The Cattleman’s Cattleman

Ken Warriner won’t admit to wagging school as a boy, but he and his good mate Rob Walker did manage to get a bit of time out of class to give the workers a hand down at the saleyards in their Queensland hometown of Gympie. A message would come through that they were needed at the yards and so they’d go down and pen and tail out the cattle for a grand “two bob a day”.

Ken’s fledgling livestock work and close friendships with mates from district dairy families ignited a passion that propelled this enterprising doctor’s son to the pinnacle of Australia’s pastoral sector and, more recently, into corporate boardrooms across the globe.

Ken was 17 and a jackaroo at Northampton Downs near Blackall in the late 1950s when renowned boss drover Henry Bauer and his son Alan came by saying they were heading to the Northern Territory. “So I joined them and went droving,” Ken says. “We walked horses from Blackall to Alroy and cattle from Alroy to “Nappa Merrie”, down on the Cooper near the South Australian border. They’d take 50 or 60 mobs a year down that way from the Territory and Kimberley regions. We were fit young fellers and we had good times out on the droving tracks. We didn’t think of it being a tough life at all.”

Ken progressed from droving tracks into new roles and responsibilities on stations the length and breath of the country – from Queensland, the Barkly Tableland and South Australia to Western Australia’s Kimberley and the Territory’s Top End.

“I found the transition to station work pretty smooth,” Ken says. “We certainly learnt a lot of handy skills from droving and contract mustering, like how to handle stock horses, big mobs of cattle and people who could be pretty wild in the bus in those days. It set you up well for station jobs and management roles.”

Ken picked up priceless experience and skills by taking jobs with Australia’s most respected cattlemen and by mixing with rough-and-tumble station characters who thrived on hard work and the often frugal outback life. He worked with the legendary Tom Quilty on the Kimberley’s Springvale Station and for the MacLachlan family at South Australia’s Commonwealth Hill. He managed “Kenmore Park” in the states far north for five years before becoming general manager of King Ranch Pastoral Company’s Mt House Station and, later, the sprawling Brunette Downs on the Barkly Tableland. In 1980, a year after the Australian Agricultural Company acquired Brunette Downs, Ken resigned to become a station owner – and he started with a big one. He teamed up with former King Ranch Pastoral managing director Peter Baillieu and prominent Central Australian Station owner Tony Chisholm from Ashburton Pastoral Company and snapped up Henbury Station near Alice Springs and one of Australia’s most coveted grazing properties, western Barkly’s Newcastle Waters Station, which had been owned by Roy Edwards since 1952.

“It was an opportunity we couldn’t let pass,” Ken says. “Roy was getting on and wanted to sell, and we could see it was a beautiful property, though fairly run-down. We made lots of improvements when we took over, then Kerry Packer bought us out in 1983 and Consolidated Pastoral Company (CPC) was formed.”

The company mushroomed from there to amass its present 19 top-class Kimberley, Northern Territory and Queensland properties comprising a total of 5.8 million hectares that now graze more than 350,000 cattle. Under Packer’s majority ownership and Kens stewardship, CPC created a multi-pronged empire running cattle, sheep, meat processing plants and Indonesian feedlots in partnership with industry players Greg Pankhurst and dicky Adiwoso, it also traded sheep in the Middle East through MEATCO, exported livestock to many countries through Austrex, project-managed across the world through GRM international, processed wool in Italy through Wooltech, was involved in livestock transport through Road Trains Australia and fuel distribution through AFD, the latter two in partnership with Territory businessman Dick David.

The Packer family decided to sell CPC in 2009 and the British private-equity company Terra Firma acquired the family’s shares in the company, Ken retains more than 20million shares in the CPC group through his Ashburton Pastoral Company.

“I first met Kerry Packer in the Kimberley 40-odd years ago,” Ken says. “He and his wife Ros used to come and stay with us and our friendship grew from there. He would go out bull running and I am sure he though we were all half mad. He was an inspirational man to work for and with. Once he gained your trust he would encourage you to always be looking to improve all aspects of the business in a very practical way. He was larger than life and was never intimidated by the odds if he believed it could be achieved. A handshake with Kerry Packer was as good as any contract you could sign.”

Respected Queensland cattleman Russell Pearson, from Bull Creek Station east of Mount Isa, has known Ken since the 1970s and says it would be difficult to find a more switched on and visionary cattle breeder. “He’s been successful because he’s learnt from the ground up,” Russell says. “He was a city boy who just wanted to be in the cattle industry. He got on famously with the late Bob Kleberg (the US founder of the Santa Gertrudis breed) who could see his skills and had him transferred to manage Brunette Downs, which had the beginnings of a magnificent herd of Santa Gertrudis stud cattle at the time. Ken used his skills to upgrade that herd to 2000 and the commercial Santa Gertrudis herd to more than 50,000 before he bought into Newcastle Waters Station.

“After going through the BTEC (Brucellosis and Tuberculosis Eradication Campaign) regime, Ken led the restocking of Newcastle Waters. He bough in thousands of Brahman heifers from Queensland and also acquired 600 quality purebred Brahman breeders from the herd the Tancred family had established to breed bulls for their recently acquired north-west Queensland cattle stations.” CPC then bought Allawah Brahman Stud at Biloela and Ken, with his know-how and eye for good cattle, was able to use animals from there as the foundation to go forward at Newcastle Waters. At the time of his retirement, the stations stud herd stood at 10,000 head.

“Purebred Charolais bulls were also introduced from Victoria and a Charolais stud was established in Queensland to breed acclimatised bulls to produce Charbrays and these first cross hybrids were transferred to other Consolidated Pastoral stations,” Russell says, “Ken has been so successful because he uses purebred cattle in all crosses. He crosses purebreds over purebreds and gets that hybrid vigour of the breeds.”

In his long years as a station owner and manager, Ken has always won respect from staff for treating everyone equally – whether they are cooks, mechanics, fencers, bore runners, gardeners, horse-breakers or road-train drivers. He has often found himself heading an unofficial but effective ‘youth divisionary scheme’, taking in wayward city lads and moulding them into station hands. “The pastoral industry can be very tough environment to work in,” he says. “But it provides many opportunities for school leavers to gain confidence and a very positive work ethic that they may not have achieved in other areas.”

Ken has warm praise for hardworking, resourceful and resilient station women, including his partner Sally Ford who’s been with him and sharing his passion for the land for 12 years. “Whether you’re on a small family property or a big corporate place, our operations wouldn’t survive without the indispensable contribution of our wives and partners,” he says. “A lot come from farming backgrounds so they’re very competent station workers but they also keep the family unit working, manage staff issues and particularly keep an eye on new young jackaroos who might be thousands of kilometres away from home for the first time and missing their mums.”

Ken has five sons including David and yap (christened Geoffrey) from his marriage to Springvale Station’s school teacher Mary McKenzie, who tragically died from cancer when the boys were just five and three. There’s also Jock, Tom and Sam born to Ken and second wife Sally Warriner, and Sally Ford has a son Jack Chandler. All but one has worked in the cattle industry. David manages the Top End’s Tipperary Station and is also president of the Northern Territory Cattlemen’s Association (NTCA). Yap spent 25 years with CPC, the last four as chief operations officer before resigning recently to pursue other interests. Jock runs the company’s Wrotham Park Station and Tom worked on Newcastle Waters then managed Argyle Downs for two years before leaving CPC. Fifth son Sam is a lawyer with Brisbane firm Cooper Grace Ward. Jack completed his building apprenticeship then spent two years on “Carlton Hill” before moving to Queensland where he’s contract mustering.

Ken received an Order to Australia Medal in 2007 for a lifetime of outstanding contribution to the Australian cattle industry. He stepped down as CPC head in July 2011 after pancreatitis hospitalised him for four months. He resigned as chairman in August this year after showing the new owners the ropes.

CPC Canberra-based corporate-affairs advisor Jack Lake first met Ken while working for the Labor Party in the Northern Territory in the early 1980s. “Ken has always been an exceptional advocate for the cattle industry and his reputation has given him a high standing on both sides of politics in Canberra,” Jack says. “It’s allowed him to meet with Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s office for 10 weeks to help out in the aftermath of the government’s live-export trade suspension and he accompanied her to Darwin to work through the crisis. “We met with Luke Bowen (NTCA executive director) and Ken Warriner,” Jack says. “It highlights the respect that Ken has among the most senior politicians in the country.”

Long-time close friend and business colleague David Crombie says Len’s lifetime of cattle-industry experience has taken him from stock camps to boardrooms, and top-level involvement not just in breeding and production but also in live exports, beef processing, livestock transport and fuel delivery. “He was one of the main instigators for amalgamating four separate Territory producer representative groups in the 1970s to establish the NTCA, which I believe is one of the strongest and most effective industry advocacy bodies in Australia today,” David says.

Behind their astute business acumen, the two men have shared many laughs and good memories. David recalls them missing a flight back to Jakarta after a South Sumatra business trip. “Armed with a carton of beer that our colleague Greg Pankhurst kindly gave us, we drove like men possessed down to Lampung port to catch the very crowded inter-island ferry. My enduring memory is of us sitting back on the foredeck together, drinking beer and gazing out over the south Java Sea with the full moon illuminating Krakatau Volcano. It was truly magnificent. At the end of it, we had to make another mad dash across Java to get to the airport on time.”

Ken and David take many overseas tips together now as joint owners and directors of the project management venture, GRM International, in partnership with company chief-executive Kim Bredhauer and other senior employees. Ken chaired the company for 20 years when it was part of the CPC portfolio. Sir William Gunn pioneered GRM – Gunn Rural Management – as an agricultural company in the 1960s but it now concentrates on setting up and managing multimillion dollar air projects across the globe.

“The company has expanded a lot since we took it on two years ago and it’s a very substantial outfit now with a strong portfolio of major worldwide projects,” Ken says. “We have our head office in Dubai and sizeable offices in Washington, London, Pretoria, and Australia. Our last three board meetings have been in Nigeria, Canberra and Washington, and the next one will probably be in India, where we have a major project on our books. The company accesses funding through Australian, British, EEC (European Economic Community) and American aid agencies and over the past 45 years has implemented more than 700 projects for clients and partners in 120 countries across all continents. We currently have projects underway in more than 40 countries.”

Looking back over 45 years as a cattleman, Ken believes the most significant turnarounds for the northern pastoral industry resulted from the 1980s BTEC, the increased focus on developing the Brahman breed, land and sea transport improvements and the birth of the lucrative Asian live-export trade.

“We had no choice but to become heavily involved in BTEC,” Ken says of the controversial and often-despised national livestock-health program. “That’s when we set up the NTCA – because we realised the industry had to make really big changes, including total destocking of some areas. In the final wash-up, everyone benefited from this campaign. We were told we wouldn’t continue to get our beef into Japan or the US unless we cleaned up our herds. We had significant financial and practical support to get the job done and we cleaned up within 15 years. Our industry today is profoundly better off as a result of this.” Ken says the single biggest influence for change came with the increased development of the live-export trade, initially into Malaysia and the Philippines then into the valuable Indonesian market. “The Indonesians are striving to become self sufficient in beef production and indications are there wont be much increase in present import numbers, but we remain hopeful that this crucial trade will be resurrected in time,” Ken says. “We have some political mileage to pick up there; just chopping off a trade like that without warning offended them deeply and affected tens and tens of thousands of working people in Indonesia. They’re not prepared to take the risk again of relying totally on Australia supplying their beef requirements.”

Ken believe s the northern cattle industry’s position 10 years down the track will be shaped by changing market demands and producers’ capacity to adapt in the face of burgeoning operational costs. “I’m enormously concerned that the costs of Australian cattle production, especially freight and labour costs are rising at a far greater rate than anywhere else in the work where we compete for markets. Brazil and the USA are our main meat-trade competitors and our cattle-processing costs here are more than double the costs in those two countries.”

Ken reflects with great pride on the impressive milestones dotting his 50-plus-year journey from teenage drover to station owner and leading light of a powerful Australian pastoral company. “Overall, I think perhaps the greatest satisfaction has come from being able to put together the Consolidated Pastoral group,” Ken says. “That’s involved producing top-class cattle on some magnificent grazing country with the help of a lot of exceptional people.”

Source: R.M.Williams Outback Magazine

www.laboursolutions.com.au

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