Imagine owning a property and running a business for more than 130 years. Imagine the wars and depressions, the droughts when despair runs in place of water, and the wildly fluctuating fortunes determined by external policy-makers.
Imagine, too, the good times when the grass is green, cattle are shiny and even a crowbar will fatten in the rich black soils. Imagine loving land and keeping it for future generations. This is the story of the Walker family of Coolootai Station in northern NSW.
The Walkers became owners of Coolootai in 1890. Just over a decade later the family faced their first test when, on the heels of the Federation Drought (the worst drought in Australia’s history), larger stations were acquired by the government as part of Closer Settlement Schemes to be redistributed as smaller blocks. Overnight the Walkers’ investment went from 100,000 acres to 7,500, and has remained this size ever since.
Five generations and going strong
Today the property is run by the fifth generation of Walkers: siblings Stewart Walker and Angela Stewart and their families: Stewart’s wife Kat (and young children Thomas and Charlie) and Angela’s husband Scott (and children Angus and Emily).
“Dad still owns the land but is not involved so Ang and I have the opportunity to run it and we are generally on the same page in regards to management,” Stewart explains.
This successful transfer over five generations is only possible through succession planning. “There’s a fairly chequered history with succession in that it was probably done pretty badly in prior generations so we started formal talks around 2011,” Ang said.
“That was Mum’s legacy. She’d been diagnosed with cancer and she wanted some sort of a plan for the future.
The Walkers were ahead of their time because the females were always considered in estate planning.
“Is our situation perfect? Probably not, but it’s better than some. And the Walkers were ahead of their time because the females were always considered in estate planning.”
Diversity the key in farming
Retaining Coolootai for a sixth generation will depend on it being run as a profitable business and this is where diversity plays a key. The Walkers graze cattle and grow a variety of crops dependent on the season. “We keep our options open so we are not solely reliant on one income stream,” Stewart says.
In addition Stewart and Scott supplement the income with off-farm contracting such as planting and truck driving, Kat is acting principal at Yetman School and Ang works fulltime as a bookkeeper and agricultural trainer.
“The (latest) drought really proved why our off-farm income is important. It would have been a diet of rice without it,” Ang admits.
Deciding to buy a pub
Which brings us to the pub. Coolootai Station is 7km from the village of Coolatai (population 30 if everybody is at home), between Inverell and Goondiwindi. The lifeblood of the community is its only commercial outlet – the Wallaroo Hotel – and the Walkers can now add publicans to their resumes.
For Ang the decision to buy their local came from the heart: “If we lost that pub, we’d lose our community. Yes, it’s an off-farm investment, but it’s keeping a community alive.”
For Stewart, the decision came from the head: “We bought real estate and a business for the same price some houses here sell for and I think we could sell it again tomorrow and get our money back.”
We’re not going to make millions but we have the potential to grow the business and give back to the community.
And for Scott, who bears the title of licensee, it was an opportunity. “I’m the social butterfly,” he jokes. “But I can see improvements to be made, especially with attracting the travelling public.
“We’re probably not going to make millions but we have the potential to grow the business and give back to the community.”
With the hotel adding to their income stream the Walker siblings are on the way to ensuring Coolootai remains in the family.
“Succession for the next generation is not a set and forget sort of thing,” Ang says. “It’s a work in progress and we’re conscious of building that asset base.”
Imagine another 130 years of family ownership.