Date posted: 29/01/2018 10 min read

Brewing up a great career in the family business

For Melanie Cooper AM CA it’s the CA, rather than the family name, that’s driven her success in the family brewing business.

In Brief

  • Melanie Cooper AM CA, director of finance at Coopers Brewery, says getting her CA designation was her best career move.
  • Six members of the family are involved in the 155-year old South Australian business, which this year turned over A$250 million.
  • In 2009, aged 48, Cooper became the company’s first female director after her father’s retirement. In 2014, she became director of finance.

By Mike Gribble.

At first horrified, at best reluctant. That was a young Melanie Cooper AM CA setting out on the chartered accounting path that changed her life. Now, she says, accounting and auditing have given her so much opportunity, from what was then Price Waterhouse to the family beer empire that, even as a director, she will never lose her passion for day-to-day numbers.

“That ‘CA’ after your name says a lot about who you are, what you know, where you’ve come from and how much work you've done,” says Cooper.

“Those two letters tell a lot about a person at an interview. By far the best thing I've done in my professional career is get those qualifications.”

It’s a big statement from someone who now holds many of the reins at Coopers, Australia’s biggest independent brewery. The 155-year-old family business this year produced 84 million litres and turned over A$250 million. 

(Pictured: Melanie Cooper AM CA)

Six members of the complex family lineage are involved in the South Australian business, including directors Tim Cooper and Cam Pearce, Maxwell Cooper’s son-in-law. Glenn Cooper is a non-executive director and chairman. Glenn’s son, Andrew Cooper, works with the company’s distribution business, Premium Beverages in Melbourne; Duncan McCarthy works in packaging; and Tim’s son, Iain, 24, is expected to join next, after studying brewing and distilling in Edinburgh.

Uncool to be a Cooper

Melanie Cooper had aspirations to be a physiotherapist but showed aptitude in mathematics and her mother persuaded her towards numbers.

“In those days, it wasn’t cool to drink Coopers and it wasn’t cool to be a Cooper, so we kept a very low profile,” she says. 

“[The brewery] was not anything we aspired to. I thought I’d be a physiotherapist. Back then accountants were middle-aged, boring men and I thought that would be horrendous,” she admits.

“The recommended pathway was a Bachelor of Economics. There weren’t commerce degrees. You either did the SA Institute Bachelor of Accountancy or you did the Bachelor of Economics (University of Adelaide). So I went to university and you could count the number on two hands of girls in the course. There might have been 300 doing it – 10 or 15 girls.”

Meanwhile, staff partners at Price Waterhouse were doing accounts for the top end of town. Young university graduate Cooper found herself in a bumper intake. “I got a placement in a group of 14. Most years they’d take five or six,” she says.

“And four of us were girls. They wanted mostly the Adelaide University private school set because that’s how their client portfolio was made up. Today you wouldn’t do that for diversity reasons.”

That ‘CA’ after your name says a lot about who you are, what you know, where you’ve come from and how much work you've done
Melanie Cooper AM CA Director of finance, Coopers Brewery

Cooper says the course of study needed to become a Chartered Accountant was quite different when she gained her qualification.

“You had to work for 18 months and then do 12 months of intensive study, followed by two exams. You had to pass all tutorials and the assignments to sit exams. Then it was pass or fail. It was very taxing while working full time.”

Cooper was in the audit team at Price Waterhouse and really enjoyed it.

“I went to so many different companies and saw so many different systems. I saw what worked, what didn’t. You see the big picture and you learn very fast.”

She says the CA Program is the fastest way to kick-start a career.

"When I started, I remember one of the managers said: ‘You think you know something but I can tell you, you know nothing!’ He was so right – we hadn’t done a bank rec, we hadn’t really done debits and credits [except theory]. He said: ‘Uni trained you how to think, we’ll train you how to work’.” And I had the best training.

“The penny really dropped. You see why you’re doing everything on the job. Everything comes into place. It takes your technical level up to a very high standard very quickly.”

Coopers says while Price Waterhouse was fun and had terrific training programmes, “back then it was a boys’ club”. 

“When I graduated the institute, I was one of 5% who were women. Now it’s closer to 50%. But I was very lucky to have a blue-chip starting ground. It really did lay the foundations for what came later.”

Not necessarily a family business

The Cooper family tree, from twice-married founder Thomas Cooper and the many children of both wives, quickly outgrew brewery employment needs. Melanie’s father Bill, the company’s managing director for more than two decades, set a new rule, starting with the fifth generation: siblings would seek their own path and might then be invited in.

“Previously the eldest sons went in after university and they were expected to come,” says Cooper. “The family tree has exploded and you can’t keep bringing in all those people. The generation who are presiding, we don’t want the young ones to come up too quickly. It’s not about rites of passage, it’s about taking the time to learn and absorb. I was the first after Price Waterhouse.”

In 1985, she had an offer from a merchant bank – but Bill Cooper told her to expect a call from Haydn Duffield, at the brewery.

"There was no expectation on me, because back in the mid-‘70s we faced a mass exodus of shareholders. Our sales hit rock bottom – from 18 million litres down to 11 million litres. I remember Tim saying, ‘Dad, I’m thinking of studying mechanical engineering’. And Dad said: ‘Well, don’t do it if you think you’ve got a future in the brewery, because there won’t be a brewery’.”

But fortunes began to turn.

“While I didn’t think that’s what I wanted to do, I realise now it’s exactly what I wanted to do because I got my hands dirty. Things that were on hand-written ledgers we got onto computers, and I fixed up a whole lot of messes. Everyone was so busy and Haydn needed help to sort out the basic stuff, and I loved it. And being able to analyse quickly is the key to being a good auditor and chartered accountant.”

I still love the idea of doing basic accounting, reconciliations and finding the solutions to problems
Melanie Cooper AM CA Director of finance, Coopers Brewery

She says becoming company secretary in 1989 was “a big deal” for her.

“I was about 28 and I really felt like people would take me seriously.”

In 1993, Cooper’s then husband transferred to Brisbane and she left with him to start a family, all the while keeping tabs on company reports. She returned eight years later as a single parent to daughters Emma and Bec, now 23 and 21 and studying engineering and arts respectively.

Tim Cooper asked her in as a financial accountant in 2002. 

“I’m so grateful to him to this day,” she says. In 2003, the best figures in her ledgers were from SA and NT, which generated 75% of Coopers’ sales. Now those regions make up just 25%.

A promotion and a charity

With the demands of long hours and children came the turmoil of Lion Nathan’s attempted takeover in 2005. It put the family wholly in defence mode from August to December. But she was soon buoyed by promotion. 

In 2006, Tim invited her to start the Coopers Brewery Foundation with Duffield (succeeded as CFO in 2014 by Brad Grunert CA, a former director at KPMG). Now chair and treasurer, she says philanthropy has taught her how to diversify the accounting mindset.

“I just loved it. I didn’t think I had philanthropy in me because it wasn’t a priority. I started thinking about ways to work more efficiently and raise more money. I’m always seeing how the money comes in and I’m always working out how to get more for charity. But to this day, I still love the idea of doing basic accounting, reconciliations and finding the solutions to problems.”

In 2009, aged 48, she was the first female director after her father’s retirement. In 2010 she became company secretary; in 2014, director of finance. Her board positions have included J & AG Johnston, Burnside Hospital Foundation and Neurosurgical Research Foundation, Diversity in Drinks and Women in Drinks.

In October 2014, Cooper was invited to join the Prime Minister’s Community Business Partnership for a three-year term, just concluded. She was invited to stay but will focus on leading Women in Drinks. This year Cooper was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia for her significant service to the community through philanthropy.

Meanwhile, Coopers is building a A$65m malting facility.

Cracking open controversy

Nobody expected a controversy around Coopers this year when the Bible Society launched a video campaign featuring its logo on Coopers Light cans. The Society suggested people enter into the marriage equality debate lightly. Melanie Cooper says the brewery had no warning on the Society’s plans.

“I have no problem in saying I voted ‘Yes’ for marriage equality,” she says. “But stating a position for the company is difficult because we represent shareholders, employees, a board, all sorts of stakeholders who may have a differing opinion. I certainly didn’t have any problem in saying it.

“Sales actually went up – probably coincidental. It’s an unfortunate thing that we didn’t have control over and we should have. My father always said we should never be aligned to politics or religion and I agree. And I don’t think anybody wants to hear our opinions. All they want to hear from me is about the company and the beer.”

CA as a career

CAs, she says, finally are winning more respect. 

“It’s seen as a career that intelligent, articulate young people are drawn to, especially females, and that adds to it,” Cooper says.

“As far as logic goes, the female mind is well-suited. The guys, for example, are good at costings and the girls are good at finding things in reconciliations and understanding figures. So a gender balance makes sense because you get the best of both.”

Related: Keeping CA in the family

Melbourne-based Chartered Accountants Greenberg & Co is the very definition of a family accounting firm. Selwyn Greenberg FCA set up the firm in 1987 with wife Hannah, also an accountant, and now works alongside his son Jay and a daughter, Bonnie.