashley calls their “one annual paycheck”. In the face of immense uncertainty about the rapidly changing commercial conditions and ramifications of lockdowns, like most businesses, FABAL had to put in place significant contingencies.

However, as Ashley explains, FABAL was relatively lucky compared to most during that tense time. “Agriculture was very fortunate to be afforded an ‘essential service’ status, a fact that I know the entire industry was grateful for, and we were all focused on respecting that good fortune as we watched a huge array of businesses in other industries simply grind to a halt. At a practical level, we had to focus first and foremost on keeping our teams safe. Really rigid hygiene protocols were immediately implemented, and critical machinery was introduced to minimise risks.”

“Our teams understood that an incident on one of our sites would put the entire crop at risk. So we asked them to tighten up their personal bubbles as tight as humanly possible to help us mitigate the risk and get the fruit off the vines. At the same time, we put protocols in place where teams from different regions were rigidly contained in ‘pods’, not interacting at all, so that if one region experienced a cluster, other regions would be isolated and could easily provide back up.”

The success of the FABAL approach to the pandemic is evident in the numbers, with the harvest period being negotiated successfully without incident. What’s more, the business now has new, highly adaptable ways to do things in the future, mitigating risk along the way.

“As agronomists, we are used to riding the rollercoaster of nurturing a single annual crop through whatever Mother Nature presents us”, adds Ashley, “but COVID-19 really tested us and added an unprecedented variable to our business model. Again, we were very fortunate to be afforded ‘essential service’ status.”

China problems present positives for committed growers

Ashley says there is no doubt that trade challenges with China “represent one of the single most acute shocks the industry has experienced in modern times”. Indeed, the relatively rapid rise in the importance of China for the Australian wine sector in just a decade means that overnight cessation of trade will have a significant flow-on effect, with ramifications that will become clearer over time. 

In spite of those uncertainties, Ashley’s view on the future with China is surprisingly positive. “The Australian wine industry was prospering prior to the China growth phase, and our stakeholders are always rapidly adapting their market focus and exploring alternative domestic and international options. We have a well-deserved global reputation for innovation, resilience and adaptability. Of course, the China trade issues are extremely disappointing, but for those organisations with a truly long-term commitment to the sector, this situation actually represents fertile hunting ground for new opportunities.”

Innovative sustainability & massive piles of mulch

FABAL has a long history of innovating in the sustainability space. The organisation continues to regard sustainability as critical across all its agricultural operations, recognising that its principal assets are the natural resources of soil, water, and plants. As a true leader in this field, the company has been utilising remote sensing satellite imagery mapping and monitoring its vineyards for more than 20 years.

“In 2003, we undertook one of the largest single composted mulching programs ever seen in Australia,” Ashley reports proudly. “By utilising composted green organic mulch from the kerbside” – in other words, from green wheelie bins – “we mulched over 600 hectares of vineyards, saving 30% of water input and diverting over 33,000 cubic metres of material away from landfill. And we continue to use this material on an ongoing basis to help improve soil biology, increase water holding capacity, and reduce reliance on supplementary irrigation and inorganic fertilisers.”

All FABAL managed sites are members of Sustainable Winegrowing Australia, an industry sustainability program that helps meet the increasing global demand for produce grown in a sustainable way. “At FABAL, we think as much about what we don’t do to our vineyards as what we do”, adds Ashley. “With an increasing focus on sustainability, we critically analyse and vet all our decisions. We thoroughly review all products for human health implications, staff safety and environmental fate before use on our paddocks.”

At the forefront of Australia’s ‘big’ issues

When asked about the organisation’s headline achievements, Ashley shares a couple of flagship moments that show how intrinsic the FABAL operation is to the Australian wine story.

  • In 2006 the country was sliding into the worst drought in 1000 years, the so-called ‘millennial drought’. FABAL was at the pointy end of the stick when it came to managing exposure to the drought, with large holdings and many clients on the River Murray system in Langhorne Creek. The company embarked on a range of innovative and rapidly deployed projects to sustain over 900 hectares of vineyards, which were completely exposed to the devastating failure of Lake Alexandrina. The projects included one of the country’s most extensive Managed Aquifer Storage and Recovery schemes, construction of what was at the time South Australia’s largest desalination facility, and a 42km freshwater pipeline across from the River Murray.
  • One of the organisation’s greatest lessons in the power of relationships involved seeking approval for an infrastructure project on Aboriginal Heritage land. FABAL engaged directly with the local Elders of the Ngarrindjeri Nation before undertaking a heritage survey, with members of the team spending three weeks walking the 42km route with the Elders – “it was an amazing learning experience for us all”, says Ashley. Unfortunately, the installation process disturbed a significant heritage site, despite the best efforts of FABAL experts, in a “crucible moment” that could have easily derailed the project entirely. But instead, the Elders took the most humbling approach, thanking the FABAL team for the way they communicated and offered to work with them on a solution. The project succeeds to this day, as does the great relationship between FABAL and its indigenous neighbours.

A future of ‘hard steel forged in hot fires’

Ashley says that after more than a quarter of a century in agriculture, the FABAL team believes more than ever in the old adage that ‘the hardest steel is forged in the hottest fire’. “Agriculture is tough, Mother Nature can be both majestic and cruel all in the same season”, observes Ashley, “and in reality, we have only a limited ability to impact on the seasonal vagaries. However, irrespective of the industry you operate in, one of the things you can control is the relationships you foster and the commitments you keep.”

There’s no doubt that FABAL is passionate about being a great vineyard manager and a great business partner in equal measure, in good times and tough times. And while the concept of a perfect supply chain partnership might be difficult to quantify, Ashley concludes by letting us in on a little secret about how FABAL gauges its own performance:

“We know we are on the right track when our customer’s natural instinct is to pick up the phone and ask for our help. It’s heart-warming reactions like this which show us we’re creating truly sustainable relationships.”

At DW Fox Tucker, we raise our glasses to such dedication to customer satisfaction, and we look forward to helping FABAL work the land for many years to come.

To contact FABAL:
Phone – (08) 8132 5500
Visit – https://www.fabal.com.au

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