Cobram Estate Olives is producing millions of litres of olive oil every harvest and within two decades of its foundation produces 70 per cent of Australia’s olive oil.
In just 23 years Cobram Estate Olives has become one of the largest producers of olive oil in the world after its most recent harvest netted the company 16 million litres of product.
Cobram Estate Olives joint CEO and chief oil maker, Leandro Ravetti, said the growth of the company exceeded even his wildest expectations after coming on board in the early 2000s.
“The company was initially founded by two friends, Rob McGavin and Paul Riordan, in 1998, after noticing a growing trend around the consumption of olive oil,” said Ravetti.
At the time, consumption of olive oil in Australia was about 1 litre per capita and both men knew there was room for large market growth.
Both are still active in the business with McGavin acting as Chairman and the largest shareholder while Riordan is a company director and the second largest shareholder.
Once the company was launched a few initial hurdles had to be overcome.
“Particularly that there were not enough good trees in Australia or the right amount of knowledge,” said Ravetti.
“Several things had to happen, and they did. Things like importing trees and setting up a nursery and before long the first trees were planted in 1999.”
To fund the company during its infancy McGavin and Riordan raised investment capital from friends and family for a series of joint ventures and within three years the pair had developed 500 hectares of olive groves.
“That is around the time I came into the picture,” said Ravetti.
“I used to work as an olive and olive oil researcher back in Argentina and that is how we met. Then I moved to Australia to help the company out on the technical side of the business.”
It was 2001 and the same year the company harvested its first small olive crop.
“The company grew well from that point because it taught us about the right things to do from a management point of view,” said Ravetti.
“After that we started to produce a significant amount of olive oil in Australia”.
“For example, by 2004 we had 2 per cent of the groves in the country but were already producing 25 per cent of the country’s olive oil.”
Cobram Estate propagates its own trees, and it takes around three years from planting before an olive tree will normally produce its first commercial crop.
“It’s not yet a mature tree but it will grow year on year until year seven or eight, which is when it reaches maturity,” said Ravetti.
“The olive tree can live for thousands of years, but in a commercial grove we assume a lifespan of about 40 years. There is always a replanting program to keep an ongoing productive orchard, but that is roughly the life cycle.”
As a result of the staggering jump in production, especially based on the propagation method, it became clear to Ravetti and the team they were on to a winner.
Shortly after its first bumper crops the team were contacted by other large growers looking to have their crops managed by the company.
“When we did that, it gave us enough scale to really jump seriously into the supermarkets,” said Ravetti.
It was at this time that the company purchased the brand they would become known as from then on, Cobram Estate.
“We purchased the Cobram Estate brand from a small grower that had set it up many years earlier,” said Ravetti.
“We were already the main supplier of oil to this brand and we bought it shortly after it was listed in the supermarkets. At that time, the total revenue was about $2million a year.”
Ravetti said after hitting supermarket shelves the company started to grow at an even greater rate.
Today, Cobram Estate has over 2.4 million olive trees planted in Victoria and the 2020/21 harvest was a record breaker for the company.
“Now we produce more than 70 per cent of the oil in Australia and with our last harvest there was over 16 million litres of oil,” said Ravetti.
“To put that into perspective, 16 million litres would almost put our company inside the top ten countries that produce olive oil, and we are just one company.
“From our groves in Victoria, we produce more than France, Israel and even the USA.”
Ravetti said the company expects to see harvest yields continue to grow over the coming five to ten years.
“Everything went really well, and we ended up with a record crop, but it will be broken in the years to come because we have more trees maturing,” he said.
In the two decades that Cobram Estate has been in the Australian market consumption of olive oil has grown to a little over two litres per capita, as hoped.
“The consumption more than doubled and that was primarily on the back of domestic production, which was virtually non-existent 20 years ago,” said Ravetti.
“While consumption is around two litres per capita in Australia, in places like Spain and Italy it is around 10 litres per capita.
“There is still a long way to go in terms of overall consumption and education.”
Diversifying the oil offerings of Cobram Estate was a key area of focus after the brand was purchased and thanks to more than 10 different varietals and separate groves, spaced apart in Victoria, diversity was achieved.
“We have a grove in Boort, which is just an hour north of Bendigo, and a second grove about two hours from there at Boundary Bend on the border with NSW,” said Ravetti.
“The grove on the border is in a warmer region with deeper and sandier soils with different water sources. It is about spreading the horticultural risks as much as we can as well as developing different flavour profiles of oil.”
Ravetti said olive oil, much like wine, has different flavour profiles depending on several factors, including the location.
“The warmer northern location tends to develop fruitier and sweeter oils, more delicate, and at our second location the oils are more robust and peppery,” said Ravetti
“That allows us to have a wide range of oils which we can offer to the consumer.”
Expanding the brand was key for the company, with those in the know predicting the growing trend of olive oil consumption in Australia would lead to wider tastes.
“We use different combinations of varieties and location to produce a more delicate style of oil but it’s a lot more suited to seafood, if you use it as a butter replacement, anything it is suited for it works very well for,” said Ravetti.
The purple label, or classic olive oil, remains the most popular product line to this day, but the growth of the robust and light oils was a welcome development for the Cobram Estate team.
“It is interesting to see the evolution of taste in the Australian public. Right when we launched the light line it was almost selling as much as the classic and way more than the robust,” said Ravetti.
“As time went by the robust caught up, it took a while for the palate of the customers to develop, along with a better understanding about what olive oil is and offers.”
Cobram Estate started using its premium black label range, only available in select supermarkets, to begin its campaign of educating the consumer about olive oils.
“For the most part consumers don’t have the same knowledge of olive oil like they would with wine, a person knows if they want a shiraz or a chardonnay, for example,” said Ravetti.
“But with olive oil we have been gradually educating the consumers about how to identify different tastes and aromas in the oil and which oil pairs best with what they are doing.”
Virtual tastings have become a big hit with consumers, Ravetti said, and many were surprised with how easy it was to learn how to select the right olive oil.
“Gradually producing around the concept of more varieties is part of our evolution and we have plenty more room to grow,” said Ravetti.
Ravetti said Cobram Estate also invests heavily in educating the consumer on the benefits of olive oil diets.
“The education investment is on two levels, the consumer level and the scientific level. For example, we were on Master Chef for a long time to help with brand awareness,” said Ravetti.
“We have also done a lot of work on health care education programs where we target GP’s, nutritionists, and naturopaths to help explain and provide all the science behind olive oils and the role they play in a healthy Mediterranean style diet.”
Ravetti said the two-pronged approach was a critical factor in helping influence trends in the market.
“The coconut oil trend from about ten years ago was a good example of a trend without much substance behind it,” said Ravetti.
“But through education we have helped to revert some of those trends, in the sense that we looked at the science which shows high quality extra virgin olive oil on a plant-based diet is probably the best thing that you can do.
“And being able to provide all that evidence with our branded messaging is really important for us.”
Cobram Estate also supports the Olive Wellness Institute, a website where all data is stored for healthcare professionals to access.
“That is more for the development of the olive oil industry as a whole, more so than for our brand,” said Ravetti.
As part of its continued growth Cobram Estate was listed on the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) as Cobram Estate Olives Limited (CBO), a huge step for any company.
Prior to being listed on the ASX the company’s shares were largely owned by the founding shareholders mentioned earlier and Ravetti said the company’s success can be boiled down to its tree-to-table approach.
Cobram Estate mature groves are also projected to increase by 2,800 hectares over the coming years, largely from trees already planted.
The company finds itself in an ideal position for future growth, especially after investing $200 million in operating and capital expenditure between 2017 and 2021.
The investment supports Cobram Estate’s medium and long-term growth strategies such as growing its vertically integrated business in the USA and its value-add initiatives through their Wellness division.