This richlister has kept a low profile for years as he built a built a lucrative empire that few will have heard of but millions will have encountered.
This richlister has kept a low profile for years as he built a built a lucrative empire that few will have heard of but millions will have encountered.

Son takes reins of richlister’s $750m empire

In his youth, city boy Anthony Lee thought of his father's business as just a meatworks.

That his dad had become a billionaire by building Australia's largest family-owned integrated beef empire which was quietly feeding swathes of supermarket shoppers dawned slowly on him as he jetted around the world in his twenties in search of his passion and purpose.

Twenty years on, he is now stepping up to chief executive of Australian Country Choice - the business that saw his father, Trevor Lee, rise into the nation's top 100 richest people.

While not a household name, if you've ever eaten beef from a Coles supermarket you most likely have consumed some of the 80m kilograms of Australian Country Choice cuts sent to market each year.

The private company, which reported income of $745m for the 2018-19 FY, is headquartered in a perfectly perfunctory set of buildings on Brisbane's eastern fringes, tucked away amongst the gumtrees in an historical riverside industrial estate that has existed in some form since 1907.

A handsome cow hide rug greets visitors to the reception area that is dotted with landscape paintings of the Australian bush.

Cattle trucks arrive at the guarded gates at precisely scheduled times as the business runs 15-hours a day of processing, plus a cleaning shift and weekend value adding shift with 1100 employees.

It processes 300,000 cattle a year, owns 34 farms and three feedlots that employ another 180 sprawling across Queensland and even has a super niche side hustle supplying bio material to America for the manufacture of human heart value replacements.

Heavily fenced and media shy, until now at least, ACC has in the last couple of years been slowly transitioning to a new generation.

New Australian County Choice chief executive Anthony Lee with the now semi-retired David Foote at the company’s Brisbane headquarters. Picture: Josh Woning
New Australian County Choice chief executive Anthony Lee with the now semi-retired David Foote at the company’s Brisbane headquarters. Picture: Josh Woning

For 46 years, ACC's sole customer was Coles but with both sides calling quits on their exclusivity arrangement in 2017 and with their contract coming to an end in June, the younger Lee family members are hunting new opportunities.

ACC now counts rival Woolworths among its main customers and 50 percent of its wares including its own branded beef is exported to six countries across Asia. It also supplies to a list of other premium customers such as Jack's Creek and Ranges Valley that send beef to top restaurants around the country.

To facilitate the changing of the guard, long-serving managing director David Foote, 65, has stepped down to "just a director" with the goal of working "less than full time".

"When I started with the business it had a 110 people in total and three farms. That's it. A fair bit has happen over the last 20 years," said Mr Foote who has been the trusted non-family member at the helm after joining the business in 1999.

"It's been very much an internal story. We've never had to have our own beef brand because we've always been processing for Coles, supporting Coles," he explained.

"Their growth was our growth."

He said having a fully integrated business with lifetime traceability - tracking an animal from conception through to the supermarket shelf - was key to success also.

"They were our sole customer which is a unique and strange proposition. We had one shareholder, one bank and one customer," he explained.

"In the last 18 months we have gone from being an exclusive provider to Coles to having multiple customers which is significant change in our business.

"The exclusivity was stopping us being able to grow, because while we were exclusive we could only do as much as the Coles business grew or needed and as part of the next generation planning they weren't as comfortable being in that dedicated role."

 

Anthony Lee has taken over the family's $753m business — Australian Country Choice. Picture: Nigel Hallett
Anthony Lee has taken over the family's $753m business — Australian Country Choice. Picture: Nigel Hallett

At the head of the new generation is Anthony Lee, the 41-year-old eldest son (of four children) who in December became ACC's chief executive.

The two men will continue to work together over a transition period, they said, to bring a mix of "new hunger with the balance of a handbrake".

ACC's sole shareholder remains Trevor Lee however and the company now has an external advisory board as well as the internal family one to guide its decisions.

Anthony Lee insisted his ascension to CEO in December was not a given and the family board all agreed on the move after much consideration.

"I worked from when I was 15 years old in the meatworks and through school and uni I was doing weekends and holidays, Friday nights," he said.

In his twenties he set off for Europe and America for a few years with no real agenda other than working out what he really wanted to do.

"I had never worked or done anything else, so I went away and did my own thing for a while," he said.

"I suppose I was just trying to find or enjoy myself and see where it took me."

A visit from Trevor in 2004 crystallised his future.

"My father came over to America...and he said: "If you were ever going to come back, no pressure, but now's the time. You can come and look after a new area that we are creating".

"I think as I got older I started to appreciate the value of the business. It wasn't a meatworks to me anymore.

"It was a food business and I started to realise, what better business could you actually be in than something that provides food for the world.

"When you are young it was in a meatworks so it was just that learning and developing myself and understanding what's out there and what other options were available.

"I just couldn't think of something I'd want to do more."

 

Australian Country Choice’s Trevor Lee, picture with wife Kerri Craig-Lee, remains connected to the brand.
Australian Country Choice’s Trevor Lee, picture with wife Kerri Craig-Lee, remains connected to the brand.

The young Lee came back and was cycled through all the different parts of the business.

"As soon I got comfortable they would move me," he said.

"I think what Trevor's created and what ACC has become is unbelievable and to carry on that legacy and do something myself with the family is very appealing as well to be able to take it forward."

The future, he says, is expanding into different proteins which is something his brother Michael is secretly working on with fuller details to be known in coming months.

"I now look at it and say...we have that supply chain end-to-end with beef but can we also have lamb, pork or other parts of the protein supply chain as well," he explained.

"We've never sat still. Growth is in the DNA of the business so we won't stop. If we think we are going to stop, we might as well get out.

"There is no one in the younger generation that are interested in moving away from the business."


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