Host Name: Paul Shaw (PS)
Guest Name: Victor Puharich (VP)
(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.
(Host Paul Shaw) Okay, Vic we're on again. Buddy, we cannot talk about your story without talking about your past, your family. So can we start there, Vic? Where you were born? How big your family, what your dad did, what your mum did?
(Victor Puharich): I came from a really, really big family, and there were four sisters and three brothers. Actually there were eight of us, and my second eldest brother passed away during the second world war.
(VP): No, he got sick, and in those days there was not much medicine.
(PS): And how old were you?
(VP): No, I was born after the war.
(PS): Oh okay. So he died before you were born.
(VP): Yeah. There were four sisters, three brothers, and I was the youngest in the family. And it was not easy, my father was doing his job, what he was doing for all his life. And my mother—
(PS): In Croatia.
(VP): In Croatia, at that time it was Yugoslavia. And my mum, she worked really, really hard, taking care of the family and cooking, washing, there was no washing machines in those days.
(PS): Was all hand wash.
(VP): It was not really easy. Watching my brothers growing up and how hard they were working, joining my father in butchery.
(PS): Your dad was a butcher his whole career?
(VP): All his career. My grandfather, and both of my brothers.
(PS): Incredible. Was it retail butchery?
(VP): Yeah. My father was on retail store, plus in that time you had to buy your own stock, and you had to do your own killing, then you take the stuff too.
(PS): Even as a retailer butcher, you’d have to do your own slaughtering.
(VP): Yeah, his own slaughtering. You could pay other people to do it but—
(PS): It cost money.
(VP): He was skilful, looking to do that kind of stuff.
(VP): And then I saw him take in my brothers with him, because they were much older than I am. It's what, 14, 14-year gap. Then you've got a 17-year gap.
(PS): Incredible. Yeah. And what about your sisters, what did they do?
(VP): Mainly helping Mum.
(PS): But as they grew older, did they have careers or did they just become mums too?
(VP): Two of my sisters they, because I have an auntie living in Serbia, they went over there looking for better lives, they went there and they married after, all this stuff. Then my second oldest sister, she got married and she went to Australia. She was the first to come to Australia.
(PS): Yeah. And where did she come to Sydney?
(VP): No, she went to Western Australia and she was in Kalgoorlie for nearly 25 years; she lives in Perth at the moment.
(PS): Wow. Incredible. Never went back to Croatia.
(VP): Never went back. She’s got five kids, and a lot of the kids were working in a mine in Kalgoorlie.
(PS): Incredible. Was your childhood normal though, Vic? Sport, playing?
(VP): It was normal. I had a pretty good childhood because when I was born after the war in 1951, things were getting better. There was more food on the table. But listening to these stories of my brothers and my sisters, they were doing tough. We were doing better than anybody else because at least we had the meat.
(PS): Why did your parents send your siblings to Australia?
(VP): Everybody wanted…
(PS): Better life.
(VP): Better lives. Yeah.
(PS): Grass is greener.
(PS): A little bit ironic, hey?
(VP) Better opportunities.
(PS): And living back then, what was the view, was Australia considered a safe place?
(VP): Definitely safe space.
(PS): In Australia, all their restaurants were very popular in those days.
(PS): Did all of your siblings leave Yugoslavia, Croatia before you left?
(VP): They left before me. Not all of them, my two brothers and one of my sisters. I was I was fourth
(PS): And the other two stayed at home.
(V): The three.
(PS): Sorry, there’s seven of you.
(PS): And the intention was, you’d come to Australia, get some skills, save some money, and then come back to Croatia?
(VP): Yeah. That was the reason why I came.
(PS): And how did you get here? Ship, I'm assuming?
(VP): I came on a ship. Yeah. My oldest brother was in Sydney and he brought me in.
(PS): But you came on the ship on your own?
(VP): I came on a ship.
(PS): How long?
(VP): Took me 32 days because the Swiss Canal was closed that time because of the war, and I went all around Africa.
(PS): 32 days. How old were you?
(VP): I was eight and a half.
(VP): Yeah. $20 in my pocket.
(PS): I would imagine, never have been away from Mum and Dad.
(VP): Never. I went few a few times to Serbia to see my, sisters. That was the only travelling I’d ever done.
(PS): You went with your parents though?
(VP): When I was 16, 17, I went on my own. It was easy, you jumped on a train and…
(PS): Off you go.
(VP): Overnight, you are there.
(PS): What was the advice of your mum and your dad in particular, when you came to Australia? He was a butcher, did he want you to go into butchery?
(VP): I didn't want to leave because I was the only one left with my parents, and they were already getting old, and I was taking, helping them doing lots of things for them, and when my second eldest brother came back, he came back for good to Yugoslavia (also Croatia).
(PS): Having been to Perth.
(VP): And being in Perth. He was in Kalgoorlie in a mine for six and a half years.
(PS): What was he doing there, manual stuff? Or whatever.
(VP): Gold. Looking for gold, it's a hard job.
(PS): Did he find gold?
(VP): He did find a lot of it. Yeah. He found gold, definitely. He’d done pretty good for six and a half years, but he didn't want to do it. He said, “This is too hard, I don't want to lose my life”, because he was pretty young. Then he came back and, actually when I finished high school, because my brother, he opened a small business like a supermarket, and I started working with him.
(PS): Just on the floor, just shelves.
(VP): Just shelves. Packing shelves, and after that, serving the customers and doing this sort of stuff, plus helping. I didn't like school. I didn't want to do it.
(PS): Didn't like school?
(VP): Give me anything else to do.
(PS): Did you study hard, Vic?
(VP): Not really. And my brother said to me, because in those days it was compulsory to go to the army. During the Yugoslavia time, because there was communism and all these things. I went a month and a half just for the training, and they check you up if you are 100% good. And my brother said, “Ask them if they're going to give you permission to leave, before you go into the army, if you can get the permission to leave.” They gave me permission to leave for two years, I got a visa. Yeah. I came to Sydney.
(PS): And arriving here, $20 in your pocket. No English, I'm assuming.
(VP): No, I couldn’t speak any English.
(PS): So what did you do, man? Like what does an 18-year-old kid, comes to Sydney, did any of your siblings live here?
(VP): My brother lived here.
(PS): Brother lived here on the Northern Beaches. So you went and lived with him?
(VP): I lived with him and I arrived on Sunday, two o'clock in afternoon. It was a small community club in in Warriewood.
(PS): A Croatian club.
(VP): All Yugoslavian clubs in those days. And he said to me, “Let's go to the club, have drinks, introduce you to some of the people from the same village” which I come from, in Croatia. I met some people there and I met a few guys, and they asked me what my plans are, what I'm doing, and I said, “I need a job.” And one guy said to me, “If you want to, you can come and start Monday.”
(PS): Doing what?
(VP): It was just like...
(PS): On a building site?
(PS): But back to your dad. Did your dad give you any advice, or just go and earn money and then come back here?
(VP): Definitely. I was brought up in a very, very good home.
(PS): Loving and kindness, that sort of thing?
(VP): Definitely. And respect to the parents, respect to the elder brothers. We still have amazing relationships. My mother and my father, after 50, 55 years, they passed away within one month, 1984.
(PS): Both parents?
(VP): Both of them in three weeks. I went to the funeral of my father, and I got back, and after three weeks, my mum died.
(PS): Sad for you guys. Good for them though, really good for them.
(VP): They were always living together. My brother asked them to come and live with him, because they were getting older, but they said, “No, no, no, we are happy living where we are.”
(VP): They were visiting them every day.
(PS): How old were they when they died?
(VP): My mother was pretty young. My father was 79 and my mum was 72.
(PS): Yeah, my mum died at 72 too. It is young. Although, back a little while—
(PV): In those days that was common.
(PS): Yeah, average.
(VP): Yeah. If you live to 70, 75, you’re pretty good.
(PS): Yeah. Yeah. And tell me, Vic, when you got to Australia, the culture in so far as acceptance of the good old-fashioned “wog”, as we used to call them?
(VP): Yeah. We were wog those days. You didn't get upset.
(PS): It wasn't disrespectful.
(VP): In those days, every Friday we used to go to the park. And I see things, people getting into punch-ups and all these things.
(PS): What about you, any punch-ups?
(VP): No, never. And I see my friends and things, and after five minutes they go inside in the pub and drink together. It's not like now.
(PS): Old school.
(VP): It was completely different, it was much better. People work much harder. They want to do better things for their future and their family.
(PS): Yeah. But was that always your intention, Vic, that you’re just calm, put your head down, work, save some money, and get on with life?
(VP): Always. Even in my early days I never asked my father for money. I was 12, 13 years old; I was earning my own money in those days.
(PS): So how long did you stay working with the builder?
(VP): I was with the builder I think, 11 months, then I went to work on another job that was paying really, really good. In those days it was not, especially around Frenchs Forest, most of the time they didn’t have the proper storage. And we were working. I was working with one Croatian guy, I had the contract to dig the drains and all that stuff, and I was there for about, nearly another 10, 11 months. But I didn't want to work outside because it was very hot.
(PS): In the sun. Yep. So where to from there?
(VP): My brother was working as a butcher. He was working in Frenchs Forest for for one of the export companies, and he was making double what I was making, I was making really good, 71, 72 people were working for $40, $45, that was the wage.
(PS): In a day, or?
(VP): A week.
(PS): $45 dollars a week.
(VP): Yeah. And I was making more than double. I was earning $100, $120, plus Saturday and Sunday. A friend of mine, he had the mowing business, cutting lawns on Palm Beach, all those big homes.
(PS): Were there big homes back then still?
(VP): Massive, big homes in those days, always, yeah. And he used to pay me $45 for Saturday and Sunday.
(PS): Just to mow the lawns.
(VP): Just to mow the lawns and pick the leaves and all this bulls***. I love it!
(PS): The most beautiful place in the world.
(VP): Amazing house.
(PS): Pretty girls walking around?
(VP): Yeah, all rich people and they come around, they offer you the drinks, and, you know.
(PS): Good looking young Croatian boy. Where did you meet Stephanie, your wife?
(VP): I met Stephanie in a club, Yugoslav club on Taylor Square. That's where I met Stephanie.
(PS): So she was also from Yugoslavia.
(VP): Yeah she was from Yugoslavia, actually she came from Bosnia, but had Croatian parents.
(PS): Did she come here with her parents?
(VP): She came here with the parents.
(PS): Yeah wow.
(VP): She was very young
(PS): And fell in love.
(VP): We were together for about a year and a half. And then after that, that's it. We got married very young. She was 20 and I was 21 when we got married.
(PS): Wow. Incredible. And what are you now 67?
(VP): I'm 67. She's 66.
(PS): Good innings. So head down, get married, I'm assuming like most people of that generation, the decision to have children came about immediately.
(VP): We got married because the parents that didn't have much money. We saved money, paid for the wedding, and all this stuff, two of us. When we got married I had my car paid off and I think we had $600 in the bank.
(PS): Which is probably about $60,000 these days.
(VP): Would be like $60,000, yeah. And then after that we bought our first house in Pagewood, paid $42,000 for it.
(PS): Amazing. Yeah. House would be worth over a million dollars now.
(PS): Amazing. And then quickly had your first child?
(VP): Anthony was first, then after a bit more, a year, we had twins.
(VP): Full hands.
(PS): Three kids, working at the butcher. You still working at that stage, you came down here?
(VP): That time, I was working, when I had the kids, I was working with in a butcher shop.
(PS): Here in the eastern suburbs.
(VP): I joined my brother, I worked with him for about a year and a half because Stephanie lives in Rosebery. I found my second job on Taylor Square because I was finishing really, really early. We were starting early in the morning by 9’o clock, 9:30, I was finished, what am I going do? I went back to the city on Taylor Square, and just went looking for the butcher shops around there and asked people if there were any casual jobs. And in those days you could go from one to another.
(PS): No problems.
(VP): And I found a job on Taylor Square. I worked four, five hours every day.
(PS): In a butcher shop?
(PS): So working at night in a wholesale butchery and then during a day in a retail butchery.
(PS): And how long did you do that for?
(VP): I did that for about three years, then I left my other job in Frenchs Forest, because they were not getting much export. We were working three or four days a week and it was not good for me, and the guy on Taylor Square, he asked me, “Vic, you want a full time job?” And I said, “Okay. You offer me good money and I start there.” But when I started doing the job on Taylor Square in a butcher shop, one job was not enough for me. I've always wanted more and more. I went on Taylor Square and I found a job in a restaurant. That was my second job.
(PS): Working in the kitchen?
(VP): Working in the kitchen.
(PS): Doing what? Cooking?
(VP): I started off washing the dishes, and after 12 months I was on the grill cooking the steaks.
(PS): So selling the steaks, then cooking the steaks.
(VP): There was a nightclub there, famous nightclub, I worked there for four and a half years. The Cross in those days was good.
(PS): Wild or good?
(VP): No, good. Not wild.
(PS): No gangsters, bikies?
(VP): Like I said to you, there were punch-ups even in those days because people took drugs.
(PS): There’s punch-ups everywhere.
(VP) But there was no stabbing, If there were gangsters there, they were keeping the…!
(PS): And what was the psychology though, Vic, was it always just work as hard as you can, doing whatever you could—
(PS): —and just pay off the house, put the kids through school? But what about the psychology of, you saw your granddad, your great granddad, your dad be butchers, you're now a butcher. What was the psychology with your kids? Because I know you toiled long and hard to put them all through very good schooling.
(PS): Was your great dream that they didn't have to do what you and your parents and grandparents did?
(VP): That was the reason you put them through the schools, because it’s a lot of money. Even when Anthony went to university, we sent him to Queensland to Bond, and it was a lot of money. You give everything to your kids, you want them to succeed, to become better people, have a good education.
(PS): Yeah. But it's funny though, because she can sit here and we can talk for 20 minutes about growing up in Yugoslavia and coming here, working hard, having a laugh about it. But it must have been brutally hard for you.
(VP): It was very hard.
(PS): What time did you used to go to work every day?
(VP): I was there at 4:30 in the morning, finishing at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, from there I was going to The Cross and starting 5 o’clock over there, finishing at midnight.
(PS): And when did you see the kids?
(VP): Sunday. I had off Monday and Sunday. Those two days only.
(PS): And you saw the kids then. The rest of the time, Stephanie was looking after them.
(PS): That must have been hard on her too, yeah?
(VP): It was, very. Afterwards, Stephanie wanted to go to work. I was still working on Taylor Square, she found a job working from 2:30 to 9, I think was about four for five, it was a seven-hour job. She found a job. And I asked my boss if I could not use my lunch and have the break in the morning just for strike. Finished 2:30, went quickly home, looked after my kids till about 4:30 in the afternoon until Stephanie’s sister came back home from work. Then she took over the kids and I went back to my job.
(PS): It's madness. And what about the skills, Vic? Because you're widely regarded in the industry as one of the great artisans of butchery. It's a skill that most people, I'm assuming, go to TAFE and get trained that way, get mentored. Who taught you your skills?
(VP): I had amazing teachers early, and when I started, my old boss, the guy on Taylor Square, it was unbelievable. And, Paul, you've got to love what you do, if you love something and what you're doing, man, that's it.
(PS): What did you love about it, Vic? Because it's a hard industry, working a cold box with blood and meat?
(VP): I don’t know? I was born in those surroundings and seeing it, even not wanting to do that in my early days. And I came here, looked, and I wanted to do it. Anthony, look at Anthony’s situation, finishing university, having an amazing job, going to work in a suit every day. Then he came and he said, “Dad, I want to come work for you.” When I started we bought a shop on Taylor Square, I was there for six months before he joined me.
(PS): He joined.
(PS): Do you think though, Vic, it was not so much the work itself, just the fact: one, you were probably the best at it; and two, just that incredible pride in what you did and the psychology of it doesn't matter, whether you're a brain surgeon or sweeping a street that, if you take pride in your work?
(VP): The majority people was like that, if you look at all the butchers—
(PS): They were like that.
(VP): Look at Danny (butcher Danny Woodward). He still works with us. People like that. I met Danny, he was working in the best butcher shop in Sydney on Taylor Square, 1972.
(VP): That's how long we know each other. And we worked together for Andrews Meat. He worked for a few other companies before he joined us. These people I like, what they do, I like that.
(PS): Yeah. I’m loathe to go down this rabbit hole with you, but your take on work ethic these days?
(VP): It's completely different.
(PS): Why do you think though, Vic, and do you think it's just because there's so much more opportunity now, that people aren't doing trades like butchery and carpentry?
(VP): I understand there’s more opportunity now, but people are not hungry.
(PS): Like before.
(VP): They don't care if they're going to have their own home. That's one thing. When we talk now and when we look back, maybe it was a little bit easier to buy the house before then how it is now. But people work on small money before and they were taking more sacrifices. They were not going out two, three times a week. They were not buying the posh cars every three or four years, or five years. They were not buying expensive clothes. They were sacrificing, they were cooking at home than buying takeaway, and all this stuff. We were just trying to save more money and invest money in properties, or buy the land.
(PS): Maybe it's just a different psychology.
(VP): Things have changed. Everything has changed. Life is faster now than it was before. And you have everything. You've got all these cards now. You're just spending somebody else’s money and that's where you get caught up. A lot of people have got five or six cards, from one card, you're paying another.
(PS): And a whopping big mortgage.
(VP): Yeah. Stephanie’s sister, she was caught up doing that and f***ing lost everything.
(PS): Yeah. So back to you then, Vic. You're 45 years of age, paid off your house, or maybe you hadn't even paid off your house, you still had, I mean, Anthony had finished school and university but the girls were still at school. So you had two dependents. You're proud as punch because your eldest boy has educated himself, got a job at a merchant bank. He comes to you at the family kitchen table and says, “Dad, I want to come and work with you, I want to build a business with you.” How does that make you feel? Is it a combination of pride and “What the hell are you doing?”
(VP): In the first moment, I just said to him, “Are you crazy? After what we’ve done for you?” And all of these things, but after thinking, four, five minutes, it made me happy, I’ve got somebody who is educated and can only benefit what I am doing. And that was the reason I said yes.
(PS): But you had a business partner at this point in time.
(VP): I had the business partner.
(PS): Stephanie's brother.
(VP): That's right.
(PS): So what happens then?
(VP): We bought that business for $50,000. And I put most of the money down because he didn't have the money. I just brought him in to have somebody I could trust and to help me.
(PS): Was he a butcher?
(VP): He was not a butcher. He was working as a driver. He had a courier business, and all this stuff.
(PS): But he was a 50% shareholder in the business?
(VP): He was a 50% percent shareholder in the business. I mainly brought him in because he spoke English better than me, writing, all these things you need, somebody was there.
(PS): What about your confidence in running a business, Vic? Were you more confident in being the butcher than the businessman?
(VP): I was always scared to open the business before. I’m not scared now, you see what's happened. But in the early days I had a lot opportunities. And even if I went in five, 10 years ago, who knows, because in those days if you were willing to work hard, you’ll make it.
(VP): You've got to be like an idiot or do something really, really stupid to not make things work.
(PS): Yeah I think the same applies now.
(VP): It still applies, yeah.
(PS): I think things are harder, but they're easier in many ways, and the people that work hard and commit to things, even in industries like the meat industry that are, I dare say, in structural decline for a bunch of reasons, the drought, the environmental impact, the fact that there are more and more vegetarians and vegan right now, people worried about their health, the advent of plant-based meat and clean meat. But there's still opportunities in this industry.
(VP): Definitely. You’ve got to do things differently than what we were doing 20 or 25 years ago. You’ve got to have better-quality meat. People are going to, instead of buying two kilos, they're going to buy half a kilo or one kilo, whatever, but they’re willing to pay the price.
(PS): Better quality, less of it.
(PS): So back to the partnership with your brother-in-law, and Anthony joins the business. Where do things go from there?
(VP): Cost me a lot of money, because he didn't like Anthony joining the business, and I said to him, “Steve, you've got two boys, when the time comes for them to join, we're going to put the same rules that we give to Anthony.”
(PS): So Anthony invested in at that point in time, or he just came and worked for you guys?
(VP): No, he just worked for us.
(PS): He would have hated that.
(VP): But he didn't want to do it that way.
(PS): Yeah of course.
(VP): He didn’t want to do it. At that time, Taylor Square was getting too small for us. We were looking to buy a small factory and we were looking around. We found a place in Mascot, but I put the money down again. I put the mortgages of my house, of the properties, it was what I had. Because Steve didn't have the money to put it down.
(PS): What year was that, 2000? No. 1998.
(VP): That's right.
(PS): Yep. And what did you pay to buy that factory in 1998?
(VP): I think it was $670,000. Plus we fixed it up.
(PS): You borrowed all of that, to do what?
(VP): We borrowed all of that, but then there things I had to pay still, nearly half a million dollars, to get him out of the business. And that was after one year.
(PS): So you've gone from being nearly debt free, having a very secure job, to having a fallout with your brother-in-law, borrowing $700,000 for the factory and the fit-out, borrowing another $500,000 for buying him out?
(VP): I had three properties paid out before I started doing all that.
(PS): So, the security on the property. So then what happens? Then Anthony’s then part-owner in the business, because was the butcher shop in Taylor Square, was that Vic's Meat?
(VP): We were around that shop for about maybe about another eight months?
(PS): While you had the factory.
(VP): Then we had the factory, then we sold it back to the people I bought the business from.
(PS): Yeah wow. How much did you sell it back to them for?
(VP): Oh, same money we bought it, $45,000.
(VP): That's it. I said, “Just give the money back.”
(PS): Yeah. And then you're off.
(VP): We are off, yeah.
(PS): So you're in the factory. Anthony is the driver of the business. It's 1998. How do you go from, I can only assume it was a relatively small operation back then, that you were taking a massive punt on Anthony's ability to build something large?
(VP): It was unbelievable. You know the size of the factory. When we got back, and we talked about how we could do everything from that place, it was unbelievable. We had the chillers there, we had a dry aging room, and we had offices. Now we're doing 30, 40 lamb a day. That time, we were doing 200 lambs a day. Anything between 150 to 200 a day.
(PS): As before, most things were in cartons, yeah?
(V): Yeah. There was not much stuff, we were doing a lot of fresh meat ourselves in those days. People wanted fresh meat. We were weighing stuff in the cartons, but not as much as what we're doing now.
(PS): Yeah. How high was your anxiety, Vic? During those first two, three, five years when the mortgage was high? I dare say no one knew you in the marketplace.
(VP): I was lucky because the one thing that we were doing differently than other people, what really helped me was experience, what I have, 25 years in the meat industry before that, working for the people trying to take the shortcuts, not using top-quality meat. We changed a lot of that stuff, we started doing dry aging, a lot of different, then after that even bringing in the first Wagyu. We were always looking for, Anthony more than me, looking for new stuff. New things, always chasing.
(PS): Where do you reckon Anthony gets that pure entrepreneurial drive that he's got?
(VP): I was like that at a young age.
(PS): Really? But you were like that with hard work, you weren’t like that with risks that he’d take.
(VP): I was not a risk taker.
(PS): Yeah. Where does he get it from, do you think?
(VP): I don't know, sometimes it scares me. That's funny, even now he does things, he doesn't even ask me to do it. But he knows I am going to say yes. I know it's good to take a risk. But you always got to, maybe if we were taking less risk, little bit less risk, mainly the biggest mistakes for us were going to China and Singapore, If were were investing that money, Paul, in Sydney, or maybe buying the premises in Woollahra, buying the corner block. What we got there. And opening there. Butcher shop there, drive in, drive out. Instead of spending the money at the fish market. We could have had $10 million more now. Yeah. And not have the f***ing debts we have now.
(PS): But that's the pure nature of an entrepreneur like Anthony.
(VP): Of course.
(PS): He was always going to do that, he saw an opportunity and was probably not ready for it.
(VP): I think we were maybe five years too early to go to China.
(PS): It wasn't that long into the business, it was 1998 that you went to Mascot. I met you guys in 2004 when you were part of the Entrepreneur of the Year program. So you had built, basically from scratch, a wholesale business from zero to $25 million, from memory, in six years. That is an incredible feat. It must've been brutally hard work.
(PS): I can imagine that you and Anthony were doing most, everything. Sure, you had staff quite a big staff by that point in time, but how hard were you working, Vic?
(VP): Very hard. They were starting 1:30, 2 o'clock in the morning and finish at 5:00 in the afternoon.
(PS): And then Anthony would be going to functions.
(VP): He was doing most of that kind of work, he was 15, 20 years younger than he is now.
(PS): But then, from in 2006, was it 2006 you went to China and Singapore?
(VP): That's right, yeah.
(PS): So, seven only, seven years into the business' history. How did it make you feel, you've got your son, your business partner, a business that's affording you a lifestyle that you probably could never have dreamed of?
(VP): Definitely. The things, what I saw, the people I met, the restaurants I ate at.
(PS): The cars you drive, the house you bought.
(VP): Definitely. I have maybe a few less gray hairs but it's all an amazing experience. I will not change for anything.
(PS): Which is a beautiful thing to say. And I think Anthony knows and loves that. But, literally, Vic, Anthony packed up, more or less left you and Anita—and I want to chat about Anita, because, she doesn't get enough airplay in this story—to run the business here in Australia, while he goes to Hong Kong and attempts to run Singapore and China. How confident were you in the Australian business continuing without Anthony’s stewardship?
(VP): I knew it was going to suffer because when he's not there, he's the one who always tries to drive things, and in any business you need people like that. You need good people that can drive the business, look for new customers, look for new projects and things like that, and you need the right people to manage what's happening in the factory.
(PS): Yeah it must have been frightening though.
(VP): Definitely was frightening, because you're battling on two fronts, you're trying, you invest millions of dollars and you're trying to build the business from nothing, from zero. At least when we went to Mascot we had customers.
(PS): You had a bit of momentum.
(VP): And Mascot only opened the door to bring more customers in because when people come in and saw new factories, because in those days factories didn’t exist like that in Sydney, there were old factories, hygiene was average. When we opened the new factory it was amazing.
(PS): Yeah the decision for him to come back to Australia, and walk away from China and Singapore at great financial loss but, I dare say, an enormous dent to a very proud man's pride, as a father rather than a businessman, how did you deal with Anthony through that period? What was your advice to him when he got back to Australia?
(VP): My advice to him was, “Let’s do what we do best,” work hard, hard damage, is done. Just forget it, whatever happened. And worst thing is f***ing he lost his house over it.
(PS): And we spoke about that.
(VP): Yeah. And thanks to our hard work, thanks to God, it's been good.
(PS): But you can't just jump to that part though, Vic, because it's 2008 and he comes to you having, not failed, but…
(VP): No, it was not failure, definitely not failure.
(PS): But it was a painful experience for everyone involved, and then he comes to you and says, “Dad, I want to open a flagship retail store in Woollahra, and make it the greatest thing that not only the meat industry has ever seen, but the retail industry has ever seen.” What did you say to him then? Was that a, “Man, you got to stop, you're a lunatic”?
(VP): I knew about Churchill before he even bought it, I knew the reputation of Churchill, I knew the reputation of the area, because we were doing a lot of a lot of business in that area, and I know what kind of people live in that area. People with great wealth, people who travel the world, taste, they're not scared to spend. And doing their shopping, even if you go back and see how much money we put there, and look, even he sold my f***ing my car to buy it.
(PS): He sold your car to pay for the fit-out?
(VP): To pay for the builders.
(PS): Well, that was because, this is the thing, that people could put two and two together. But toward, was it towards the end of the bill, that the GFC hit and so the bank reneged on the additional money you needed?
(VP): Doing that and I didn't go there, Paul, honestly, I've went there one week before Victor Churchill was open. He never took me there, never during demolition while they were working. I saw signs outside, but I never went in.
(PS): Because you know he did it for two main reasons. He did it for him, to renew his confidence in himself. And he did it for you because he didn't want you to work so hard anymore. So I want you to walk me through this story that he tells me many times, about you starting work at Victor Churchill and it's all beautiful. It's retail hours. Bunch of wealthy, educated, interesting, women, men coming through the door. How long did you last there?
(VP): I lasted there maybe, about six months.
(PS): I think I was shorter.
(VP): Because I need action, I can't sit. I love going in the day and working, going to the fish market half a day, and things like that.
(PS): The excitement.
(VP): But I can't, I'm not the person walking around and, too quiet. I'm back in the, where the fire is. That's it. Put your head down and pump it out.
(PS): Yeah. Can I ask you then, Anita, your daughter, one of your two daughters. But the only daughter that has worked in the business with you and Anthony? A very different creature, a very different person—is probably a far better term to say than either you or Anthony—but has played a really important role in the growth of the business. In your words, Vic, what has been the most important thing that Anita brought to the business?
(VP): In our early days, how many women did we used to employ in our business, maybe two or three? Now, maybe about 40%?
(PS): And growing?
(VP): And growing. A woman’s touch is important in any business. Customers, most of the chefs, they like talking to the women. Anita, she's amazing, amazing person, not because she is my daughter.
(PS): No, I agree with you.
(VP): And I hope she stays with her brother forever, because I don't want her to, maybe, she needs a break. She needs a break and she's like, she's an amazing person.
(PS): And provided, in my eyes, that—back office is a bad term, but—the foundations that so often get neglected in a fast-growing entrepreneurial business because when you've got a guy that's incredibly skilled in doing all the production work and you've got a guy that's very entrepreneurial and sales-driven, driving the business forward, that, if there's not someone behind to pick up the pieces and employ the people, the HR, and the finance, and the customer service, and my view having seen Anita over the years is, she provided that support for the business.
(VP): Definitely, you need somebody like that. And it's always better to have somebody in the family doing that than somebody you bring in, an employee.
(PS): Can I tell you, she told me a story—now this is probably testament to you saying the industry needed women in it—that when the business was early in its gestation, at Christmas time Anthony organised a Christmas party and all the boys went to a nudie bar for lunch! And Anita had to stay and run the business! That was less than 15 years ago.
(VP): We only had two women at that time working in the business.
(PS): That's a classic.
(VP): That was on Crown Street.
(SP): The expansion of the business, Vic, to Melbourne, did you see that as a risk or a calculated opportunity?
(VP): When we expanded to Melbourne, we were really cautious with what we were doing. We built the business from Mascot. We were sending meat to Melbourne for, maybe about, four or five years before we opened the place there.
(PS): Which is hard going.
(VP): It was hard going, sometimes you upset the customers.
(PS): Like we're doing in Brisbane at the moment.
(VP): But still, the customers, they were getting amazing meat. Meat they'd never seen before. And that was what kept us, because we were always telling them to give us a bit of time. We’re going to open the factory there.
(PS): And that’s what you did.
(VP): That's what we did. And look, that business is…
(PS): It's fantastic.
(VP): Amazing business. We got good people. When you’ve got a business, you don't need much time to spend there. Nothing.
(PS): I get it. It's interesting you say that, Vic, because like, you look at Amazon, the biggest company in the world—either oscillates between that and Apple—coming to Australia and there's all this fanfare, but very quickly disappoints the market because it's almost the same thing, that it takes time and it takes doing things badly, almost, before you can do them well. And I think the great thing that you and Anthony and Anita have done is built the right, with our customers, for them to give us second and third chances when we open in Melbourne like we're doing in Brisbane, because they know ultimately that the formula, because we self-fund everything, will work, and they'll have the best meat supplier in the state supplying to them. Why are you still working though, buddy? You’re 67. You beat me to work every day.
(VP): Like I said to you before and many times, Paul, I love what I do. I can stop working tomorrow and even if I get a bit of rent from the properties with what I’ve got there, it will be enough for me and Stephanie. What am I going to do at home, sitting all day, and I have couple of holidays every year, that's all I need.
(PS): It's still the fact you want to be mentally and physically active.
(VP): Because I love going there, and every morning I go inside, in there. I spend more time now in the warehouse than I spend anywhere else, because that's where the most important thing is. You make sure, you, especially now,. All meat is there, make sure you make that decision. And if we have to lose money on that meat, we've got to get rid of it. Because if you're sitting on that meat longer, you're not going to lose $20 a kilo, $10 a kilo, you're going to lose whatever you paid for it, you're going to lose everything.
(PS): How do you get yourself comfortable though, Vic, with Anthony's insatiable desire to be the best meat company in the world, not the biggest, but the best? Which includes opening Victor Churchill in New York to start with, but if that goes well in multiple places around the USA and potentially Asia, how do you, at 67, get yourself comfortable with that? Or is that something that you need to de-risk yourself from, so that you can still enjoy your work but not take on the risk?
(VP): Definitely, I have to, and we've been talking about those things, between the three of us. I don't want to take any more risk, I don't put any more pressure.
(PS): But you still want to work.
(VP): I still want to work. If he needs me to come there, three, four hours or five hours a day, I'm more than happy to do that. I hope I live until I'm f***ing 80 or whatever.
(PS): You should, you walked here! You’re keeping fit and healthy.
(VP): And I know with the experience that I’ve got, I can always put good things toward the business.
(PS): Yeah. Your underlying belief in Anthony, I get the risk thing. I think it's sensible, it's a prudent business decision, but your belief in Anthony to do what he wants to do, after you cut him free, even if you're still working in the business for five, six, whatever hours it is. But more or less just working in the business, but letting him be the sole steward of the business.
(PS): Is your belief in him 100%?
(VP): I believe in him. But one thing is, I know he's a big risk taker. But you've got to, he’s getting older now. He's going get more, more wiser.
(PS): He is wiser.
(VP): Yeah. Most important is that, because when you are young, you're doing things 300 miles an hour. It's no problem to keep opening in new places and things like that, but you can’t do it too fast. You make sure that what he's got in Mascot, that’s paid off, and that will take whatever year or two. If it was business like was five, six years ago you could f***ing clear that in one year, or two years. It’ll take more now because things are changing in every way. And you’ve just got to do it step by step.
(PS): What about competition, Vic? Without doubt, from when I first met you guys in 2004, to almost 2019, that the gap between Vic’s and Andrews and Haverick, your two, our two biggest competitors has narrowed. In your eyes, what do you think—and maybe we shouldn't say this publicly because maybe with those guys I'd be listening—but what do you think it is that allows the business over the next 10 years to maintain that competitive advantage that you Anthony and Anita have built?
(VP): The competition is always going to be there and when things are harder, people are looking at prices. The biggest problem with us is, especially doing a new factory there, we don't substitute. You're giving the customer what he asks.
(PS): Yep, but don't you think that's a beautiful thing?
(VP): That's an amazing thing.
(PS): Don't you think that the Food Trust platform that we're working on, that will for the first time in your lifetime, literally allow you, when you walk in and sit next to a competitor and say, “Your product isn't what you say, and this is the scientific evidence that it's not”?
(VP): I feel for the customer who goes in those restaurants pays $60 for the steak and is not getting what they ask.
(PS): What they think they're eating.
(VP): That's it. And I know when I go in eat in my restaurants, 99% I know what I’m eating. Even if we substituting the product, we are telling their customers what they are getting.
(PS): Yeah absolutely.
(VP): And that's me, and we're not making the decision without them, and most of the time we're giving them a better product than what they were getting in the first place anyway.
(PS): Yeah absolutely. And on the Food Trust platform, Vic, can you get your head around that technology that it's literally here, using block chain?
(VP): It's important for those farmers who are producing the raw material. They spent so much money growing those cattle, special breeds, feeding. It's cost them that kind of money. That means they have to get a return on that money, otherwise they're not going to be there. They're going to be there one year, two years.
Because nobody can sustain business losing money. Doesn't matter how big you are.
(PS): No. Of course not.
(VP): Maybe Coles and Woolworths on some lines, but they got thousands of lines where they can recover that money.
(PS): They can make money in spite of themselves.
(VP): They don’t make money in meat or whatever, some stuff, they bring the people in. Bread, whatever milk, meat, those three or even the vegetables, three or four lines, what people buy week after week. They buy chocolates, they buy cereal.
(PS): S***. All the rubbish.
(VP): Sugar, all that other stuff, they make 30%, 40% 50% on it.
(PS): Yeah. More. More on the Homebrand stuff.
(VP): More on the Homebrand stuff.
(PS): But Vic, I think this is the biggest challenge for the industry, is that the drought that we're currently, hopefully, at the tail end, but that's been the worst drought in living memory here in Australia. You look at the horrific fires that are going on in California at the moment. That's the new normal. Whether you're the most ignorant person in the world or the most informed scientist in the world, the world is getting warmer and we've got massive environmental issues. And the meat and feed and raising animals is getting more expensive, and that consumers need to start going back to understanding they need to pay for quality food.
(VP): Of course.
(PS): And that's the biggest challenge we face.
(VP): It will take time. In anything, it takes time, because people, they're getting definitely, they're getting, if we put things back 10 years and where we are now, we are 50% better than before. People are educated through the cooking shows on TV and all these things, they understand the different cuts , using more secondary cuts, because they can get those recipes now, even just Google it and it’ll tell you straight away. It’s not hard, if you follow those recipes you can, maybe not make it as good as Matt Moran or Peter Gilmore, but it's still eatable and still tasting good.
(PS): With good-quality products, yep. But they do, a lot of people need to start understanding that to get true quality, that they need to pay for it. And I think this is the thing for me, is that it's a timing difference, that they either eat the good-quality food now and look after their health, or down the road—not just individuals but as a society—we pay for sickness and disease and antibiotic resistance, and all of those things that come with industrialised farming, because people need to start understanding that every animal that's grown in industrialised agriculture is full of antibiotics or growth hormones.
(VP): Look at the chickens.
(PS): It's horrific. They grow 20 times faster than they ever did.
(VP): Three weeks, you've got a chicken.
(PS): That poor little thing that can’t even work.
(VP): In my time, when we had the chickens and the cows and goats and sheep, and everything. A chicken was nine months.
(PS): 20 years, they say, in nature. Like, 20 years. They grow it in, what was that, three weeks? Less than. Nine days.
(VP): I buy Kentucky, I buy sometimes it.
(VP): I have to stop that! But most of the time, Stephanie cooks the chicken wings. Jet would come around, and Jet would Google all the recipes for Stephanie, and she's unbelievable. She can cook any cuisine.
(PS): Yum. I believe she cooks too well for your own good. Vic. What do you want to be remembered for? You've had this incredible career, it's really rare, that you say, with a trade, butchery, carpentry, that you get a true artisan that the industry recognises. And I see this, when we take you out to see customers that haven't met you personally, just know of you. But what's the thing that you're most proud of, that you've done in your career?
(VP): The most important thing for me is, whatever I’d achieved, I’m blown away, amazing things that’s happened in my life. Coming here as an eight-and-a-half-year-old and achieving all of this, and recognition. But for me it’s like people, I know people will remember me changing the meat industry in a good way. Being honest. Trying to help people.
(PS): I still see that.
(VP): Not taking the shortcuts. That's the most important thing in life. Be honest.
(PS): Amazing. Your grandkids, do you want them to go into the family business? Do you want the family business to continue as a legacy to what you've done, or you're not that romantic about it?
(VP): I’d love for them to join their business, because, I think, the hardest job has been done to follow on. We've done, me and Anthony, Anita, all our work is what we have through the years, done an amazing job, where we are at the moment. For them to join in, they can only…
(PS): Benefit from that
(VP): Benefit for them, and working for their own father, and one day running the company themselves. They’ve got a better opportunity because they’ve finished good schools. They just have to be honest and work hard like what we did.
(PS):Yeah That's the challenge, isn’t it? Not just with your grandkids but with all kids. Because I would argue that, despite the amazing platform that you've built and provide in what Vic’s Meat’s here in Australia at the moment and soon to be in the US, that there's seismic shifts coming in the media industry in so far as the availability, because of environmental constraints, and the technology with clean meat, and where that's going to quickly, and that there are going to be as many challenges that you face, but in different ways for the business to reinvent itself over the coming five, 10, 15 years, or it becomes like a Kodak thing. You know this wonderful business that everyone knew about, but you can see a technology coming, changing, and you can see these shifts in consumer behaviour. And I think that's the benefit that, and probably the attraction with, some of the, Max and others, whether they're in the family or not, to come to our businesses, is that desire for us to continue to pioneer not just what you did and what we're doing now, but what's coming down the pipeline.
(VP): You have to look, always, new things. Otherwise you're going to get squashed.
(PS): You are going to get squashed! Vic, I can honestly say this, you are loved by many and respected by all, and it's been a great chat, my friend.
(VP): Thank you Paul.
(PS): My pleasure. Thanks for listening friends. And please don't forget to leave us a comment and rate the show. It does help others to find and enjoy. And for more episodes, or to find out more about who we are and what we do, go to vicsmeat.com.au. Until next week. Stay well and eat consciously.