Robert Hill-Smith

Robert Hill-Smith


A member of the fifth generation of the descendants of Samuel Smith, founder of Yalumba, Australia’s oldest family-owned winery, Robert Hill-Smith once had aspirations of becoming a sports photographer. However, after completing his schooling, he worked as a “cellar rat” during vintage at Yalumba and found he enjoyed the process, the people and the science. He went on to become one of the industry’s youngest managing directors and a respected businessman.

Information correct at the time of receiving the award

Robert Hill-Smith and his brother Sam grew up in Angaston within Eden Valley, home to the Yalumba wine farm, a playground for the boys and their cousins. They walked to the local primary school, where many of the parents of their school friends were winery employees. “That sort of community contact has stood me in good stead,” says Robert. Then, at the start of Year 8, it was off to boarding school in Adelaide. “I remember being dropped off with a suitcase and told ‘good luck’!”

On completion of his schooling, Robert considered his career options. “Having tried to parry the predictability of joining the wine world, osmosis finally got me,” says Robert. “You live on the farm, you observe goings on, you take it all in without asking a lot of questions. We drank wine, we talked about wine, but it was never about a particular pathway to getting here. From a parental perspective, the hope was there, but the agenda was not to push.”

Once he’d decided winemaking was an appealing career, he found the quotas to study oenology at Roseworthy Agricultural College were already filled. Robert chose to study business with a focus on marketing at UniSA.

Robert found that his degree gave him a foundation for running a business and honed his marketing mindset. “It was a great part of my life, and I’d happily live those days over again.

“My view was to learn as much as I could and enjoy life as much as I could. I saw the world to be a bit wider than Australia, which subsequently framed a lot of my strategies and thinking.” His travels also provided a network of contacts that would prove handy in the future.

A concurrent TAFE course in winemaking and further studies interstate would see him return to Yalumba to take on roles in winemaking and marketing. “At the time, in this business and this industry, there were salespeople and advertising people, but the word ‘marketing’ hardly existed.” However, changes to the Trade Practices Act facilitated discounting, meaning “branding and discipline, and clarity of purpose started to become points of discussion for the first time”.

By 1985, Robert was Managing Director of Yalumba’s parent company, S. Smith & Son, one of the industry’s youngest MDs; in 1989, he and his brother Sam bought out their numerous cousins who shared ownership.

“We had 120 plus years of history, some of which needed protecting, some needed dealing with and some needed culling.”

One of Robert’s early initiatives, the premium two-litre soft pack cask branded as Winesmith’s, was to become an “overnight success” and allowed for investment in the business’s long-term assets, upgrading the winery, buying more oak and securing better vineyard sites.

He also found a buyer for their fortified inventory and trademarks among his vast network, enabling the company to enter the international market confidently. “That took us out of a category I saw that would, culturally and lifestyle-wise, shrink from having no international application. And that was proven right.”

Robert’s commitment extended to preserving one of the company’s greatest assets – its staff. “It came to my era to start thinking about things differently from a governance and role planning perspective. One of the things that worried me was the retention of quality people. Nepotism was a danger, and while family are always encouraged, a merit-based philosophy has now been embraced for many years.”

Now known as Hill-Smith Family Estates, the company oversees a folio of estate-based fine wine brands from Australia and New Zealand. Robert is particularly proud of being among the first to recognise the potential for making sparkling wine in Tasmania where Jansz Tasmania enjoys a deserved high-class reputation.

As well as taking on roles and receiving many accolades within the wine industry – Yalumba was a Foundation member, and Robert a past Chair of Australia’s First Families of Wine – Robert has served on the board of numerous sporting associations and businesses.

Robert’s mother, Helen Hill-Smith OAM, led by example, serving on “the famous” Angaston Ladies District Hospital Auxiliary, which “built half the hospital, saved it and then rebuilt it”. Among other causes, she established a shop in Angaston, which gave cottage industries a retail presence and evolved into the Barossa Farmers’ Market. Robert had loved this concept in California, and he and his wife Annabel were keen to encourage it locally from the old Vintners winery building.

“We’ve always been of the mind that as an industry and as a community, we put back in – it’s a value and an obligation.”

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