Ideas man still burns bright

Toby HusseyAlbany Advertiser
Perfumer Steve Birkbeck on his Denmark property.
Camera IconPerfumer Steve Birkbeck on his Denmark property. Credit: Toby Hussey

One is the sparse, dry inland desert home to Australia’s last nomadic tribes, the other is the home of brands such as Chanel, Gualtier and Yves Saint Laurent.

Somewhere in-between, a man who calls Denmark his home mixed the two and attracted worldwide recognition.

Steve Birkbeck’s adult life has been a story of ambition, setback and recovery.

Now living on his 404ha farm west of Denmark, the 58-year-old barman-cum-export success lives far away from the European fashion scene.

But 21 years ago he was challenging the norm for the Australian luxuries market.

When we meet at his Denmark property on an overcast July day, the tall British expat stands in muddied farm clothes.

He has broad shoulders and long greying hair, and smells distinctly of sandalwood.

Here he works his 400 cattle, grows truffles and fishes for marron around an enormous property.

However, at 19 years old Mr Birkbeck could probably not have imagined his life’s journey to this point.

It started in an unsuspecting place — Wiluna.

In 1980 the town on the edge of the Little Sandy Desert was the final frontier for some of Australia’s last Aboriginal tribes.

Mr Birkbeck landed there for bar work after a period when he dropped out of university.

Wiluna was “the epicenter of violence and alcoholism” in the country, he said.

“At that point the hotel was very much an apartheid structure, as many of these places were at the time.

“It’s a different world in the central desert.”

But great ideas emerged from this time — the first following an assault on his first night pulling beers.

The strike came from artist Bobby “Cowboy” Cameron. After the dust had settled, the pair formed a friendship.

It was a fortuitous move.

A year later Mr Birkbeck, Mr Cameron and another man went into business engraving emu eggs and selling them for top dollar across Australia.

Sourced from the nearby Australian-first emu farm, each egg could fetch up to $500.

It was a good pay, but Mr Birkbeck had bigger plans.

Later rising to manage the emu farm, he used his access to the animals to become the first person to develop emu leather.

This was in 1986, around the same time Crocodile Dundee had helped launch the world’s demand for Australian leathers.

The new product made international headlines.

“What we were doing was so unique, it hadn’t been done,” he said.

The event captured the attention of national and international news outlets, helping to launch Mr Birkbeck’s career.

Demand for emu products saw him open two more farms, host fashion shows during the Americas Cup and accept a high-paying job in Perth. He was still only 28.

Then he had to stop.

A breakdown caused by the stresses of a life in the fast lane saw him retreat from the limelight to Denmark to live the quiet life.

Within years financial troubles brought him back. This time he would set a new standard for Australian luxury exports.

After returning to emu products temporarily, he switched his attention to creating something fresh.

With the might of Albany’s Mt Romance Sandalwood Factory behind him, he set out to create a new Australian fragrance. Paris was his target.

If it worked he would be the first person to export natural Australian cosmetics to France.

It was an ambitious plan, but after much negotiation he got his break.

The opportunity paid off.

The new fragrance, environmentally sustainable and carrying the sweet smell of the Australian bush took the world by storm in 1998.

Before long it was racking up $20 million in annual profits.

Steve Birkbeck and Quality Assurance Officer for Mt Romance Valerie Gearon checking out sandalwood oil.
Camera IconSteve Birkbeck and Quality Assurance Officer for Mt Romance Valerie Gearon checking out sandalwood oil. Credit: WA News

“It was quite ground-breaking stuff,” he said.

“Because our story was about the bush and an Aussie farming family come good, it had a lot of weight behind it.”

From then, the accolades came in fast, cementing Mr Birkbeck in the Australian export scene.

His company was Australian Regional Exporter of the Year from 2003 to 2005, and was inducted into Western Australia’s exporters Hall of Fame.

Around the same time, in 2004, Mr Birkbeck was named Ernst and Young’s Entrepreneur of the year, and was later crowned Australian Institute of Exports “Export Hero”.

While he still maintains links to his life in the limelight - a friendship with Tina Arena and claims he had received a reference from former United States President Bill Clinton - he said his favourite experience had been closer to home.

Earlier this year, he played a key role in helping the Aboriginal-run Kalgoorlie perfumer Dutjan Sandalwood Oils receive the prestigious United Nations Equator Prize for its sustainable practices.

“That’s probably the proudest thing,” he said.

“It’s not my company, I help behind the scenes but I’m probably prouder of what my family has achieved (assisting them) than what I am of my personal achievements.”

Now, Mr Birkbeck said, his life is dedicated to family and helping the communities that helped him.

A flame still burns back his Denmark pasture, with plans for a major tourist facility.

“It’ll be an eco-perfumery and it’ll become a major tourism icon for the region,” he said.

Now 40 years since Cowboy Cameron gave him the knock that set him on the path to success, Mr Birkbeck’s focus was on helping those who could use it.

Despite living the quiet life, this self-made businessman can’t stop working.

“It doesn’t stop if you’re an obsessive compulsive dude,” he said.

Birkbeck in 2003.
Camera IconBirkbeck in 2003. Credit: WA News

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