Episode 1- Anthony Puharich: A Story of Passion
Host Name: Paul Shaw (PS)
Guest Name: Anthony Puharich (AP)
(Host Paul Shaw): Welcome to Meat: The Ultimate Podcast, proudly brought to you by vicsmeat.com.au. I'm Paul Shaw, the host of the show.
Conscious consumption requires one key ingredient: Knowledge. In this long-form conversational podcast series, we will take you inside the fence of the world of meat through the eyes of those who grow it, those who cut it, those who cook it and even those who are against it.
We dive deeply into topics such as health, history, science, innovation, environment and sustainability, all with a meat bent. If you want to think wisely about meat and make informed choices, Meat: The Ultimate Podcast is for you. And please, if you like this show, or have an opinion on the show, give us a rating and leave us a comment. It just helps other people to find it. Now, enjoy today's show.
(Paul Shaw): Okay buddy we're live. Welcome.
(Anthony Puharich): Good to be here, Shawry.
(PS): Episode number one of Meat: The Ultimate Podcast.
(AP): Very exciting, and I'm excited to kick off the Meat Podcast, obviously coinciding with the launch of my first ever book, co-authored by Libby Travers. Of course, I can't take all the credit. Well I can't take, I can only take very little of the credit, because there was an amazing, amazing team of people who we pulled together to produce that amazing piece of collateral, as I have my whole career. You know what I mean? I've done very little of what I've done and the success that I've enjoyed purely because of me solely, it's because of these great people who I've surrounded myself that have helped me achieve and realise all these dreams and bigger goals and vision that I've had.
(PS): Well, why don't we talk about that because, as we were saying offline, I think a lot of people across the globe–not just in Sydney, not just Australia, but across the globe–know the Vic’s story, know the Victor Churchill story, and had this unbelievable romantic notion about the business, where it started from, where it's come from, and then it's just been this beautiful linear path of fast cars, and glamorous lifestyles, and TV shows, and radio shows, and all those kinds of things. So, I want to hear again the journey from the start with you and your dad. But I also want to hear some of the real challenging times, like your decision to go to Singapore and China, and then some of the other things that have probably almost brought you to your knees along that path.
(AP): Yeah sure. And just on that, there are two parts to it. The first part is, it is an amazing story. It isn't fabricated, it's an amazing story, an amazing family story, a story of hard work, blood, sweat, tears. But that's not unique to me or my family, there are a lot of great stories out there of families, of individuals who have sacrificed, who have worked hard and created great businesses. But there's no question we've got this amazing story which I'll talk about in a second. So yeah. Two parts with this amazing story, the other part is this assumption or this feeling that Vic’s Meat, the Puharich family, what we've achieved and what we've done is just so perfect, so shiny, so glossy on the outside.
My own individual success profile, the fast cars in the early days, and the message that that sent, good or bad, I can't turn that back. I was in my 20s, I had more money than I'd ever dreamed of, and I had a weakness and an Achilles’ heel for fast cars. My mum's grateful that I didn't have an Achilles’ heel and a soft spot for drugs and loose women. So I think the cars were better.
(PS): Much better option.
(AP): Yeah, much better option! But just to give you the back story in terms of how it all started. I can't tell the Vic’s Meat story unless I talk about my father, who's a remarkable man. But not just him—both my mother and my dad are very similar in terms of their journey and their path through life, both immigrated to Australia.
(PS): From Croatia.
(AP): From Croatia. At that point it wasn't Croatia, it was Yugoslavia, and it was a communist country under the rule of President Tito and, but not communist in the bad, evil way that most people associate communism with. It was a communist country and it was state ruled and governed, but they had a relatively good lifestyle. My grandfather, obviously my father's father, he was a butcher and he worked hard and he provided for the family, the government, the country provided for the family.
(AP): So yeah, he was the youngest of seven, and then, really interestingly, my grandparents decided to send their children out to Australia one by one during the late 50s and throughout the 60s and early 70s, and Australia back in those days was obviously promised as this incredible, as it is today, this amazing land of opportunity, and the idea was to send their children from eldest the youngest, one by one, to this country to work hard, to make some money and then after two or three years to come back to Croatia (or former Yugoslavia at that stage) before the Civil War happened 25 years ago now.
And so, one by one, starting with my father's eldest sister, they came out to Australia and they followed those orders.
(PS): “Go work, come home.”
(AP): “Go work, come home”, all that sort of stuff and then 20 or so years later it was my dad's turn. And at that stage my dad was 17 years of age and he followed the instructions that he was given. He followed the footsteps that his older brothers and sisters had trodden, and came out to Australia three months on a boat at the age of 17, which you can't trivialise, you know? I've got a 19-year-old son and I struggle to send him down the road! And getting him to bring back what he’s meant to, let alone to send your child to the other side of the world.
(PS): On his own?
(AP): On his own.
(PS): Yeah wow.
(AP): And there was a bit of a handing over of the baton, so my father's brother at that stage who was the next youngest was out here, and then he'd welcome my dad, and then there'd be a bit of a handover and familiarise yourself and then, you know, he’d be back on a boat back to Yugoslavia and my dad would just be here.
For those people that know my dad, he is an amazing individual, hardworking, gregarious, charismatic, all that sort of stuff. I've been in business with him for 22 years so nobody knows him better than I do. But sometimes doesn't listen to what he's meant to do and now I understand where that seed was planted, because at the age of 17, he was meant to get off the boat at Perth, which is where the bulk of my dad's brothers and sisters, the time they spent was in WA because of mining and that was a boom and there was a lot of work on the back of that. So he didn't get off the boat at Perth, stayed on the boat and ended up in Sydney against, obviously, the orders of his parents and his brothers and sisters and stuff. And then the second rule that he broke was, rather than, well he did, he worked hard and all that sort of stuff but rather than, working hard for a couple of years and then going back, my father fell in love and met my mother and stayed here, and became an Australian citizen and never went back.
(PS): Your mum was Croatian too.
(AP): My mother was Croatian too. At that point they didn't know each other. So they met here in Australia, and my mother very similarly came from a very blue collar as my dad did, very blue collar background and family and my mother was the second eldest of four. So a bit more of a smaller family but much the same, came to this country with her parents. That was the only difference with her parents, for a better life. And, you know, met my father, fell in love, got married and started a family. So that's the back story of how my father ended up in Australia, how he ended up in the meat industry. That's a little bit simpler because, as they say, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. And my father's a third generation butcher, you know, my grandfather, my great grandfather, all of his brothers were butchers, so butchery goes back many generations.
(PS): Is that by order? If you work in a communist country they tell you what to do, or?
(AP): No, I think it was just, my father will say he wasn't good at school, and he literally never went to school. So I suppose my grandfather said, “Well if you're not going to go to school, then you're going to work.” And at the age of 12 or 13 years of age, my father stopped going to school and ended up working. And at that age, obviously the only type of work that he could do was the work that his father gave him and provided him, which was to work in the meat industry. So that's how my father ended up, working in the meat industry. And when he came to this country, apart from doing a few odd jobs building roads for extra income, his main line of work was boning, working in abattoirs and in those days, I mean, butchery and the meat industry is tough anyway. Cold conditions on your feet, very physical work.
(PS): Middle of the night.
(AP): Yeah, middle of the night, early starts, type stuff. So, it's hard now, let alone back in those days because they didn't have the good working conditions that all employers and businesses provide their staff nowadays. So it was tough, really tough, hard work. And my father will talk about it, being a minority back in those days wasn’t easy, either, but how he got accepted into the Australian culture and the Australian way of life was through just working hard and he was really openly embraced and accepted by the Anglos who dominated the demographic back in those days, you know?
(PS): Of course.
(AP): People from Europe, they were a minority, they were the so-called “wog”, and things were made super hard for them because they were considered a bit of a threat or taking good Australians’ jobs away from them, and all that sort of stuff. So the way that my father, because he did, there was a huge language barrier there. My father came to this country literally, as the cliché goes, with the shirt on his back. Uneducated, didn't know the language. So the way that he earned respect was just by working like an animal. You know, working hard, which he still does to this very day, which is, you know, a trait that obviously, and a current characteristic that, I've inherited from him, which I'm super grateful for. So at that point, doing all sorts of jobs, laying roads, working in abattoirs in the morning. He also—and this is a story better told by him—worked in nightclubs at night time, in the kitchen, cooking, washing dishes, all that sort of stuff, just to get ahead, make money, and create a future for himself, his then wife and his future children. So the next twenty-five years is pretty straightforward. Had kids, I’m the eldest of three, I've got two younger sisters who are twins. The next 25 years he spent working in the meat industry and literally primarily working for the same employer.
So loyalty, obviously something of value that my father wholeheartedly, believes in. And just worked.
(PS): For Andrews Meats, primarily.
(PS): From your number one competitor.
(AP): Yeah. So yeah, just work there. And I remember when I was old enough, 12, 13, 14 years old, he'd get me out of bed during school holidays at 2 o'clock in the morning, and I'd go to work with him, and I was there working at Andrews, trapping boxes and picking up meat scraps off the ground, and all that sort of stuff. And probably at that point—I'm able to talk about it now—but probably at that point, it didn't resonate with me how good my father was at what he did. But reflecting and remembering and reminiscing and looking back at that time, I clearly remember even at the age of 12, 13, 14, my father was just, you know, looking back at it all, I was in awe. He just owned what he did. He just knew what he was doing. Working with me was just second nature, he was so natural at it. He was so quick at it. He was so efficient at it. He just lived, breathed, and, more importantly, just loved it. You know he was passionate about it. He loved it. It was not natural for him not to be cutting, or working with a knife on a bench.
(PS): But he was a worker. He was never business minded, entrepreneurially minded.
(AP): No, he wasn't. My mum was.
(PS): Had a restaurant, your mum.
(AP): Yeah. My mum’s had various businesses over the years. Once again, businesses that she ran and operated in order to help bring income into the family, help put that deposit down on a house. Being migrants, being ethnics, owning their own house, having bricks and mortar, is something that they were obsessed with, all migrants are obsessed with. So they just worked hard and did anything and whatever it took in order to put a roof over their family's head, and, just as importantly, put the three of us through an education, and an education that they could afford. Obviously I'm not a product of a private school. I went to a Catholic school not far from here in Maroubra. Marist Brothers at Pagewood and it was the best of what my parents could afford.
(PS): Was it because they didn't want you to do what your dad did, they wanted a better life for you?
(AP): Funnily enough, despite the fact that all of these great, and many generations of, Puharichs just came before me and were passionate, hardworking butchers, it was another lifestyle that my father, or a career or a path, that my father and my mother—probably my mother more so than my father—wanted me to go down. They weren't swept up in the romance of their eldest son following in the footsteps of his father. They wanted me to get an education, and getting an education was an absolute priority. And they worked hard in order to be able to provide me with one. And because I wanted to live up to their expectations, because I wanted to please them. That's the path that I chose.
And, funnily enough, people might laugh at this, but it's just the truth and the reality: I was the first person, both on my mother's and father's side, to ever graduate from university with a degree, and I'll never forget the day, because I didn't follow in my father's footsteps. I went to school, finished high school, straight out of high school. I finished a degree in commerce, majoring in finance and economics, and then went off into merchant banking, graduated and speared off into a career in merchant banking. Went to work for a banker’s trust and I'll never forget that day. The first day that I put on a suit and tie in order to get on a bus and heading to work for my first day at work, and I remember my mum started to well up and start to cry. And she was just so overwhelmed with emotion that her son and her eldest son, but just one of her children, was going to work in a suit and tie, something that she'd never imagine or predicted, and something she was obviously very, very proud of, and so was my father.
So yeah, that’s what happened. My father passionately dedicated his life to butchery working for the same employer for the bulk of his career. I then went off and pursued a career in merchant banking. And, make no mistakes about it, I loved it. I loved putting on a suit and tie.
(PS): I think everyone does for a point in time.
(AP): There is a bit of romance associated with that theory.
(PS): Big city; exciting; everything you've ever seen in the movies, TV shows.
(AP): Yeah, all of that sort of stuff, I was attracted to it. And at that stage I was still living at home. But nine months into it, something didn't feel right. Despite the fact that I was enjoying it and I was learning, and despite the fact that I'm a competitive bastard and I was prepared to climb that corporate ladder and do whatever it takes to be successful in that chosen career. Something inside and I, still to this very day, I can't put my finger on it. Something inside didn't feel right and at that stage I was, I was 20. Yeah. Oh no, I was about 22 at that stage. I was still living at home as does a good ethnic son.
(AP): I was still living at home. And what was amazing about my upbringing, despite the fact that there was nothing flash about it, we'd always come together as a family around the dining table, around food, and my mother's a remarkable, amazing cook. And I was always spoiled. You know, despite the fact that I came from this blue collar background and obviously went without things I wanted, but never went without anything that I needed. I was always surrounded by good food. Obviously my father was a butcher so that was a big part of it. But, just as importantly, my mother was an amazing cook. And despite the fact that we were all going off on our different tangents—my dad was started at work at 12 and finishing at midday, my sisters were still at school at that stage and going to school at 8 and finishing at 3 and I was working from 8pm till 6, the normal job hours, office hours—we'd still get together as a family at the end of the day and have dinner together. And I remember one afternoon coming home from work, nine months into this career in merchant banking, and sitting down to obviously another one of my mother's beautiful, home-cooked meals.
And I don't know what possessed me or took over me, but it was at that point that I flagged this desire and I remember, and in this particular order, it was a desire to work with my father. It wasn't at that point a desire to start a business, that happened after, but the initial desire was just to work with him; a person that I respected, admired, was a role model, a person who was passionate and loved what he did, irrespective of how tough, challenging and difficult it was. I wanted to work with him and I said, “Dad I want to be a butcher. I want to work with you.” And it was only after a couple of minutes into the conversation that I said, “Dad, I reckon we should work together and we should start our own business.” Anyway, none of it went down too well. He literally fell off his chair. I think it was a shock and a surprise for everybody. Granted, and I get it, but I remember once my father composed himself, he said to me, “Why? You've done everything in order to get out of this blue collar type…”
(PS): It's a really good question though, isn't it? For a guy that was about a dinner, have an hour's sleep and then go to work; you, probably sitting across from him in a in a very dapper suit.
(PS): Then the whole world in front of you to go. You want to do this and earn $70,000 a year, $80,000 a year for the rest of your life.
(PS): Because that’s what he would have been doing, yeah? Working hard, yet for very average money for the level of skill and the hours and the conditions.
(AP): Yeah. And up until recently I don't think butchers have been recognised for their skill in their craft. They’re definitely way more, better remunerated than they were a decade, 20 or 30 years ago, but I get it. I'm not surprised that he stood there and thought I'd lost my marbles, or was on drugs, or whatever it might have been, because I'd broken out of that rut that he was all too familiar with, which was the rut and the monotony of getting out of bed at 1 o'clock in the morning, working hard in an unappreciated industry, doing an unappreciated role being a butcher.
But that's just me. I'm determined and when I've got something and I've got an idea or a thought or I've made a decision in my head I very rarely, if ever, turn back. And it took a long time, it probably took three months. But I wore him down, I also inspired and really got him thinking that this was a legitimate opportunity for him to own his own business, which I think is a desire that a lot of people have. But up until that point, because of his super conservative nature, he never considered it. Because I get my dad, and it’s one of the many things that I love about him, his loyalty, his dedication, and at that point in his career, and to put it into context, he was in his mid-40s.
And nowadays in your mid-40s even in the mid-50s, people make tree changes, sea changes, career changes, but back in those days, the 90s, he had a mortgage, he had two of his kids still at school. He had responsibility and that was just way too risky. In the middle of his life, or his working life, to think about leaving the security that his employment gave him, which was the ability to put a roof over his family's head and food on the table, even contemplating…
(PS): And risk it all.
(PS): 30 years.
(PS):And a skill that you can't just go, “you know what, if this f***s up, I can make it back”, because it's literally that slow graft for another 30 years if he had to go back to working for somebody doing the same thing.
(AP): And starting all over again.
(AP): It is what it is. The risk of it, I didn't dwell on too much as I don't in general, because I'm very risk tolerant and I am a bit of a punter, obviously, whereas my father was a lot more conservative, a lot more considered. But anyway, three months later we did it. We started Vic’s Premium Quality Meat in February of 1996, over 22 years ago now, in a very, very modest, run-down retail butcher shop in Oxford Street in Darlinghurst that we took over. My mother lent us the money. Well, it was their money, but she was the treasurer of the family and she lent us the $50,000 that we needed to, well, what we thought we needed to start a business. $30,000 of it went to buy this existing business as a going concern, not that there was much going for it because it was struggling, and the other $20,000 was for working capital, just to keep us going, and pay the bills and keep the lights on, and all that sort of stuff.
And that's it. My dad and I started in Oxford Street in Darlinghurst; the shop still stands. It's being run by somebody else now and, as they say, the rest is history. But obviously there was a lot that happened in between 1996 and today. A lot of good, a lot of great things, a lot of things that our whole family is proud of. But there's been some challenges and there's been some rocky times along the way.
(PS): Yep, no doubt. So just to fast forward: you go from a retail butcher shop, a couple of years later buy a facility in Mascot and decide that wholesaling to, back then, the start of good restaurants in Australia. Level 41, Dietmar Sawyere, the first hatted restaurant in this country the Olympics, and then that whole industry boomed. You guys rode the coattails of that boom.
(AP): Yeah definitely. And none of that washes over me. I'm a big believer in timing. I'm a big believer in a lot of things—karma, and I'm a little bit superstitious also, on the back at the time that I've spent in China. But I'm a massive believer in timing and there were a couple of really important turning points in our business. My father is a gifted, highly gifted, extraordinary and skilful butcher, but the business entrepreneurial side of things, and that's why the partnership is so good, because we brought a complementary skill set, while I was young and not very experienced. There was a bit of savviness about me, I'd finished a degree in finance and economics, I had that side of it covered, I had an interest in sales and marketing.
So that's what I brought to the game, so to speak, and my father had this rock-solid skill and craft, and he knew the industry. He knew suppliers, all of those sort of things, but I reckon, well, I don't want to say this, I was about to say that, I’d reckon we'd still be in Oxford Street, Darlinghurst hadn't been for one moment in time, and that moment in time was when, because my father’s just, he’s old school.
(PS): To this day.
(AP): And I remember Oxford Street in Darlinghurst, at that point we'd inherited and taken over this retail butcher shop that was struggling. Back in those days, Oxford Street, Darlinghurst, and to this day also—gay capital of Australia, not a lot of families, not a lot of people buying meat retail. So it was struggling as a retail butcher shop and out of absolute desperation I started knocking on doors of local restaurants that lined Oxford Street, Darlinghurst back in those days. And in of 90s, those mid to late 90s, there were two major eat streets in Sydney. There was Oxford Street in Darlinghurst, and there was Norton Street in Leichhardt. And Oxford Street in Darlinghurst was this bustling, busy restaurant strip in Sydney, and out of absolute desperation and on the verge of burning through the $20,000 that we had in working capital, I just started knocking on restaurant doors. So the whole wholesaling thing happened.
(PS): While you were still in retail.
(AP): While we were still in retail, and out of default and out of desperation, because retail wasn’t working for us in Oxford Street in Darlinghurst, because at that time the demographic and, to this day, wasn’t conducive to retailing meat.
So it just started playing that local card, knocking on doors, “Hey, we’re your local butcher, we’re only up the road, you can pop in and buy from us any time”, and start to get a bit of traction and then, I'll never forget my first delivery. My first delivery car wasn't a car, it was a trolley that I used to run up and down Oxford Street during the morning, making deliveries to local restaurants.
(PS): HACCP certified!
(AP):Yeah not really HACCP certified back in those days! But the turning point, without question, was my father, was really passionate despite the fact that the tide was turning and the business was becoming more reliant on restaurants rather than retail. My father, religiously, would always set the retail window, beautifully, beautiful display, but he was really passionate about offal and he still is to this day, and obviously because of his peasant background, offal was what he ate a lot of growing up. And he'd always stick this offal in the window. And as sure as the sun rises in the east, at the end of that day we'd be throwing it all in the bin. But just out of stubbornness and out of just love and that, and the industry, he just, every day, would just start filling that window with offal. And I remember one day as vividly as yesterday, only because I remember this one gentleman walking into the store and buying some offal. He bought some sweetbreads, he bought some lamb's brains, he bought a couple of beef cheeks, and obviously the reason that I remembered him is because he was the only person in that first 12 months that ever walked in and bought some offal.
Anyway, the next day, the phone rang and I picked it up, “Vic’s Meat speaking, how can I help you?” And the gentleman at the other end of the phone with a pretty stern, confident voice said, “This is Dietmar Sawyere speaking,” and, you know when somebody says their name and they say it in a sort of way…
(PS): That we've got to know it.
(AP): That you should know it. Well I didn't know it, and there was this really awkward pause after he said his name.
(PS): Maybe that was your induction to the arrogance of the chef.
(PS): With all due respect to every chef out there that’s listening!
(AP): That was my first lesson. Yeah, I suppose I should have known. Well, most people in Australia do know who chefs are now because they're rock stars, but they're household names. But back in those days it was that wave, that crest that was just forming in terms of eating out in restaurants. Anyway, after that really awkward pause he went on to explain that he was the head chef, the executive chef of Level 41 restaurant, a very well-regarded restaurant, and I said, “How can I help you?” And he was like, “You know I was in there yesterday, and I was really impressed with your display and what I saw, and I bought some offal.”
And that's when the penny dropped and I was like, “Oh yeah, I remember you now! You were the guy, that was the first guy that ever walked into our shop and bought some offal. And you made my dad's day because he had the biggest grin on his face on the back of it.” But anyway, he started to ask a few questions about us and who we were, and he asked if we were interested in supplying them, obviously because of my nature I was like, “Yes!” And I said, “What were you after?” And he goes, “Look I'm really, really struggling to get chicken bones, fresh chicken bones,” and I’m like, chicken bones, man, that's about as basic as you can get. And I'm like, “Yeah we can do fresh chicken bones, how many are you after?” And he goes, “Look, we use 60 kilos a day and I need them to be fresh. Can you do it?” And I'm like, “Yeah, of course I can do it, give me your address,” all that sort of stuff, and I said, “I'll have them to you at 8 o'clock tomorrow morning the next day.”
And I got off the phone and I was like, fist pumps, and I was like “Dad, you won’t believe it, it was some Dietmar chef, you know, the guy that came in and bought some office, and he's got this really fancy restaurant, and he's just placed an order for chicken bones!” And my dad’s like, “How much?” And I'm like, “60 kilos.” And Dad's like, “Oh where is he?” And I go, “He's in the city.” And my dad's like, “Ah that's a $17 order. How are you going to get it into the city, because you don't have a van? You've been doing deliveries with a trolley?”
Anyway that afternoon—once again it's littered, these sort of stories are littered in terms of the history between my dad and myself—but I forced my dad to go out to Parramatta Road, back in the day, Auto Alley, car dealerships up and down Parramatta Road, and spend $12,000 on a refrigerated van for a $17 order.
Just to make it worse, he was on the forty-first floor of Chifley Plaza. So between traffic and fighting traffic to the city, waiting for the lift, making the delivery, it was like a three-hour round trip for $17. So I was massively in the red, doing the delivery there. But three months later, and I still believe to this day—not that Dietmar’s ever admitted it—we delivered 60-kilo chicken bones like clockwork, six days a week, day in, day out, for three months. And, I reckon, despite the fact that he never admitted it, it was a bit of a test of our dedication and whether we really wanted the business.
And three months later, he asked us what else we did, and that he bought beef and lamb, and three months later he was spending $15,000 a week with us and Level 41 represented 60% of our business’ overall sales and turnover. Beyond that, he became this amazing foot in the door that I used in order to get leverage off and get more business with, because, obviously, telling people that you supplied Level 41 restaurant brought credibility and kudos, particularly to a business that was still being run on a shoestring budget. And I reminisce and I think about those days very, very fondly and I think about that moment in time. That very much changed the trajectory of our business forever, and within 12 months we’d outgrown Oxford Street and then I was marching my dad down to the local bank to sign a loan for $1 million. I'd never, ever seen, or ever thought about seeing that many zeros on a piece of paper, but I got my father and marched him down to the bank to borrow $1 million so that we could set up Mascot where we are now.
(PS): Family home as collateral.
(AP): The whole box and dice, once again, putting everything on the line, like we have as a family, a number of times over the last 22 years. And so, that said, in a nutshell that's how my father got here, how I got here, how the business started and how we got to where we were in terms of this incredible turning point that happened with Level 41. And subsequently, the credibility that gave us, and then it was just a snowball effect. And the business has flourished and grown ever since.
(PS): Yeah. And I think this story is so well documented, you know, from your $17 deliveries to Level 41 to a 70-million-dollar-plus a year turnover business. It sounds, like we said at the start, like an amazing journey that just is all glamorous.
(PS): I do want to talk a little bit about your risk appetite and some of the decisions that will, forever, I imagine, define other decisions you make with the business, but starting with Singapore and then China and why you did it. Your dad's, no doubt, kicking and screaming against the risk of it, and how you dealt with, to varying degrees, those businesses not going where you needed them to go.
(AP): Yeah so, the first decade of Vic’s Meat almost felt like everything we touched turned to gold and we were successful. And I'm not embarrassed to say that we were successful. And, like I said earlier, making money, and a lot more money than we ever dreamed of. And it's all relative. When you come from very humble beginnings like I did growing up in Hillsdale, Matraville, Maroubra and then a step up to Kingsford which wasn't much of a step-up back then, but it was. Then running a successful business being the flavour of the month, the flavour of the year, the flavour of many years in the meat industry and the food wholesaling industry.
(AP): Winning awards.
(PS): Entrepreneur of the year, Ernst & Young.
(AP): Being recognised and all that sort of stuff you do, I'm not going to lie. And the other really interesting, sometimes very bad ingredient, youth, you know, because when you're young, you think you're bulletproof, you think that things are going to just last forever, and at that stage I was in my late 20s starting to enter my early 30s, living a really great lifestyle, driving fast cars, living in nice suburbs, eating out, wearing nice clothes, buying nice jewellery, travelling overseas.
(PS) Beautiful, young family.
(AP): Starting a beautiful family. There was literally nothing that was going wrong, despite the fact—and I haven't shared this before, I know a lot of people talk about it—but I was literally burning the candle at both ends. Infamously, previous staff will tell you I used to have this sofa couch at work, and that sofa couch folded out into a bed, because there was just some nights—my wife probably will remember better than anybody—but most nights I couldn't even be bothered going home because I'd been working until 9 or 10 o'clock and I'd be up in another three hours, so why waste that on travelling and going home when I could just save that time by just crashing and sleeping at work? Not that I'm super proud of it. S***, you gotta do what you gotta do. Particularly if you're possessed with success, and I had, I'd been bitten by that bug, making money, being successful, and I wanted to just keep fuelling that.
I'd fallen asleep at the wheel at least a dozen times over the 10 years. One of them, I actually crashed into the wall at the Eastern Distributor. I was living in Woolloomooloo at that stage and I'd fallen asleep and completely wiped out the whole right-hand side of my car. So, just reflecting on it, looking back on it, some crazy, scary moments, but just being young, a little bit dumb and just feeling bulletproof, thought I could just do it, go out at night, wake up in the morning, all that sort of stuff, and then this opportunity to expand came about, and I was like, what for?
I'd grown up, gone to university, listened to a lot of lecturers, read a lot of newspaper articles about Asia being on Australia's backyard and that potentially being the most important trading partner for Australia even more so than our traditional trading partners of Europe and North America, that Asia was changing. There was this growing middle class, particularly China with their 1.2 billion population. And so I started thinking about that and I always thought about expanding the business, growing the business but I thought to myself, you know what, it’s probably going to take the same amount of effort energy and money to start up a new business in Melbourne or Brisbane, or whatever it might be, than it will overseas, why not invest that same effort, energy, money in setting up a business overseas, particularly in a market which has 1.2 billion mouths to feed, has so much upside, everybody's talking about it. And this is pre what everybody knows of China now, and everybody looks towards China for saviour and relief and opportunity.
We set up in China in June of 2006. That's 12 years ago; I was probably thinking about making this decision 15 years ago when pretty much nobody really was talking about China, doing business in China.
Even when we set up in 2006, we were one of the first-ever Australian companies to set up over there. And, anyway, the opportunity came around to set up in China, I pursued that opportunity wholeheartedly, despite the fact that my father didn't want to do it, didn't believe in it, thought it was too risky. So much so that, instead of using company money in order to pursue that opportunity, I mortgaged my own house because I’m one to put my money where my mouth is. I knew that it was too much of a risk for my family and for the business. I took that responsibility on myself, was living in a $4-million-dollar house in Longueville with 70% equity in it and enjoying that, leveraged and borrowed against that in order to invest with a business partner in China and set up Vic’s Premium Quality Meats Shanghai in China.
That wasn't enough for me. Six months later, nine months later I opened up Vic’s Premium Quality Meat Singapore, and within 18 months, it literally all came crashing down around me, because I had another really tough moment in my personal life. I made the decision to relocate to China, to live in Singapore, against my wife's wishes. I was thinking about us as a family and at that stage my kids were very young. They were 4 and 6 years of age.
(PS): So you packed the whole family.
(AP): Well, the plan was to pack the whole family. But it wasn't something that my wife wanted to do. She didn't want our kids to be raised and for them to grow up in China. So I ended up going on my own.
(PS): To Singapore or China?
(AP): China; to Shanghai.
(AP): And I lived there for 14 months primarily on my own. They came to visit a couple of times, obviously I came back to Australia. I left the day-to-day running and the management of the business to the family and a couple of other key people in the business, some really great people in my business, and pursued this amazing, golden—what I thought—golden opportunity to dominate and to replicate, more importantly, the success that we had in Australia. And I thought that everything that we did and the success that we enjoyed in Australia was transferable. And I set up this beautiful 4,000m2 facility in Shanghai with the idea to feed premium, Australian, high-quality meat to the population of China, and then in February of 2007 did the same thing in Singapore. Obviously Singapore's recognised as a global hub, a lot of travellers, business people travel through Singapore, use it as a bit of a hub, very dynamic, vibrant, was aware that Singapore was going through this big growth spurt. The Sands Casino complex was confirmed to happen, so I could see from an F&B and food and restaurant point of view that Singapore was about to take off also. So, set tow anchors in two different parts of Asia, but two different parts of Asia that I and to this day still wholeheartedly believe would have been great businesses had we stuck it out.
(PS): But, so what happened? Wrong partner, ran out of money?
(AP): Good question. What happened? My business here in Australia was suffering and struggling, and it's the mothership, obviously it's the business that, it's the flagship, it’s the business that my father and myself and my sister and my family created, built from nothing, from scratch. And it was struggling, it was teetering on a bit of an edge. We’d lost our sheen, we'd lost our mojo, competition had improved. And I'm blessed that I'm surrounded by a lot of great competitors out there and no longer is the gap between Vic's Meat and our competitors as big as it was, primarily for that first 10 or 12 years of our business. They've improved, they've gotten better. I still believe that we operate on another, different level to them, and that there is a gap between what we offer our customers to what they do. But there's no question, to their credit, they've bridged that gap. And with a combination of those few things our business was struggling back home and my obligation, my responsibility, was to come back and stabilise that. That's where my loyalties are. That's where the mothership was. That's where the flagship was. And, as most people know, I had to abort those plans overseas. Whenever you prematurely abort anything, it comes with a hefty cost. And I'm not bitter about any of it. Those people are business people. And I ended up selling my Singapore business to my partner because you can't do business in China unless you've got a local business partner. So I sold my shares of the business to that partner and I ended up selling the Singapore business which I had partners in also to Kalina which was a major import exporter in Singapore, and Kalina’s owned by a very wealthy Singaporean family.
But both of the sales meant that I had to take a bit of a haircut, significant haircut. I ended up losing a couple of million dollars. Had to sell my house in order to pay that money back. So, literally, my lifestyle, my family's lifestyle, everything that we'd built, everything that we got used to, came crumbling down around us, based on a business decision, that I made, a risk that I took. And that's it. Had to, on a personal level, start from scratch—and to be honest with you, there's no secrets about it, because it was in the paper only at the beginning of the year—it literally took my wife and myself nine years to put ourselves in a position to buy a family home again.
(PS): But it's super important, because I really don't think most people, even your closest customers understand just how deep you had to dig to keep this business alive, and that despite all the early success, a lot of really great, particularly risk taking entrepreneurs that you, the Elon Musks of the world, you doubled down on something, that you believed in and brought you to your knees, and, to this day, the rest of your family, your partners, in the business, and many other people in the industry are far better off than where you are, and yet your hunger to continue to be the best meat company in the world, despite all of these, still burns deeply within you 22 years later, and personally having known you for a lot of that period of time, it s***s me when I hear people talk about Vic’s is too big, they don't look after the little people anymore, you're too successful, all of these things, because they don't understand.
(AP): And that's fair for them to potentially have that opinion or whatever, because we're not perfect, but I never said that we were. We've always had a desperate desire to be the best at what we did. We've always had this desperate desire to operate at the highest possible level in terms of what we did as a business. But yeah, it's not all shiny, glossy and it wasn’t fun. And losing your house, I can promise everybody, is one of the most soul-destroying things that you'll ever go through on a personal level, because the obligation of a father, particularly the major breadwinner of the family, is to provide stability and a safe environment for his family, a roof over their head, and when you have to take that away and live like gypsies a little bit, not that I was on the bones of my a***, I don't want to give the impression that I was, but I'd worked my bloody a*** off to build a high level of personal wealth on the back of hard work and consistency, when that's all taken away from you, it really sorts out the men from the boys, as they say, and you can react and, I know I'm not going to lie, these thoughts were crossing my mind. But you can react in one or two ways: either you just throw the towel in and you go, “You know what, stuff this, I'm over it and bugger this and I'm out of here.” Or you find that extra gear, you dig deeper. And that was potentially a lot easier for me because I love that, I love my business and I love our family business, and I love Vic’s Meat and I love the industry, I love the people that I've met, from producers, suppliers, customers, the random general public, and the many thousands that shop at both of our retail stores. I, to this very day, despite the fact that I've got my moments, and I still do, I absolutely love what I do.
And for me, while it was hard and I'm going to tell you it wasn’t easy. And what I'm going to say, that I didn't have my moments and I didn't go to some pretty dark places based on the embarrassment. And based on having to start all over again, both personally and also professionally to a degree, because Vic's Meat was a shadow of what it was when I'd come back from China. I just did what I only know best. Which is just to rip in and rally the people around me that believed in me, in the business, and obviously my family who I have to primarily thank, my father, my sister. Despite what happened, they still believed in me as the leader of our family business. And they believed in the business. My wife, obviously, who stuck by me through thick, thin, highs, lows, ups, and downs, and I just got back in there and rebuilt.
But my soul and my confidence, I'm not going to lie, there was a few dents, but then I used that as perspective and I think that I came out of that experience and, losing your house, having a failure, because up until that point I didn't, it was all just, this, better roses, this beautiful, clean run for 10 or 12 years and then finally a couple of failures, but I believed that I came out of that whole experience a better person.
I'm still a risk taker. I still passionately believe in the business and the opportunities that are in front of it. But I came out of it more mature, more wiser, a bit more patient, so rather than just madly running into an opportunity, taking stock, taking a bit of a step back and thinking about it. I learnt the importance of surrounding myself with good people. And that's what I've been doing, on the back of that experience 10 years ago now since we exited China and Singapore, the last decade has been spent building depth in my business, building depth in my team, and surrounding myself with good people, people who've got a complementary skillset, people who will challenge me, will question me, which I encourage and I enjoy. But then the other thing that happened, that had to happen in order for me to truly, truly bounce back, because I did come back with my tail between my legs, and there were some people sadly. But it's all good, happens in every walk of life. There were people that were happy to see that I'd fell on my face. There were people that, within the industry, outside the industry, that thought that I was too big for my boots, had enjoyed too much success in a short, because success, supposedly in the media industry, is meant to be built over generations. You're not meant to build a generation's worth of success in 10 years like my father and I did.
So there were a few people that were quietly, happy, clapping that I'd fallen on my face—and I did. It brought me back a couple of pegs which I’m more than happy to acknowledge and admit, and I think it was the best thing that ever happened to me, because I came back better and stronger, and with more clarity in terms of my vision for my business. But I did need to do something else. Something slightly—what should I say—slightly personal, just to remind me that I haven't lost my touch, that I wasn't just this one-trick horse. And that's when the opportunity for Victor Churchill came about and it couldn't have come around at a better time. And also a worse time. And the reason why it couldn't have come back come around at a better time was because obviously I needed something to rebuild my confidence and rebuild my faith in the business and myself, and what we were able to achieve and do as a business.
(PS): Did you ever question, before you dive into Victor Churchill, the fact that you went to China and Singapore and that Australia really haemorrhaged, that the success was just built on your sheer determination as opposed to the underlying strength of the business, or the brand or the systems, or all of the other things that go to building a really scalable business? And the thought that the only way to keep this trajectory going was for you to work 18 hours a day, sleep three hours on a couch, or crash into a barricade on the Eastern Distributor was perhaps the skill that you had? And was there a realisation that if you were going to do this and do it properly that either you had to change the way you did things, or build a bigger team, better team, whatever it happened to be?
(AP): Yeah definitely, because I did realise that it wasn't sustainable working 18 hours a day and not sleeping and being exhausted and running myself into the ground and, I mean, I'm not getting any younger. I'd lost that, youth wasn't on my side anymore, and when you are at that age in your 20s and 30s you are able to bounce back, a lot better a lot more quickly, and all that sort of stuff. I mean, there were all those lessons and learnings around that sheer determination, guts, belief. While it's admirable, isn't enough to build a business that has any level of sustainability in terms of its growth and that process structure. Building the right team, focusing on different aspects of the business apart from sales and marketing, which I'm obsessed with, but production and finance and HR and all these other important facets and dimensions of the business is just as important, and that it was impossible for me to think that just my pure energy was enough in order to keep that together at least, keep it together for a long time.
So that's what the last decade’s been about, rebuilding the backbone of our business, investing just as much in HR, finance, marketing, manufacturing, production, logistics, technology and innovation, as much as I've invested in sales, which is what I did for probably the first decade. So yeah, all of those things are things that I've learnt out of the experience of those lows that I got to, and then coming out of it and surrounding myself with a network of people that I've been able to learn off and develop, keep developing and growing as a CEO, as a businessman, and as an individual.
(PS): Yep—get it.
(AP): So you want to talk about Victor Churchill now?
(PS): I do, in a nutshell though, I want to talk about your book, I want to talk about the industry because they're intertwined and I think people listening to this podcast perhaps are more inclined to be on the carnivore side of the ledger. But, as we all know, we live in in challenging times with all sorts of environmental, humanity and health issues to deal with, and meat seems to be something that is either loved or loathed. And I know for someone who's built a career around meat, you have some very contrarian views that most people won't expect and I do want to talk about that a bit.
(AP): Yeah, well, I'll keep the Victor Churchill bit brief because it has been well documented, and there's loads of different articles that you can read and pick up that will go into that story. But obviously the opportunity came around, the baton, to keep that rich history, the Churchill’s surrounds, the whole Churchill’s butcher shop site in Queen Street in Woollahra came about. And it came about on the back of, unfortunately, this decade's struggle of owner-operator retail butchers in this country to keep their doors open and to be able to compete for that dollar. That meat dollar that's being spent and compete against the major supermarkets and so forth.
Despite the fact that most people won't believe this, there is a romantic and emotional side to me. And I heard that this store, and at this point I didn't know how rich the history or how long the history of Churchill's was. But I heard that this store that had been a permanent fixture of Queen Street in Woollahra for a very, very long time, at least a few decades, was about to close its doors because it could no longer remain open. And I approached the landlord and the owner at that time, who was more than happy just to give it away about taking it over. And this was all fresh, extremely fresh, in respect to, I'd just lost my house and was renting and trying to rebuild our business, so I was stretching ourselves at a time when I shouldn't have been. But I had this vision to preserve this amazing history that I'd learnt a little bit about, heard about, and I signed the lease without asking for my dad's permission and my family's permission, and signed this lease to take over this shop with this very audacious, ambitious and risky concept, this concept to well and truly shine the spotlight that I believe should be shone on not only the craft of butchery but also retail butchers, and remind people of the importance of shopping locally and supporting local businesses, but doing it in a way that I'd never ever been attempted before. And that's it. I had this vision, it was a vision and a concept that I had in my head that I'd been developing for a decade based on this great lifestyle that I had and travelling overseas and seeing different cultures and different things.
And the idea and the seed for Victor Churchill was planted at the end of 2008. I didn't know that a couple months later the GFC would hit. So my bank who, at that point, believed in the vision, was my bank at that point for the last 18 years and were prepared to go in halves with me and lend me half of the fit-out costs in the build cost, changed their mind, and I basically had to decide on the spot whether I believed in this enough in order to dig that little bit deeper and for us to, as a family, dig that little bit deeper and borrow personally in order to realise this wild, wild vision that I had for Victor Churchill. Once again, my family have never done anything but back me and believe in me, and they did, and they gave me the money in order to commence the transformation of Churchill's, or what is now Victor Churchill.
And in September of 2009, despite the fact that pretty much every man his dog said that it wouldn't work, that the world was about to end on the back of the GFC, that credit became tighter, that bricks and mortar retail was struggling, that online shopping was the biggest thing that was about to take over the world. Remember this is nine years ago, not now, but that's what everybody was saying. In September of 2009 I opened up the most audacious, wild, amazing, beautiful, crazy and risky retail butcher shop concept, potentially craziest retail concept and store, because that's how it's referred to it's not just a butcher shop, it's a retail experience, in the world, but I believed in it.
(PS): What did you invest in it?
(AP): So, the number $2 million is commonly f referred to in articles and so forth, but it was a little bit under. By the time everything was set up, POS and stock, and all that sort of stuff, it was probably a little bit under $2.5 million which was unheard of. I mean, you're talking about most butcher shops spending 10% maximum, maybe 20% maximum of that on a fit-out, by any stretch of the imagination—crazy numbers.
(PS): Yep. But then it went on award winning, not just, as you said, not just butcher shop, but award-winning retail shop, won the hearts of the most infamous, famous, respected people, like your dear late friend Anthony Bourdain, to the point the concept is in discussions to take to the toughest and most exciting market in the world, being New York City.
(AP): Yeah. So, never in my wildest dreams that I would have ever thought that Victor Churchill would resonate to a level that it has domestically, let alone internationally, but, obviously, was voted the best retail store in the world at the Boy Awards in New York in 2010, has had all sorts of people make a beeline to visit it. It's almost become a tourist attraction and something that you have to see if you’re ever visiting Sydney. And all of that's amazing, the awards, the accolades, the pats on the back, Apple sending their new staff there to get inducted in the first few years that Victor Churchill was open because they wanted their staff to understand and appreciate what out-of-the-box thinking really meant in terms of retail—hugely humbling.
However, just as importantly and more importantly, obviously something that's been warmly embraced by the local Woollahra community and surrounding community, because they represent our bread and butter, they're the people who are very proud that Victor Churchill is in their street, is in their suburb, who's in their neighbourhood. It's a hugely successful business, which brings me just as much satisfaction as the accolades and the fame and the opportunity that's come on the back of Victor Churchill. We very proudly welcome 1,700–1,800 customers a week there. It's a $5 million-dollar-a-year business. So yeah, it's blown out of the water all and any expectations that I had. So, a really proud moment for me. Really proud moment for my family. I think it's a really proud moment for the Australian meat industry, it's looked upon as a beacon of hope all around the world and locally as a bastion of hope that you know the craft the butchery will continue and be preserved by retail owner-operations.
(PS): But also, and it's probably the perfect segue-way into talking about your book and some of the challenges that the industry is, and not just Victor Churchill, but the other retail store of Vic’s Meat market. The food service business, the wholesale business of primarily stocking the most ethically grown, ethically produced meat in the country, and the importance of supporting that side of the industry, because you and I've been talking a lot about in recent days over the course of the last week the documentary, The carnivore’s Dilemma, and the real challenges that the industry has faced since the decision to go down the industrialised farm route and, depending on what statistic you listen to, between 14.5% and 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions come from that, from our industry.
(AP): The meat industry.
(PS): From the meat industry and even for those of us that do eat meat, do enjoy meat, that do support meat. It's morally challenging to actually continue to be in the industry and think, how do you actually make it better? How do you encourage people to eat better quality, to pay for better quality? To understand that unless you're prepared to pay for it, and that's whether it's retail customers or commercial customers, our food service customers, but everyone being prepared to pay for the produce is a bit like what Patagonia did in the adventure wear and clothing industry decades ago. But that thinking, and the book that you've laboured over for the last three years and what drove it, and what are the messages of the book, and those things, I think we should spend the rest of our time together tonight talking about that.
(AP): Yeah sure. And just to frame this having the opportunity to write this book couldn't have happened at a better time in my life. I do honestly believe after the last 22 years that I am in a position to have an opinion in terms of meat in general and, more importantly, where our industry is headed, what we need to be wary of, what we need to start thinking about, what we need to start opening up some serious conversations in and around it. It's a tough one because there's people out there that are listening to this going, “Well, this guy's built his whole career and his life around selling as much meat as he can; his success and his fortune, the money and his lifestyle has been, is primarily on the back of selling meat and selling a lot of meat.” And, as you mentioned, you know meat and where meat sits at the moment is firmly within in the middle of the crosshairs of a lot of people out there. There's a lot of questions being asked about the industry, about meat consumption, about everything.
And the opportunity to put pen to paper and my thoughts on paper, with the incredible work of Libby Travers who is my muse, who is somebody who, by default, gets the best out of me because she challenges me, she makes me think about things both from different angles but also encourages me to think about things, if I firmly believe them and wholeheartedly believe them, it was a body of work that we both stuck our neck out to write and present to people to read, to think about, to inform, to educate. Once again, another moment in my career in my life where I never, ever thought that I'd pick up a book that had my name on it, or pick up a book that I was a part of, or I had the opportunity to write it. And yeah, there's a lot to digest, particularly for our country, for Australia, for a big chunk of the Western world who are literally obsessed with meat.
And I'm a significant consumer of meat. I love meat. All of us love meat. But there's some big questions to be asked in and around whether or not our current addiction, obsession with meat and the consumption of meat is sustainable on both levels, on two levels: sustainable in terms of our own health, which is important; and also sustainable in terms of the world, the environment, climate change, resources, water, and primarily petroleum. So yeah, there's a few things there that all of us have to take a lot of responsibility for. However—and I'm going to own this statement because I wholeheartedly believe in it—absconding from consuming meat or not eating meat altogether isn't the answer either because, one, I believe—wholeheartedly believe and is supported by doctors, medicine and people who are a lot more smarter in this area than I am—that protein is part of a balanced diet, is important, is what keeps us focused, alive, healthy. It's an important part of the way that we live, and our own health and well-being.
(PS): I'll caveat that by agreeing but saying that meat that's grown in the right way without antibiotics, without growth hormone, largely pasture-fed for the main part of its live in a natural environment rather than in an industrialised cage where the vast majority, 80% in many countries, of the meat that most people consume from, the big supermarkets, Coles, Woolworths, ALDI here in Australia, and God knows what else, everywhere else. So there is a big difference between eating the meat that we sell as an organisation and the meat that most people buy from supermarkets and refuse to pay good money for.
(AP): Yeah definitely. I'll challenge you also on that also Paul, because I don't want to just point the finger at people who are industrially farming protein because at the end of the day I think all of us have to take massive responsibility for our own decisions and our own actions.
I believe those industries are only there because, two things, people want to keep consuming meat as much as they are. Because in Australia, in this country, we're all primarily responsible for consuming close to 100 kilos of meat, beef, lamb, pork, and chicken per head per year, which is a couple of kilos of meat that we're all eating every single week. So I think those industries exist because there's demand there. So that's one thing, and I think those industries exist, that industrial is more efficient, but they’re less healthier, because there's not as many nutrition, new nutrients and trace minerals, and so forth in that meat. Because of the price point also, that the vast majority of people don't want to pay a premium for meat. So as long as that exists, as long as we want to eat it, eat as much of it as we are and don't want to pay a lot for it, those forms of factory farming will always exist. So there's a lot of responsibility that we all need to take in respect to our consumption of meat and that type of meat that we're eating, and what we're prepared to pay for it, because at the end of the day the more humanely raised, the more naturally raised protein does cost more. And if we want to continue to eat as much as we do, you need a lot of money in order to be able to maintain the volume or the quantity of meat that we’re all used to consuming, if we're going to eat better quality meat. So it probably brings me to one of the three significant guiding principles that the book was written around. Now, I don't profess for a second to have the answers for everything, because this problem’s far bigger and far greater than I can solve on my own.
(PS): And universal.
(AP): But there are three underlying themes that weave their way throughout the entire book, three potential solutions, or three potential ideas for all of us to think about in order to get to at least some level of equilibrium, some level of balance in respect to what's going on in an industry that I'm so passionate about, and one of those things that I challenge people to think about in order to help, because we're going to need a big number of people to get behind this, if there's going to be any potential solution to this.
(PS): Yes so, context on that, 60 billion animals a year are killed for human consumption.
(AP): That’s right. And by 2050, there's going to be 9 billion people on this planet. They're saying, at that point and thereafter, there's going to have to be another half a planet purely to produce enough food for those 9 billion people. And however many millions, hundreds of millions and billions of people continue to populate this world.
(PS): To maintain the current consumption levels.
(AP): So another half a planet. So that's how real this whole thing is. And unless I suppose we start talking about this and start changing some habits, particularly some bad habits, in terms of the amount of meat that we all are responsible for consuming, and making a difference with where you pay your money. Nothing will change. As long as there's that demand for cheap protein that just fills our belly but doesn't do anything else.
(PS): Well it does a whole lot else and I think this is an important point, because I think it's the start of the conversation to get people to understand. And we talked about this, that you have two choices: to pay for better quality nutritional or antibiotic-free, hormone-free meat now; or you're going to pay an incredible price for health care and environmentally.
(AP): Later on in your life.
(PS): And it's that simple, it's documented that it's that simple, so people can think that they're doing the right thing frugally by buying stuff cheaper now, but long term it's just kicking the tin down the road.
(AP): It will catch up with you and, like you said, it is proven. You either stump up and pay upfront now and save all the consequences of those repercussions further on in your life caused by eating food, just food in general, not just meat, that isn't nutritionally balanced and good for you, or save all that money upfront. Continue this, eat the sort of food that we are, but it will catch up invariably later on in life, and the health costs of that, not just for you personally but for the economy and the world at large, is probably even greater or bigger than finding a solution now.
So those guiding principles, I suppose, which the book was written in and around, because at the end of the day I'm not going to sit here and profess that Libby and I reinvented the wheel in respect to the topic of meat, because, not to trivialise it, but meat’s meat and it's well documented how meat’s raised and produced, slaughtered, killed, the different cuts of meat, how to cook it. What we have done is to sift through all of the information out then distil it and put it in our own words, and put it in the context of what we believe meat is and what really good meat is, and how it's raised and how it’s slaughtered and broken down, and I've shared 110 of our favourite recipes in and around meat, but the three guiding principles that the book was anchored by are the following, in no particular order, to eat less meat but better quality, which fundamentally goes against what I've been doing my whole career which is trying to sell as much meat as I can. But I've always been obsessed with selling the absolute, best-quality meat that I possibly can. But the concept is to eat less meat, but better quality.
Eat more of the animal, which I can really proudly say has been something, and a philosophy, and an idea and a concept that has been more broadly accepted and embraced in the last, definitely the last, five to eight years that I've been in the meat industry. But there's a lot more work that can be done particularly at a more granular level. And in terms of the general public, we're giving them the confidence to explore more of the animal than just those real popular cuts which tend to be the primal cuts.
But it obviously—and this is one of the philosophies that bound my father and myself together in respect to what we do in the business that we created which was that, ultimately we're in the business of taking an animal's life and if we're going to do that then the ultimate respect that we can show that animal is not to waste anything and to utilise every single part of that animal which nicely segue-ways into that conversation that we had a while ago about my father's passion, unwavering passion to always sell offal because that is part of the animal—love it or hate it—it's part of the animal and, prepared the right way, is delicious. And in order to subscribe to that philosophy, and my father or I do which is, if we want get to take the life of hour more and then we're going to sell and promote as much of it as we can and not waste any of it.
And then the third concept, particularly a philosophy and an idea, and a concept in and around potentially creating this imbalance that exists in terms the consumption of meat and the impact that that's having on your health and the environment, is to eat native. And that applies more so for this country in my opinion, than in the country, but it is universal in terms of everybody's responsibility to eat what is native to your country, to your environment. And if we think about it, you know what's native to Australia? It's the kangaroo, one of those animals, and it's abundantly available. There's 80 million of them approximately, hopping around in the greater parts of this country. It's lean, it's healthy, zero carbon footprint, because it's a product of its own environment, sustains itself on what's available in its natural environment, high in trace minerals, relatively cheap, particularly when you compare it to lamb and beef, yet we have a bit of an issue and there's a lot of stigma associated with kangaroo because, I don't know. It appears on our coat of arms, we all grew up watching Skippy, and we can't force ourselves to sit down and enjoy a piece of kangaroo, which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to me, because if we are addicted and if we do love consuming protein, then kangaroo’s no different to beef, lamb, pork.
I'm sure hundreds years ago when whoever was sitting around, shooting the breeze, looked at a cow out in the field and said, “Ah, you know, what would one of those things taste like?” And it was like, “Ah you wouldn't! I wouldn't be caught dead eating one of those things!”
Now I suppose it's just assumed that beef is acceptable to eat…
(PS): Of course.
(AP): …and good for you, and it's fine to eat at your parents’, growing up, gave it to you to eat. So by default you assumed, if my parents were feeding me this, then it must be acceptable. It must be good for you.
(PS): Just the propaganda machine.
(AP): Well propaganda, or people's preference, or penchant.
(PS): Yeah. but propaganda starts at a very young age—shows like Skippy. At the end of the day it is just false evidence that we digest in the wrong way.
(AP): So, for me, this book—Paul obviously, this amazing opportunity to put a lot of ideas, thoughts and my passion, my love, for the industry, down on paper for people to read, enjoy, to educate, to inform, talks about the industry that I am passionate about, that many generations before me came and applied their craft to, and their passion and their love for, there's some really great, interesting, beautiful recipes, some classics there that everybody can cook which utilises the whole animal, every single cut has a recipe for it, so there's no excuse not to use a particular cut that you might not be comfortable or confident using because there's a great recipe to match it with. It talks about all the different cultures, because every single culture has one of those classic recipes whether it's Bulgogi, or Vienna Schnitzel, or curry, or spaghetti Bolognese, there's all these beautiful cultures that are weaved through the book, based on all the different recipes that have been included.
But at the same time there is a deep desire for me to encourage people to think about their own personal consumption of meat, and the difference, the change that they can make for themselves and on behalf of their families and loved ones, arm them with the information, arm them with the confidence to ask the right questions at their local butcher to buy the sort of meat that they feel comfortable paying for, paying that small premium. But enjoying it even more so because the quality is so much better, because the way the animal was raised, because it's better than something that might be slightly cheaper, and really encouraging them to think about the way they consume meat, encouraging them and giving them confidence to eat more of the animal, and hopefully giving them the confidence and removing this stigma with eating whatever’s naturally and abundantly available in this country, and forget about trying to challenge people to eat kangaroo, there's 110 million camels in central Australia. So if we keep consuming and if we want to refer to meat as a resource, if you want to keep consuming meat the way we are, it’s not going to be around for much longer. And we won't have any other choice but to eat whatever is available. And by the sounds of it, it might be the only things that we don't want to eat at the moment which is stuff like kangaroo and camel.
(PS): Yeah, get it. I'm putting you on the spot with this because I love all those principles and you know that. How does it tie in with your vision for the business? So this, particularly the first one encouraging people to eat less meat, sounds really crazy for the guy that's the CEO of a national meat wholesaling and retail business. How do you go about bringing about that change, when at the moment we’re largely providing all things for all people from a protein perspective? Are there things that you'd like to do differently? How do you educate consumers, both retail consumers, food service consumers, about the importance of changing our habits and is the book just the catalyst to really start doubling down on this philosophy that you believe in?
(AP):I said earlier the timing of the book is perfect for me. I’m at a certain crossroads in terms of the business and the career, and how us, of legacy that I want to leave behind and potentially the legacy that I want to leave for my own children to then inherit in order to keep the spirit of this great business going, For me, I've always been obsessed quality over quantity. I've always wanted to be the best that what I do, I've always wanted to support the best producers, farmers, the best product out there. Vic’s Meat has never been the cheapest. We've never pretended to be the cheapest there is and I acknowledge a huge education piece that happens and I don't think the bulk of, and it's only been in recent times that shows like The Carnivore’s Dilemma and many other conversations in and around how sustainable the meat industry is, is started to be discussed and talked about.
I think we're in the infancy and in the early stages of developing some real, important strategies that we could all subscribe to in order to correct this imbalance and, potentially, the book is this first opportunity for myself, mentally, to prepare for that as a business and as a citizen of the world. It's not going to be easy undoing what's been 70 years of industrialisation because, at the end of the day, pre-World War II there was no such thing as an industrial farm. There might have been a few farmers with 10 or 20 head of cattle, there might have been a few chicken farmers that might have had 1,000 chickens, not 100,000 chickens in a barn at any given time.
The industry's become a product of demand and a product of this insatiable, unbalanced, unsustainable demand for meat consumption. There's a burgeoning middle class in mainland China that want to have their hit of protein also, so there's a lot of competition for protein around the world. Yet the amount of space and land and fertile land to grow this, any type of protein, is diminishing. Climate change is a significant consequence of us clearing land for grazing, and growing grain and crop in order to feed animals. There's a lot to be talked about and there's a lot to be considered in terms of what happens next. From my point of view, my obsession for dealing with ethical, hardworking, passionate, high-quality farmers producing a really good quality product is there as much as it was the first day that we opened our doors. That's, in essence, my position on it. So it is a bit of a breakthrough moment for me to be able to put these thoughts and these ideas, and potentially raise some questions in and around where everything's headed in respect to our industry. Obviously innovation continues to happen in our industry, there's plant-based meat solutions both currently available on the market and in development. So there's a lot of money and there's a lot of investment that's happening in that side of things. And the jury's still out in respect to that as a viable and healthy alternative to traditional types of meat.
I believe there's still a lot that we could be doing in respect to some of the traditional forms of farming as a business and on a personal level. The last three years I've spent with John Shawyer from Torello Rose Veal developing this business model to salvage as many of these bull calves that are born in the dairy industry and are by-product of the dairy industry, and put them through this incredible program where we take care of them, nurture them, and allow them to reach their, and go through their through their whole life cycle to be turned into this beautiful, delicate, tasty, humanely raised veal. Now, there's 400,000 of these bull calves that are born into the dairy industry every year. The bulk of is not consumed, the bulk of it's not used, the bulk of it's wasted and for us to be able to potentially turn that product into another alternative, another option apart from the typical traditional options that we always defer to, being beef, lamb, chicken, and pork, and introduce that really healthy, well-raised, delicious product has got to be able to go a long way to helping take the pressure off these other types of protein, both industrially farmed.
(PS): And not otherwise. Yep. What about then—and super conscious of time because it's long, late in the day, long day but—the Food Trust platform that you're working on with PwC? Because I think the big challenge for many, many people is the ability to understand the difference, the way in animals raised, the way it's killed the way it's fed, the nutritional quality of it, the nutritional quantities of it. Food Trust, what is it? And how is it going to help the end consumer at the end of the day make a wise decision?
(AP): I'm going to admit on behalf of the industry that we haven't done a particularly good job over the last 20 or 30 years, couple of decades, of demystifying a lot of the things that create a lot of confusion out there in respect to meat, and not just in terms of what is good-quality meat, but all the things that you just said, how it's raised, what it’s fed, it's life, and all the things that everybody is very curious about, because we're all conscious of what we're putting into our mouths now we're all conscious of the food that we're eating and we want to know more about it, what its history was, how it was raised, how it was farmed, where it was raised, where it was farmed, how it was fed, how it was slaughtered, all that stuff. And there is a lot of grey area there and there's a few smokes and mirrors out there that have been put in place in order to potentially confuse people even more, because certain people profiteer out of the fact that there's a lot of grey area in respect to how a product gets from the farm to your plate, and the Food Trust platform, for me, is something that I'm massively passionate about, because it puts the power back into the hands of the consumer through technology, through some amazing technology, block chain technology.
It’s reality. This is not just in its conceptual stage, but it will be reality with smart phone technology and just with technology in general, that people will be able to scan a piece of meat, whether it's been cooked or not cooked, whether it's been chopped up or left as a whole piece, and be able to know exactly every single thing there is to know about that animal, down to the farmer that raised that, and to give them that transparency, that third party validation, that independent information about the true origins of that product, the true age of it, what it’s been fed, how it's been raised, the full coal chain of it, all the things that, as a business, we've prided ourselves on, all the information that we've openly and transparently always given our customers about the product, that we source the product, that we sell the product, that we promote through our businesses, all that information will be there presented in a very, very nondescript, invisible fashion using block chain technology in order to give that extra level of peace of mind and comfort in terms of where that food came from. So Food Trust, it’s that, it’s transparency, it's traceability, it's honesty, trust, it's about giving the power back to the consumer in terms of knowing exactly what they're buying or what they're about to eat or purchase, or whatever it might be.
(PS): And I do think for the conscious consumer that it's going to be the thing that moves the needle, that someone's ability to be able to tell whether a piece of meat has antibiotics, or the animal has been inhumanely killed, kept, whatever it happens to be. I honestly do think is going to be the thing that gets people from saying, this is all nice, and the world's going to blow up, and all of those kinds of things that we all tend to put our head in the sand, despite the evidence that if we keep doing it for very much longer that, in a relatively short period of time, we really do have some serious problems.
But I think the evidence that the Food Trust platform is going to provide people is going to be the thing that gives it catalyst, gives the change real catalyst.
(AP): For those people that are already, and there's many of them that are doing the right thing, they're not going to have they're not going to worry at all. If anything it'll just add even more value to their product.
(PS): Of course.
(AP): This is about marginalising and identifying those people who might not be doing the right thing or might operate within that grey area. And it's about making them a lot more accountable. And I'm sure that there's some of them out there that will take the challenge on, that will address certain things within their business in order to be a lot more transparent about what they do. But obviously it's going to cause a lot of issues and problems for those people who, forever and a day, have conducted business in a very untoward fashion and used the naivety of people out there, or whatever it might be, in order to prosper and benefit.
(PS): Amazing. In closing, man, 22 years deep in, you know, a pretty young career so far. What's the next 22 years going to bring, do you think?
(AP): See, I'm up for the next 22 years more than I ever have been, because I think it will be the most challenging next decade or two for my business, for the whole industry, as a couple of things come home to roost. I don't think we can continue to neglect the impact that our industry is having on the environment where that's the overuse of finite resources like oil and water, whether it's the damage that we're doing to the land through using pesticides and fertilisers to grow crops, and so forth, in order to feed the bulk of the animals that have been raised in the more industrial sort of way, whether it's the amount of land that we continue to clear in order to create more area for us to grain, grow crops, or run cattle or animals, which is obviously having a huge impact in terms of what happens in respect to methane production and climate change.
It's a real interesting time and I'm taking full responsibility for the impact that our business might be having. With respect to all of those things I want to be there in the chair, so to speak, being held accountable for potentially what we might be doing, or what we can do better, or how we can become a more responsible supplier of meat to our customers. I don't want to shirk that responsibility. While I sit here and don't have all the answers, I'm happy to sit here and be a part of the solution. I'm not ready to cash in. I'm not ready to give up. I'm not ready to throw the towel in. I'm not ready to retire. While I think the next five to 10 years especially are going to be the most difficult and the most challenging that I've ever experienced in the last 22 years of our industry, because it's tough, business is tough and business is getting even tougher. Whether it's the increasing and rising costs of doing business, whether that's all the inputs that go into your cost base as a business, whether that's labour, or electricity costs, or your food costs, all of that's increasing your ability to charge more for what you do is becoming harder. There's bigger, macro issues at play, overseas demand for particularly Australian meat because we do still, and we have for a very long time, produced the cleanest, greenest, safest, best quality, most consistent meat in the world, and the rest of the world wants that product because the rest of the world recognises that they don't do what we do.
So yeah, I think, what I can assure you, what I can assure everybody, is that our goal to be the best at what we do, and to do it with a conscience, and to do it with high moral values, ethics, honesty, and integrity, that won't ever change, that's part of our DNA as a business. That's part of our DNA as a family, that will never change and we won't shirk any responsibility in terms of doing anything that we can in order to maintain the sustainable nature of our industry, because it is an important industry. It's a valuable stakeholder in terms of the world, economy, animals grazing the earth and fertilising the earth and doing what animals do, which is to graze, is part of the bigger ecosystem that the world relies on in order to create that balance. So yeah, that's what potentially the next 22 years looks like for me.
(PS) We're going to the whole 22 in order to have any chance of moving the needle.
(AP): Yeah, and do it, continuing to do a lot of good, because I believe when I reflect on the last 22 years, I think our business—without patting ourselves on the back, but every now and again there's nothing wrong with doing that either—but I think that our business has done a lot of good. We've educated, we've informed, we've pushed the limits of what we do as a business in terms of getting people to think about meat. Getting them to embrace other cuts. I see our business as a real innovator and pioneer in terms of what we've done, and the footprint that we've created in respect to what a meat wholesaler is, whether it was the introduction of dry aging as a way of preparing meat, whether it was my father's passion for offal, or his passion for, which it's mislabelled, secondary cuts because I don't consider them to be secondary cuts, they're briquettes and hangers and flank steaks and inside skirts are just as in fact just as valuable in my opinion as your traditional prime cuts like sirloins and tenderloins and cube rolls and all that sort of stuff so we haven't been perfect. We've created a successful business. Maybe there's a little bit more refining of who we are as a business that needs to happen over the next few years.
But I think we've done a lot of good. We're not perfect but we're not shirking any responsibility in terms of our role as a business in this bigger landscape that exists out there in terms of some of the real big issues that are facing the whole world in respect to what's happening out there in terms of the answer, this unsustainable consumption of meat, the impact that factory farming is having, the impact that that's occurring in terms of the consumption of finite resources to produce every single kilo of meat that's produced around the world. So yeah, it's overwhelming but I'm not backing down from my role, or our role as a business in respect to being a major citizen, so to speak, in the greater meat industry or in the world.
(PS) Yeah, and I think the book, in absolute closing, is your peg in the ground, saying, “I acknowledge that I've got some philosophies around work, we’re committed as a business to doing that, bringing the best quality, but actually encouraging all of you to eat less of it, hopefully more of you eating better quality, and less of the shitty stuff you get elsewhere,” but also platforms like this, where people will have the opportunity to express their opinions, which I have no doubt that they will do, and for us to commit to the continued education and pioneering the changes and, as you say, not getting it right all the time, but committing to continual change.
(AP): And improvement and being part of the solution.
(PS): Yep, amazing. You should get home to see your family.
(AP): Thanks, sure, has been a lot of fun. We can talk for days, almost.
(PS): Oh we’ll be back. Thank you buddy and good luck with the book. We'll put all of the details on where people can get it up on the show, notes and things, Out 1st of November, Meat: The Ultimate Companion, available at all good bookstores.
(AP): And online. And obviously Meat: The Ultimate Podcast on all platforms, and it's good to get the first one under the belt and looking forward to welcoming a lot of great friends and customers and suppliers, and all sorts of different walks of life onto our podcast to share their story, good stories.
(PS): In the little cubbyhole in Maroubra.
(AP): Thank you mate.
(PS): Thank you buddy.