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Luke Houlihan has spent most of his working life around wine and wineries and up until recently had his own boutique brand vineyard producing vintages out of the Yarra Valley.
With a Bachelor in of Applied Science in Wine Science, it made sense when a position became available to become part of the team at process, automation and control specialists Bürkert’s Australian operation. He jumped on board in a heartbeat and he couldn’t be happier.
“There’s such a huge amount to get my teeth into,” he said. “There is massive scope for me and Bürkert to cover off, so I have a lot to look forward to. We are already getting traction from a large international wine group and the momentum is just starting. The next five years is going to be extremely exciting.”
One of the key focuses for Houlihan is to help winemakers, brewers and distillers streamline their production using innovative process and automation equipment. Houlihan said the industry is traditional, but it is about balancing the art of winemaking with the science of winemaking.
“It’s about maintaining that natural, organic way of winemaking with new processes that will help improve product,” he said. “By maintaining or improving quality, you end up with a better proposition for your customers, in the sense you are offering best value for money in terms of your product. It is in a winemaker’s interest to look at those things. And I think the industry is at a stage where they are in a real consolidation phase. There are a lot of medium-sized and upwards wineries that are ready to recapitalise. They’ve paid down their debt on infrastructure and are in a position where they can put some more money into improving their processes.”
What makes Houlihan stand out from other BDMs is that he has on-the-ground experience in making wine so is well aware of some of the pitfalls that can occur in the process. He knows how important it is to have reliable equipment that won’t fail at a critical stage – something that Bürkert has in abundance.
“A key for us is also being able to offer for example, a simple valve that is good for five million cycles,” he said. “They can put it into place and forget about it. It’s not going to pack up mid-vintage and cause grief because their cooling system has gone down because they’ve put in a cheap valve. The unseen thing is about offering a value proposition to a winemaker and saying ‘Spend a little bit extra now. Put this valve in and forget about it. It’s not going to cause you grief.’
“Mid vintage there are times when you’re running around seven days a week, working 20-15 hour days. If something packs up, you don’t want to try getting hold of a plumber at 11 o’clock at night to sort it out. It is a pain and is not what you want to be doing.”
It has been a baptism by fire of sorts for Houlihan as he came on board in May, right in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant he couldn’t get out and meet clients. However, that is about to change.
“I’m really keen to get out and look at the different control systems that are in place at the different installations. It is much easier to talk about those applications when you can see them in situ rather than on a PDF file, which is how I’m seeing a lot of things at the moment,” he said.
In 2012 Houlihan took a new role in the wine industry with a company that provided technical support and wine supplies, such as yeast and wine additives, as well as filtration equipment. In that role, he developed a strong technical understanding of water treatment for various industries including brewing and distilling. Having offered such technical and sales support in the past, Houlihan knows a lot of people in the industry and has the expertise to help.
“I especially love the integration with network technologies to do jobs remotely,” he said. “I love that stuff. There’s such a huge amount for me to do.”
Houlihan also believes in a holistic approach when it comes to helping clients out. He thinks it is important to develop a long-term relationship and strategy with a client, as opposed to fixing an issue and then moving on. And he has his own reputation to think about, too.
“My goal is to partner with companies,” he said. “Most of my friends are in the wine industry, I couldn’t on face value go to a friend and say ‘buy this valve, you’re helping me out’. I’m not going to burn my friendships over dodgy products. Being able to represent a company that is the Mercedes of process control is really exciting. You’re putting your reputation behind a really strong product. We look at their processes and rather than going into a winery and saying, ‘Right, here’s this valve.’ Or, ‘Buy this or that.’ We’re looking at asking the questions; ‘Where are you guys going? What do you want to achieve and how do you want to get there?’”
Bürkert puts a lot of effort into refining and developing equipment that will suit the customer’s needs. Houlihan sees himself building on the networks and relationships he has already to talk to winemakers, brewers and distillers and help them develop strategies that will help their business grow.
“They need to have a blueprint in place so that when they are going forward, they are putting infrastructure in that will support where they want to be in another five to 10 years,” he said.
“At the end of the day we’re here to help make beverage manufacturers lives easier,” he said. “We are focusing on increasing and improving their production processes and reducing overall costs of production as well as simplifying production, too. We are also looking at ways automation and control can help improve their processes. It’s also about making them more sustainable environmentally, too. Reducing wastage in areas like energy costs, excess compressors – there’s a whole range of ongoing savings with the right fit out. In summing up it’s about Bürkert making their lives easier in partnering with them for the long haul.”