Q&A: Michael Barker on his first bottling memory, elderberry wine and decades in the sweet family business
In 2019, Barker’s of Geraldine celebrates its 50th year in business. The man behind the family brand reflects on five decades of being in the sticky business of syrups, preserves and savoury spreads.
Q: What is your first memory associated with the business?
Michael Barker: Helping Dad with bottling. Initially we used a syphon hose and you pinched the hose to stop the flow when each bottle was full! But it wasn’t long before Dad built his own 6 head filler. He built everything, he was very clever.
Q: How old were you when the first bottling of elderberry wine? What do you remember about that time?
Michael: I was 11 years old in 1969 when the first elderberry wines were bottled after spending 6 months in small oak casks. Dad made 1200 gallons which translates to 7,200 bottles. Then it was Mum’s job to sell it!
Every year they increased production and I recall we were bottling about 60,000 bottles of elderberry wine by the time I came home to help in 1980. In addition, they were making many other wines and aperitifs and liqueurs from locally grown strawberries, blackberries, apricots, gooseberries, loganberries etc.
Q: What was it like when you returned to the business in 1980?
Michael: I was welcomed home and immediately put to work helping Dad to process 10 tonnes of fresh wild elderberries into wine. We cooked them in re-purposed laundry coppers. We worked together well and I listened, learned and soon found myself managing production, and making the wine.
It was very exciting for a 21-year old fresh out of university to be given so much responsibility and freedom. I relished the opportunity but realised our combined weaknesses and I asked my old marketing lecturer Michael Mellon to come and give us a hand when he could.
Q: What was the first big breakthrough product for Barker’s?
Michael: Our first big breakthrough came with the launch of Barker’s Blackcurrant Syrup a year after I arrived home in 1981. This was a huge investment for us as we built a completely new factory in 1981, but luckily our squeezed Blackcurrant Syrup was, and still is, hugely successful.
Q: What did you learn from the sticky business of jams and the first venture into gourmet preserves?
Michael: After you have your first big breakthrough you have to find your next big thing to keep growing your business. For us this was our move into speciality preserves which we sold through speciality shops throughout the country under the Anthony Barker’s Preserves brand with striking blue and gold labels.
They were very successful and over 10 exciting years we learnt a lot about how to make all kinds of exotic chutneys, savoury sauces, dessert sauces, meat condiments, fruit vinegar and reduced sugar preserves. But we found our delicious specialty foods were often being sold primarily as gifts to decorate kitchens and not for daily consumption.
Dad had just died, so I didn’t feel too guilty as we made the courageous decision to delete this successful brand and reintroduce a similar range of preserves into supermarkets under the Barker’s of Geraldine brand. It was a tough decision but the right one.
Q: What business lessons did you learn from your parents Anthony and Gillian?
Michael: Gillian & Anthony were both warm and generous and hugely respectful of the people who came to help them every day. They welcomed everyone into their farmhouse kitchen and put on lunch and teas for up to 35 staff. They created a special family business culture that we have nurtured and retained in the business, even though the business has kept growing each and every year since.
Anthony was a clever engineer and I wasn’t, but we both enjoyed the challenge of creating new, innovative and great tasting products. We had no interest in following what others were doing nor in making mediocre products.
Of course, I absorbed these philosophies from him. I also followed his lead and retained, and strengthened the Board of Directors that he had established to guide his inventive/innovative tendencies. It is important to recognise that you can’t be good at everything and it’s great to have at least a small advisory board to provide advice and support as you build a business and a team around you.
Q: What’s your favourite Barker’s flavour?
Michael: Many of our Fruit Juice Syrups are world leading and for me it’s hard to choose between Lemon, Lime Cucumber & Mint, Rhubarb Raspberry & Rosehip and Brewed Ginger Beer (yes we actually ferment it for a few days to create that genuine yeasty flavour). And these are Lite or Low Calorie which makes them taste even better!
Barker’s of Geraldine: 50 Years Preserved by Michael Barker, Mary Egan Publishing, hardback, RRP $60.00.