COMPANY PROFILE The Come-back Corbans – The fall and rise of New Zealand’s best-known winemaking dynasty

The way Corban cousins Alwyn and Brian see it, the family is back – with luck and some thoughtful succession planning, maybe for another 100 years. That is certainly the kind of long-term view they take to their enterprise, the Hawke’s Bay-based wine company, Ngatarawa.
Ngatarawa is family business story with twist. The cousins are descendants of Assid Abraham Corban and his wife Najibie who left Lebanon in 1891, bringing 300 years of winemaking tradition and nine children with them, to establish the Corban family grape growing and winemaking enterprise that underpinned much of New Zealand’s wine industry last century.
After almost 70 years the Corbans were forced out of the family winemaking business. Only one Corban, Joe and his family, remained with their Corban’s viticulture company supplying around two million vines year to the country’s vineyards. Increased competition, and the need to raise more capital to foot it in the suddenly expanding industry, left Rothmans Industries with 78 percent of the equity in AA Corban and Sons in 1975 and the core winemaking business passed out of family hands.
The Ngatarawa story began 23 years ago when Alwyn met Hawke’s Bay pastoral farmer Garry Glazebrook and entered into 50/50 partnership to establish small vineyard and winery on slither of Glazebrook land that hosted the slowly deteriorating stables of previously successful racing stud.
In 1988 they turned the partnership into company with the Corban and the Glazebrook families each holding 50 percent of the equity. The move introduced Brian Corban, lawyer and professional director, and his commercial and governance skills to the business as founding director of the new company. regrafted family business was starting to take root.
The next 10 years ushered in dramatic change as the acreage in vines, both owned and contracted, and the tonnage of grapes turned an annual output of around 4000 cases to about 25,000 in 1999 when the Corbans bought out the Glazebrooks and two strands of the Corban family were back in the winemaking business lock, stock and wine barrels.
The Corban/Glazebrook partnership was, for the talented but not so commercially minded young winemaker Alwyn Corban, heaven-sent opportunity. He was determined to move from the original Auckland-based wine growing areas of his pioneering ancestors to the Hawke’s Bay where, as he puts it, “the next generation of New Zealand wines were happening”.
Ngatarawa became one of New Zealand’s earliest boutique wineries, inspired by Alwyn’s 12 months in California studying for masters degree in winemaking and viticulture. Grape-growing areas like the Napa Valley, and winemakers like Robert Mondavi had profound impact on the young man who once railed against following his father into the vineyard and life of hard physical work, long hours and “pretty minimal family time”.
But while Alwyn Corban felt deeply indebted to the Glazebrook family for the opportunity to realise his dream of making “classic” wines for an increasingly discerning wine-drinking public, commercially things weren’t always in alignment.
The Corbans came from family tradition of almost 400 years of winemaking. The Glazebrooks were successful Hawke’s Bay pastoral farmers who saw the project in rather less ambitious terms. Corban wanted to build business. The Glazebrooks saw controlled risk and rather more limited enterprise and interesting use of family land. “The heritage was different,” explains Brian Corban. “We were increasingly focused on total commitment to building the business, taking long-term view of its development and accepting whatever degree of risk was necessary to succeed.”
The Glazebrook exit in 1999 was entirely amicable. But from that day on, shareholder aspirations were all in sync.
The transition to family business did not, however, end the disciplined approach to governance and management introduced by Brian. generation older than his cousin, Brian had cut his teeth on the industry as an executive in the original family business. He took over as Ngatarawa chairman and brought both industry knowledge and commercial governance skills, much to the relief of his younger and more production-focused relative. Alwyn could get on with the job of building and managing an outstanding boutique winery, leaving much of the financial planning and strategy development to his chairman cousin. The board was expanded to include Brian’s wife Lindsay, specialist in human resource management, and their son Ben, talented graphic designer with his own successful design business. Ngatarawa’s new Silks label design is his creation.
The company had installed sufficient capacity at the winery in mid 1990 to make around 50 cases of wine and set its sights on that target.
The Corbans, always respectful of the Glazebrook involvement and the opportunity it presented, concede that since Ngatarawa became 100 percent family business the positioning and marketing approach has changed. It is, for instance, easier to promote on the back of the Corban family heritage without in any way offending or having to explain the equally successful but very different Glazebrook family heritage.
Ngatarawa’s label positioning statement has, for instance, moved from the more general “heritage of distinction” to “the first love of four generations” and now finally to “lifetimes told in wine”. These might read like fairly subtle changes in stance but, says Alwyn, “they all give focus to the messages we sent out with our marketing”.
“Once the company became an undiluted Corban family heritage through ownership the message became stronger because it is founded on our 300 years in the business,” adds Brian Corban.
“We use the family heritage as strong element of market differentiation supported by the wine quality and our whole marketing stance,” agrees Alwyn.
The Corbans wanted to re-create family winemaking business. But equally, they have no intentions of repeating the mistakes of the past. Do they think wine company benefits from being family business? “Not automatically,” says Alwyn. “It still has to be good business and well run. If everything else is right then yes, being family business has advantages. You have to have the capital resources and the shareholder alignment. Plenty of families argue and have different agendas so success is not automatic.”
Brian has slightly different take on the same question. The wine industry has, he thinks, always bene-fited from family involvement for two powerful reasons. “Wine is reflective of personality,” he reasons, “and families manifest personality and heritage better than corporates do. And second, families take long-term view toward building something worthwhile which corporates often fail to do because they are driven by executives for short term profit and high dividend yields.
“Winemaking is complex industry because it is land based, horticulture/viticulture, it is food processing and it involves winemaking technology and sophisticated marketing. You have to get all three things right and even when you do occasionally nature deals you blow and wipes out half your crop with frost. That does nothing for quarter on quarter dividend increases,” says Brian.
The Corbans believe their whole approach to directing and managing the business has lifted several notches since they took over full control. “Alwyn won’t say so because he is too modest,” offers Brian, “but since we became family business we have become more professional. Mainly because we do not have to educate other shareholders. We are now really focused on the things that make company like this work.”
“We are all very focused on delivering the same thing,” Alwyn concedes, “and that is delivering great wines to our customers.”
The management and leadership style of the controlling cousins is very different. It is also manifest in what each of them identifies as the key drivers of the business. For Alwyn the drivers are achieving critical ma

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