Australians’ love of home-grown olive oil is booming and the industry credits much of its success to one man.
But chances are you’ve never heard of him.
From humble beginnings in Queensland’s outback, Rob McGavin and his wife have become the majority shareholders in Australia’s biggest olive oil company, Cobram Estate.
As consumers glug down more of the local product than ever, past president of the Australian Olive Association Paul Miller said they had Mr McGavin’s focus on quality to thank for it.
And in typical Australian style, the local industry is now punching well above its weight on the global stage.
“Australian consumers are definitely getting, on average, the best quality olive oil in the world,” Mr Miller said.
“I don’t think we realised it was going to take 25 years to win, but they have won.”
The story of Cobram Estate, and Rob McGavin, starts not in a Mediterranean olive grove, but in the vast, semi-arid landscape of western Queensland.
On an idyllic Barcaldine grazing property called Jubilee Park, more than 1,000 kilometres from Brisbane, tragedy struck early for the McGavin family.
Mr McGavin and his two siblings were all under 10 when their mother died, leaving their father to raise them.
“It was really hard for Dad, of course, we didn’t know Mum was sick and so it was a big shock,” he said.
“And maybe [hard for] my sister because it was just boys in the house and she did all the washing, the cooking, the everything.
“It was great when she [his sister] would make us custard or chocolate sauce for breakfast, Dad would be out mustering.”
Despite the heartache, he reflects fondly on those years with the support of his father to pursue his interests.
“Dad was just a really hard-working farmer … unique and very supportive of what we wanted to do, so long as we were working it didn’t matter,” he said.
“We luckily went to boarding school because [prior to that] Dad didn’t send us to school very often because we were always mustering or doing something more important.
“It was make your own fun … going to work on a station, you have to work things out for yourself and it really makes you think.”
After school, Mr McGavin put those problem-solving skills and work ethic to use on stations across the Australian outback, before swapping dusty paddocks for further education.
Just before his 24th birthday, he arrived at Marcus Oldham College in Geelong, the agribusiness school where he would meet the man who would later become his business partner.
After graduating in 1993, a brief but successful foray into wine grapes set him up to shift into growing olives with college friend Paul Riordan.
They raised $15 million in capital from investors for their first trees.
“Paul went overseas and looked to Israel, Greece and Spain,” he said.
“He looked at what varieties would work, the growing methods, the climate, all of those things.”
By 2004, they were producing a quarter of the country’s oil with only two-and-half per cent of the trees.
“Olive trees are actually easy to grow, but hard to make fruit consistently,” he said.
Their early success caught the eye of a much larger company, Timbercorp, which was struggling to get their trees to consistently produce.
The pair managed more and more trees for the company, giving them the scale needed to make their own business profitable.
But as the upward trajectory continued, no-one anticipated the disaster that would threaten to bring it all crashing down in 2009.
“They [Timbercorp] went broke in the global financial crisis and just all hell broke loose,” he said.
With $30 million worth of olives still hanging on trees, it would cost $15 million to harvest — if the administrators would let them.
“It was pretty terrifying,” Mr McGavin said.
“We were in court for literally a week testing whether we could do it legally, until finally there was a breakthrough.
“We eventually, after 10 months, were able to buy all of the groves and processing plants from the liquidator administrator.”
Paul Miller was president of the Australian Olive Association at the time.
“It became risky when they got bigger,” he said.
“[They] decided … we’re not going to give up, we’re going to take on bigger things, to try and overcome these problems.”
Overnight success 25 years in the making
The industry still faces its fair share of challenges, from droughts, floods and frosts to cheaper imitation oils masquerading as extra-virgin olive oils.
But Mr Miller said Mr McGavin’s strengths had become the industry’s strengths.
“The quality of what they’re turning out and have done for years now at large scale challenged the other large producers around the world,” he said.
Almost 15 years on from the “near-death experience” with Timbercorp, Cobram Estate now produces 70 per cent of Australia’s olive oil from its own groves, which are predominantly in Victoria and South Australia.
The company was listed on the Australian Securities Exchange in 2021 and has continued to expand both at home and into the United States of America.
“It’s a hugely exciting market, it’s 10 times the size of Australia [and] we can do it really well,” Mr McGavin said.
Reflecting on his success, Mr McGavin attributes his life-long determination to his outback Queensland upbringing.
“Dad’s favourite saying was there’s only one way to go broke — to spend more than you earn,” he said.
“So if you’re breaking even you can go forever but if you’re losing money you can’t.
“If things are getting tough, you just go harder.”
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