Business instincts

Kate Tol enjoying the country life at Mount Mitchell - photo credit Stefanie Driscoll

Kate Tol enjoying the country life at Mount Mitchell - photo credit Stefanie Driscoll

When lifestyle becomes a priority how do you balance it with a viable business? Simon and Kate Tol are in the process of finding out if their instincts are on track having just eighteen months ago, taken ownership of the historic property Mount Mitchell near Lexton, in the north-west district of Victoria.

As a youngster living in Geelong Simon Tol recalls driving along the Sunraysia Highway to visit his grandparent’s farm at Donald. “Two bachelors live there,” his father told him once as they passed Mount Mitchell, “and they store their grain in the ballroom.”

While the grand house, built in 1861 and expanded in 1910, was hardly visible from the road, that bizarre story stuck in Simon’s mind. It is hardly surprising that four decades later he and wife Kate were attracted by an advertisement in The Weekly Times seeking expressions of interest for the very same historic property, now reduced to 800 fertile acres.

The timing was right. Simon had been running his own successful plumbing and construction business for ten years, mainly in the commercial space, and was ready for a change.

“I hated the paperwork; having to be compliant, and the whole tender process,” he admits. “You’d work hard, sometimes for three or four years at a time on a big job, and then have to spend a couple of years trying to get paid.”

Kate, who was the Head of Physical Education/Health at The Geelong College for 24 years, in addition to renovating various properties with Simon, was also ready for a new challenge. “We both ran out of projects and were ready to do something else. Neither of us are good at sitting around.”

An inspection of Mount Mitchell revealed that the land was leased out for cropping while the 27-room house, complete with 18 fireplaces and 10 acres of gardens, had been lovingly restored over a 34 year period by Richard Salter. Quite literally Richard, a successful New South Wales grazier with a past family connection to the property, had saved it from the previous bachelor farmers who typically only valued the land and allegedly slept in their car at night, because it was warmer than the house and had a wireless.

“Everywhere we looked, we were amazed,” says Kate recalling their first visit. “We already had a picture-perfect home in Geelong and we were looking for something unique.” Mount Mitchell hit the mark for both of Simon and Kate, while Richard was assured that they would make perfect custodians.

So strong were their instincts, an unconditional offer was made on the property immediately following their second inspection. A six-month settlement allowed them to release their assets to meet the sale requirements and plan for their exciting move with the family.

Lifestyle has proven to be an important component of their decision and not for themselves but for their three children; Will aged 18, Sophie aged 16, and Harry aged 10.

“We wanted our children to have the opportunity to be more hands on,” explains Kate. In other words, everyone is required to pitch in!  Sophie is also raising seven calves in her own little business enterprise. “We’ve all got involved in the local community and are loving country life.”

“We don’t miss the hustle and bustle of Geelong at all,” confirms Simon who has just been elected President of the Waubra Football Club following a term as Vice President.

“So, let’s talk about your business plan for Mount Mitchell,” I suggest.

While Simon promptly informs me that they don’t have one, Kate is more forthcoming. Informal planning and bouncing ideas off each other is part of their daily life.

“We love living here but it still has to be viable. While Richard, the previous owner was very private, we have opened Mount Mitchell up to the community,” she explains. “For the moment, we are focusing on farming produce, events, and accommodation.”

Making the transition from construction to farming could be considered a risk, however, Simon has been fortunate to accumulate some useful skills over the years.

“I got my wool classing certificate in the 1990’s and a few years ago we purchased 250 acres at Moonambel as a weekender and loved it so much that we purchased the adjacent farm,” he explains.

Simon is particularly grateful to their new neighbours at Mount Mitchell. “They’ve been just wonderful with their advice and support.”

His first challenge was to restore the 800 acres previously planted with crops into pasture for prime lamb production. Fortunately, they already had sufficient farming machinery from the Moonambel property and Simon’s construction equipment also came in handy.

Sheep are an important part of the property’s history. Original owners along with assigned convicts, drove forty-eight merino rams down from Elizabeth Farm in New South Wales to Mount Mitchell in 1838. While the current homestead wasn’t constructed until 1861, there were numerous shepherd huts and outbuildings to service the 21,000 acres. Mount Mitchell was established only three years after Melbourne. An early map of the district notes the Adelaide to Geelong Road highlighting that Ballarat didn’t exist at that time.

With the paddock to plate concept becoming more popular world-wide, Simon and Kate were delighted to be introduced to Melbourne based Executive Chef, Ian Curley, who wants to stock their product in his restaurants. Not only their prime lamb but also the produce from their large kitchen garden.

Kate has spent the first year of their property ownership shadowing the gardener of 17 years learning the ropes and has recently taken on the responsibility of maintaining the 10 acres of gardens with some help from contract gardeners.

“My first Christmas present at Mount Mitchell was an eighty metre bore,” she laughs. “Installing an underground sprinkler system is next on my wish list.”

When it comes to events the Tol’s still value Mount Mitchell as their family home and the homestead is strictly off limits. They are targeting outdoor events utilising the extensive garden spaces and historic outbuildings such as the National Trust listed stable block.

“We are deliberately aiming for events at the exclusive end of the market,” Kate explains. “We want to retain Mount Mitchell as a high-quality brand. It’s such a unique place and essential that we don’t over expose it.”

While a coordinator is engaged to look after weddings, Kate and Simon take on most of the other events which include visits by various clubs and outdoor luncheons for groups. Just recently Kate took a film producer on a familiarisation tour, opening up new possibilities. Maybe Doctor Blake will pay a house visit, or an Australian version of Downton Abbey?

The Tol’s are fast learning that some types of events take more work than others. “We just get in casual help when we need it,” says Kate.

For a privileged few that want to stay longer and soak up the magic of Mount Mitchell, there is a historic cottage and brick veneer family home available for casual hire. Kate continues to manage their Moonambel property which is also available for luxury Australian bush experiences.

It becomes evident during our conversation that the Tol’s are good at connecting with the right people and that those relationships are helping to strengthen their vision for Mount Mitchell. In the initial stages, they employed Kate Davis, an events coordinator, that helped establish the brand and get them established. Each discussion leads them to someone else.

“Everyone gets as passionate about Mount Mitchell as we are,” says Kate. “It’s just such a special place. There are moments I love, every day. We are constantly pinching ourselves!”

Kate continues to access workshops and courses as time permits, continually building on her skills and exploring new ideas, as they seek that sweet spot between business and lifestyle.

Marketing through the Pyrenees Tourism Board, Visit Ballarat, and word of mouth referrals are proving most effective.

One gets the impression that Kate and Simon have spent their lives up until this point gathering all the appropriate knowledge and skills required to make Mount Mitchell a viable business. Their skills complement each other and they aren’t afraid to take on something new. Following their instincts may not be such a risk after all.

“Always challenged, rarely defeated,” quips Simon. “We are learning as we go and only take sensible risks.”

And then there is their other motivation.

“The house just seems to love us,” says Kate. “I think it needed children, noise, parties and skateboards!”

“There is no way I’d go back, to my previous life!” agrees Simon.

 Simon and Kate’s Business Tips:

  • Just do it!

  • Have fun.

  • Get involved and give back to your local community.

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KERRY ANDERSON: Author of ‘Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business,’ Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE

Kerry recently published her first book with 20 inspiring case studies for rural communities and business people READ MORE