Goodbye to the king of cattle kings

Goodbye to the king of cattle kings


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John Cox 1941-2013.

John Cox 1941-2013.

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MANY men have been called Cattle Kings but none have had a bigger kingdom than John Cox, managing director of Stanbroke Pastoral company when it was running the world's biggest cattle herd, about 550,000 head.

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MANY men have been called Cattle Kings but none have had a bigger kingdom than John Cox, managing director of Stanbroke Pastoral company in its heyday when it was running the world's biggest cattle herd, about 550,000 head.

John, who died in Brisbane on 27 September, was never a man to skite. But our obligation to posterity demands that for the sake of the historical record something should be written about John's character and his achievements.

In character, he was a man of honour, a man who radiated confidence that he would do what he promised to do. His achievements were national in their scale and significance. Building up Stanbroke to be the world's biggest beef producer was by no means his only accomplishment. It could be argued that the part he played in transforming the northern cattle industry will, in the long run, be judged his greatest contribution to Australia.

Born in 1941, John spent his early childhood first in St George and then in Longreach, where his father managed the New Zealand Loan and Mercantile Agency branch between 1945 and 1948. There, John first found himself among stock and stockmen. He never afterwards wanted to be anywhere else. From Longreach the family moved to Brisbane, where John was an outstanding all-round schoolboy at Brisbane Boys' College.

It was inevitable that he would go jackarooing to gain his higher education for entry into the pastoral industries. He got a job with the Scottish Australian company, on a mixed sheep, cattle and agricultural station near Coonamble. He stayed with the company for twelve years, then worked briefly with his father who had by now bought a small property near Condamine. Then John went to the Orient Brahman stud near Ingham as assistant manager. There, his life changed when he met nurse Sue Hassall, from Tully.

John and Sue looked for a job with a future for a married couple. Through his old school friend John Down, John got a job in the Northern Territory, to manage Goodparla station for Gunn Rural Management (GRM). Goodparla, today part of Kakadu, was home to thousands of feral buffalo and some wild cattle.

It was a stern test, but John passed. Goodparla was remote enough, but now GRM identities David Crombie and Richard Trivett asked John to go even further afield - to West Africa, to establish and manage two pioneering livestock development projects for the Bank of Ghana. The venture was on the verge of success after six years, when John and Sue came home to Australia, mainly for the benefit of their two elder sons, Richard and Andrew, who had been born in Ghana. A third son, Anthony, was born later in Brisbane.

John was based in Brisbane for the rest of his career. Between 1979 and 1985, for GRM, he supervised the management of up to eleven large cattle stations in the Territory and Kimberleys. Then, from 1985, he was general manager of Colinta Holdings, the Mount Isa Mines Ltd pastoral subsidiary that ran up to 40,000 cattle and 80,000 sheep on stations in Queensland, the Territory and Western Australia.

John was blessed by two great life partnerships - the first with his wife Sue, who uncomplainingly and effectively managed the Brisbane household and the upbringing of three boys during John's long absences while he oversaw a growing number of stations.

In 1989, the second great partnership began, with Jim (later Sir James) Balderstone, a Melbourne boy with bush connections who became a titan of Australian boardrooms, holding directorships of such companies as AMP, BHP, Westpac and Woodside. In 1964, he was instrumental in forming the company that became Stanbroke. AMP held 51 per cent of the shares, Borthwicks 31pc, Squatting Investments 16pc and Kidmans 3pc. The initial business plan was to breed and grow cattle in the north and then turn them off to Borthwicks. In 1965 the company acquired six stations, including Stanbroke, after which it was named. More stations were acquired over the years. By 1983, AMP was the sole shareholder and Balderstone was chairman of the company board.

In 1989, Balderstone sought out a new managing director for Stanbroke. John Cox won the job, against a Melbourne Cup field. John took up the reins of a company that was in very good shape - in 1990 it made a record profit and cattle numbers reached 324,000. It was John Cox's job to hold it all together and then do even better - and he did. There was steady growth through the 1990s, then a spectacular spurt in 1997 when Stanbroke paid $100 million to buy the Queensland and Northern Territory Pastoral Stations assets - 25,060 square kilometres and 118,000 cattle. It was a huge deal but a good one. In 2001, Stanbroke recorded a pre-tax operating profit of $131 million. The company came to reflect John's own personality - it was the quiet and consistent achiever in the northern cattle business; it was steady, classy and confident.

John began introducing a number of changes and innovations that were to lead the way to fundamental shifts in the beef industry. Most fundamental were new workplace arrangements. Induction and staff training programs were begun with the aim that all staff should gain the broad knowledge and experience they needed if they were to make careers in the industry. Recreational facilities were provided on the stations. Women were encouraged and given equal opportunities. John acknowledged the role of station managers' wives by putting them on the payroll; he encouraged women to take on stock work because he believed that women often handled cattle more quietly and effectively than men; the company subsidised the education of station children. John put renewed emphasis on horses and began programs to breed better animals that stockmen and women would be proud to ride.

The 'paddock to plate' concept, widely adopted by many producers nowadays, was another John Cox innovation. Cattle were bred and grown, then selected animals were finished in a company owned feedlot near Chinchilla and then slaughtered in an abattoir at Grantham. The meat was marketed under the Diamantina Beef brand. Along with that came very close monitoring of the handling of every animal, again from paddock to plate. 'We are in the food business' John often said. 'We must get closer to our consumers, we must be able to guarantee the product we bring to the market.'

Stanbroke had become the biggest pastoralist in Australia. Before long, it was the biggest in the world, with 551,000 cattle on 126,000 square kilometres. The company was generating handsome returns - in forty years it only twice failed to earn a profit.

But, as John explained, it was not enough for the new generation of 'bean counters' at AMP. Men like Balderstone, who understood rural investments and who had backed John Cox every step of the way, had now departed. The prevailing view at AMP was that Stanbroke 'didn't fit in' and would have to be sold. Besides, AMP was desperate for cash.

John counselled against selling, then advised that if it had to happen there was a right way or a wrong way of going about it. John's advice was ignored. In 2003 Stanbroke was sold as a total package to the Nebo consortium - which promptly broke up the aggregation and sold off much of it to realise a very tidy profit that would have gone to AMP had John's advice been taken. John was vindicated, but bitterly disappointed.

John severed his connection with Stanbroke. Through the last decade of his life he acted as a business adviser, consultant and company director, including as executive director of the Dutch owned company GP Cattle, which had bought the venerable Portland Downs station near Isisford.

He contributed very significantly to industry research and development, notably as chairman of the North Australian Beef Research Council. Those and other contributions were recognised by the award of a Centenary Medal in 2001, and then in 2006 by induction into the Texas based International Stockmen's Educational Foundation Hall of Fame. The main criterion for admission is 'leadership of impeccable character, broad vision and dedication to the highest ideals ... representing the very best among the world's livestock leaders.'

Finally, pancreatic cancer overtook John. He knew the disease took no prisoners. He, and his family, faced the end with impressive dignity and monumental courage. Now he has gone, but he has left so much behind.

The story Goodbye to the king of cattle kings first appeared on North Queensland Register.

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