Stories of challenges and rewards

Just what does it take to keep a rural enterprise in the family – and thriving – in the long term? And what drives the families behind these Australian success stories to strive so hard to do so?

We asked a diverse selection of multi-generational rural business owners to share their stories of the unique challenges and extraordinary rewards of building their family-owned agribusiness.

From pressure comes pride

“Our business is five generations old, and the biggest pressure I feel in my working life is the thought that I don’t want to be the one that ruins it. I think about that every day I come in here.”

That’s the powerfully honest proclamation from Akubra Managing Director Stephen Keir IV, the fifth member of the Keir family (and fourth Stephen) to run this most iconic of Australian rural enterprises.

But with that pressure comes an intense pride in the achievements of previous generations – pride that acts as a powerful spur, keeping Stephen firmly focused on ensuring his family firm remains in business. And in Australia. 

In an era when offshore manufacturing is so often the norm, the business is committed to Kempsey, on the NSW Mid North Coast, where the more than 100-strong workforce turn out over 200,000 hats a year. 

Akubra has been making its famous broad-brimmed hats – a quintessential item of everyday workwear for farmers around the nation – for more than 100 years and hopes to be doing so in another hundred. “We’re an Australian manufacturer beating the odds,” Stephen proclaims.

Taking the agile road to success

“Always thinking about what we can do that’s new or different or better has been the key to ensuring the family farm remains successful and sustainable,” Goulburn Valley grain farmer Trevor Stedman states.

Trevor and wife Virginia purchased the family farm, Woodbine, in 1994 and have since expanded it almost tenfold from its original 170 hectares through a belief in the power of diversification and adoption of new technologies, including precision agriculture. 

In addition to growing wheat and canola, the couple runs 800 ewes and operates contract square baling and laser grading businesses. These revenue streams make a significant contribution to Woodbine’s bottom line. 

It’s an agile mindset learned from Trevor’s parents, dairy farmers who made the switch to broadacre cropping almost 30 years ago, and one they’ve strived to pass on to their three children. Son Mitchell purchased a 160-hectare slice of the property two years ago and decided how it’s best cultivated. Trevor and Virginia’s approach is to “show the kids what to do, give them guidance and let them go. We empower them so they can see the difference their decisions make.”

Wisdom for the ages

By adopting a similar ethos of generational trust, preservative-free Victorian winery La Cantina King Valley has prospered. As La Cantina viticulturist Peter Corsini puts it, older folk who are open to new ways of working – and give the younger generation their blessing to experiment – are more likely to see the enterprises they’ve established prosper after they’ve stepped aside. While Peter’s father, Gino Corsini, the 86-year-old founder of La Cantina, is yet to put his feet up, he’s always been happy to let Peter do things his way.

“Some of my friends had issues with their fathers because they wouldn’t try new ideas,” Peter remembers. “Dad was always open to that.

“That’s made it interesting for myself and my sister Linda, who manages our sales. We’ve been able to experiment with new technologies and grow the business.” That growth now sees La Cantina produce 150,000 bottles a year. In turn, Peter’s son Reuben, who’s studying winemaking at the University of Adelaide, is expected to put his stamp on things after fulfilling his ambition to produce a vintage in Europe.

The family that farms together

Another upside of running a thriving multi-generational enterprise – especially one that entails farming 50,000 head of cattle over 1.2 million hectares of Queensland and the Northern Territory – is the opportunity it affords to find a place for every member of the family who wants to work there.

Of course, strong family ties are vital when you’re farming on this scale. Ben Speed, with brothers Jack and John, manages the helicopter business, Speedy Muster, that runs hand in hand with the rest of the Speed family enterprises.

Ben says the family, who have long been linked with the Santa Gertrudis breed, grew up in the industry together and intends to keep it that way. “Together, we all do whatever has to be done,” he says.

Ben’s parents, John and Marg, and his Uncle Bill and his wife, Gretchen, still hold the reins for the businesses but encourage everyone to get involved.

Bill’s eldest son, Bob, is responsible for the livestock, including the breeding, drafting and selling. Bill’s other son, Tommy, manages the feedlot in central Queensland, while daughter Emily is in the office.

A prime example of a family working as one to thrive.

Backing agri families through the generations

For many primary producers and agribusinesses, access to finance for expansion, diversification and investment in equipment and technologies to improve productivity and yield is critical to long-term viability. As Australia’s leading agribusiness bank, NAB supports one in three of Australia’s 85,000 farm business and rural enterprises. Many farming families, like La Cantina’s Corsinis, have been customers for generations. 

“Dad started banking with NAB in 1952 when he arrived in Australia, and the relationship has continued down the generations,” Peter Corsini says. “NAB remains the only bank our family has been with; we’re grateful for their support.”

“NAB is very excited to see so many agribusinesses thrive through the generations,” adds Julie Rynski, Executive, NAB Regional and Agribusiness. “We’re especially proud to have accompanied them along the way.” 

NAB has supported Australian agribusinesses through times of adversity and progress for around 160 years. To speak to us, contact your local Agribusiness banker, or our team on 13 10 12.

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