The 38-year-old with a PhD in Chemistry and an MBA from the University of Adelaide became the AWRI’s youngest ever MD in 2011 and credits his appetite for using science to find practical applications for industry among the keys to his success. Johnson says his University of Adelaide MBA helps him bridge the worlds of science and business. “You’ve got to be able talk in language that resonates with an accountant, a marketer and an economist.”
What does the Australian Wine Research Institute do?
The AWRI is one of the very few organisations of its kind in Australia that is an industry-owned R&D organisation. Our stakeholders are the people who grow grapes and make wine in Australia and there’s a system whereby they pay a levy, which is matched dollar for dollar by the Commonwealth, and invested back into R&D on their behalf.
Our focus is quite sharp in that we want to make sure that the work we do is going to pay off for the industry in practice.
My role specifically is to run the organisation but because it’s more like a business than an academic institution we have to also be there for industry emergencies. We take thousands of calls every year for assistance from the industry. Sometimes they are reasonably benign, other times they are more complex. Examples include trade based issues of why you can’t get wine in and out of a certain market, vineyard pests or diseases, assistance with how to make a wine in a certain style, or responding to a bushfire event where you have to mitigate smoke drifting across the vineyard and affecting the fruit. We take all those calls under a doctor/patient confidentiality relationship, help them out with the challenges they’re confronting and down tools to do so if we need to.
Part of the organisation also acts as an accredited certifier to say that wine produced in Australia is fit for distribution and consumption in certain export markets. So we see samples of about half of all wine made in Australia. When we measure the compositional information about each product it goes into a database that grows at the rate of 23,000 samples a year with more than 100,000 data points and that dates back to 1984. The data gives us early signals about production practices and changes in wine composition over time.
We see a lot of wine from within South Australia as well because people are after information to support their decisions on things like tannin level or the levels of certain preservatives and because of our proximity to many SA regions and the wide range of analyses we can provide they send samples in to us on a user pays basis.
We have 120 staff – about 100 FTEs – ranging from white lab-coat wearing academically trained scientists with PhDs through to winemakers and viticulturalists and engineers who are purple teeth, purple hands, mud on the shoes practitioners. That breadth is what gives the organisation its real strength. We try to pursue two approaches simultaneously: fundamental understanding and practical application.
How did your career develop before you came to the AWRI?
I studied chemistry at Flinders University and then went on to do honours and a PhD. The way you earn your stripes in science is typically to do a PhD. After my PhD I continued on to do a post-doc at Monash Uni.
The thing that took me there was that while I was working on a fairly fundamental science project, I developed a way of binding enzymes and proteins at surfaces in a highly orientated way – it was almost a by-product of the science – but we realised it had some commercial potential so we formed a spin-off company, licensed the IP out of the university, got grant money and basically looked around the world for partners to commercialise that technology. I then started to get a real interest in intellectual property management and the business side of science, science with application if you like.
After a short period at Monash University I came back to Adelaide to work for Bio Innovation SA because that was the centre of South Australia’s efforts to commercialise science at the time, particularly biomedical science, and I just fell in love with the place. Finally I found a place that did science with application – they really thought commercially about science, which was close to my heart. At the same time I was pursuing my own company and working with some US companies at that point. I was there for a couple of years and started an MBA at the University of Adelaide and took that with me with when I came across to the AWRI as general manager.
Why did you choose to do an MBA at the University of Adelaide and how did it help your career?
I had this aspiration fairly early on, even in my late teens, that by the age of 30 I would have a PhD and an MBA. I just had this view that I loved science, science has always been in my heart but numbers have always been in my head. I love being close enough to science where I have my mind blown and I am inspired when someone discovers something that only God and Solomon knew before them – that’s what gets us out of bed in the morning. But equally I always found it frustrating to be around scientists who would just pursue something because it was academically interesting. Most of my formal training was in science, I get that really well but I always knew I needed to be able to put all of that in a commercial context.
You need to think like someone in the business world, you’ve got to do science that’s going to directly affect the bottom line of a business, it might not be for two years or for 10 years but it’s got to have a clear correlation between the activity and the return.
The MBA was the piece of the puzzle that allowed me to bridge the worlds of science and business. You’ve got to be able talk in language that resonates with an accountant, a marketer and an economist, not only someone who is passionate about winemaking or science. My skill set and the thing I have tried to base my career around was being able to interface with both of those worlds. The other thing about an MBA that I didn’t anticipate is that when you work in science there’s a lot of black and white.
There are some subjects in an MBA where you can apply the same sort of scientific logic like economics and accounting where there are rules you can follow and I found those subjects easy. Then there are other subjects that are much more about soft skills like people management, strategy and those sorts of things and they were relatively tougher for me but they were among the most useful training experiences I have ever had. It was an eye-opener for reasons beyond what I originally sought it out for. It helped me to understand that it’s not all about pure intelligence. It’s the ability to manage people, to lead, to understand that there’s grey that can take you from being a competent leader to hopefully a very good one.
In the early part of your career you didn’t have a lot to do with wine specifically, was that an issue when you came to work at AWRI?
If you had told me when I was doing my PhD that I’d end up as a wine scientist I probably would have thought that unlikely. The reason is that most of the effort I put in was around biological chemistry, surface science and for me nanotechnology and biotech, or particularly things with a medical application, were the most desirable professions. Agriculture even now is considered by some to be a sort of second tier priority – they think ‘why would you go into agriculture if you could go into medical science’. So it wasn’t a natural pathway but I very much enjoyed wine. If you want to be in South Australia, wine is very strong and if you love science and you love wine you can bring those two things together in a fascinating way. A lot of people talk about wine as being half art and half science and you can really see how wine manifests in practice when you are in and around wine production. Winemakers are put through a very science heavy degree: you need to understand pH, how to manage pests and diseases in the vineyard and yeast in the winery, how to manage oxygen ingress and packaging. These are all scientific things that you can then overlay with artisan sort of behaviour. It dawned on me over time – it took a while – to realise that wine and agricultural pursuits allowed for great science and application simultaneously and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time working in and around wine science here at the AWRI.
What are the opportunities for the Australian wine industry going forward?
The AWRI was founded in the 1950s when Australia produced almost no table wine. It was a fortified wine-producing nation and it was making the transition across to table wine. Momentum built and right through the ’80s and ’90s Australian wine was discovered by consumers in the US and UK as a revelation because it was something completely different from what was available from the old world in continental Europe. But then that fell out of favour and there was a need to go back and have a look at what we wanted to be in terms of a wine-producing nation. Right now we are seeing real evidence of green shoots in the way the world is embracing the new Australian wine offering, which is more nuanced with a greater understanding of site. At times we were accused of being a bit too standardised and industrial in our approach, which I think was a bit unfair, but there’s much more emphasis these days on finding wines that truly express where they’re from. We have this diversity of offering across whites and reds at all price points that the world is engaging with. Where we are now, we are looking at export data that is showing growth in all of the interesting price points $10 and up. Even north of $100 a bottle we are seeing growth and there was a reasonable period there when we were not seeing that. We were looking at declines whereas now we are looking at growth so there’s that sense of optimism and all the things that come with that, which is great. As that feeds through to what the industry expects out of an organisation like AWRI, there is a shift in focus from helping to reduce costs or eliminate faults and taints to exploring how you can even better express a site.
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