Why viticulture success depends on business management know-how

16 November 2019

Viticulture is a practical industry suited to practical people – so discussing budgets and financial spreadsheets with an accountant isn’t usually an enjoyable conversation.

But as viticulture expert James Crockett has discovered, gaining financial knowledge is the key to running a successful and sustainable horticultural business.

“I’ve always struggled with finance and trying to get my head around creating a budget and understanding financial dashboards. When you’re in high level meetings and people are talking about assets and things it’s hard not to drift off and think about what’s for lunch.”

Fortunately, James now has all the knowledge and business skills at his fingertips after completing Primary ITO’s diploma between 2015 and 2017.

The 33-year-old has worked in viticulture since he was a teenager and rose through the ranks to become a vineyard manager for Hortus Limited in Marlborough before taking over the company’s demanding human resources and recruitment work.

“It was quite a large operation,” James recalls. “We had 65 permanent staff and 300-400 seasonal workers, including many RSE workers from the Pacific Islands, and together we pruned 4 or 5 million vines every winter.”

The company’s owner suggested James and three of his colleagues undertake the diploma to help them take the next step up the management ladder and progress their careers. Normally diploma students would attend regular classes and tutorial sessions, but because the Hortus group already had a good grasp of many topics, they were given recognition for their prior learning.

“Every three or four months a tutor would come and visit and look at what skills we had. When there were gaps, they gave us questions to go away and research. There was definitely stuff we didn’t know, for sure.

“I really enjoyed the sustainability module. There was a lot of research we had to do for that one. I looked at the emissions levels for our fleet of 30 mini vans and worked out how we could be more efficient. I also had to look at the benefits of converting Hortus’ staff accommodation units to solar power. It really forced you to think outside the box.”

James says the diploma was a great way to build self-confidence and knowledge. “You discover you know a lot more than you think you do. The diploma builds your confidence to back yourself in situations where people are asking you those tougher questions.”

James now works as a viticulture Training Adviser for Primary ITO, helping to guide other people along their career pathways within the industry.

His advice to those looking to study the diploma themselves? Focus on time management and attend as many classes and tutorial sessions as possible. “It just helps you to keep focused and ticking along with it.”

Many horticultural workers feel nervous about taking on academic study, particularly if they didn’t do well at high school. “The content is very practical – it’s stuff you already do in your day-to-day job. It just solidifies those skills and puts them down on paper. You can relate everything back to what you do in the field.”

Finding time to study while working fulltime was the most challenging aspect but James says the skills to be gained are well worth it.

“Understanding a business’s finances is massive. When you’re all on the same page about what you can spend and what your forecasts, bottom lines and margins are, it makes it a lot easier to grow and develop.

“If you want to move up and get into that upper level of management, you need to know the ins and outs of a business. The diploma won’t teach you anything more about growing grapes – but it’ll teach you how to run a successful primary industries business.”


Discover more about the Diploma.