SINCE purchasing a struggling abattoir plant in Murray Bridge, South Australia, in 1988, Australian family-owned business Thomas Foods International (TFI) has expanded its operations to become a global conglomerate, turning over more than $2 billion annually.
But it hasn't been without its challenges.
After taking over the reins of TFI from his father, chief executive officer Darren Thomas was faced with the devastating impact of a multi-million dollar fire which ripped through the company's South Australian processing facilities that employed 1500 workers.
By staying ahead of the game, whether it be through the company's paddock-to-plate technology or downstream investments in the supply chain, TFI has continued to grow its markets around the world and thrive in the face of adversity.
Farm Weekly journalist BREE SWIFT asked Mr Thomas where he believes Australia's meat processing and manufacturing industry is headed and how Australia can stay ahead of the curve.
QUESTION: Established in 1988 by your father Chris Thomas, Thomas Foods International (TFI) is a family business. Did you ever consider another career path or did you always know you wanted to continue on with your father's legacy?
Answer: From as young as I can remember I was always involved in the industry.
Whether it was attending the local sales yards as a boy or eavesdropping on my dad's late night overseas business calls at home, I was fascinated by the industry and particularly the people (and characters) I came across.
It was a very steep learning curve but I knew right away that this was where I wanted to be.
Q: After your family bought a struggling abattoir plant at Murray Bridge, South Australia, in 1999, modernised the premises and built it up from 300 to about 1500 staff, a fire ripped through the building in 2018, leaving the company with a multi-million dollar clean-up bill and a feeling of responsibility to support your workers. TFI was able to offer every one of your Murray Bridge employees, aside from the labour hire workers, a position - what did you personally learn from that crisis?
A: The experience over the past two years has taught me a great deal.
It's confirmed my passion for the industry and steeled my focus on where I want to take our business into the future.
I gave a commitment on day one of the fire that we would rebuild our operations in Murray Bridge.
We're now well on the way to that becoming a reality.
It's shown me how much can be achieved by teamwork.
I owe much to the great people at TFI who worked so hard, particularly in the immediate months to boost production at our other plants so we could continue to meet customer orders.
We always said our people are our greatest asset - that has been clearly demonstrated.
It was also a humbling experience.
The amount of phone calls and messages of support I personally received from all circles, including complete strangers, was overwhelming.
Meanwhile we've still continued to grow a very large global business.
This has included forming a joint venture in the Netherlands, taking 100 per cent control of our United States business, opening an office in Japan and more recently acquiring a 50pc stake in Frew Foods International, one of Victoria's leading sheep and lamb processors.
Q: TFI has continued to grow into a company that has more than $2 billion in turnover annually. What achievement are you most proud of since taking the helm?
A: It's very hard to pinpoint my proudest achievement.
I'm extremely proud of the way we've continued to champion Australian meat and produce and help grow markets for our farmers across the world.
Australia has a reputation for quality and that's been the result of a lot of great work by everyone right across the industry.
It's a reputation we must all protect into the future.
From a TFI point of view, I am very proud of the business we have built and the jobs and careers we've created along the way.
Seeing young people who started with us as apprentices take on and excel in leadership positions is particularly pleasing.
One point that has differentiated us is our downstream investment in the supply chain.
This has involved either joint ventures, outright acquisitions with some of our major customers, or greenfield start-ups in some of our major markets in the world.
I'm also very excited about our soon-to-be-built processing plant at Murray Bridge.
From the disappointment of the fire has come a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create something of which to be very proud.
Q: TFI uses DNA samples to enable whole of life traceability for its meat products and partnered with IBM Food Trust which utilises blockchain technology to ensure food traceability from paddock to plate last year. How common and how important do you think food traceability is going to be in the future?
A: I think food traceability will only become more important into the future in response to growing consumer demand.
As overseas markets mature and global consumers become even more discerning of the food they buy at the local supermarket or online, I see it being a key component in the decision-making process.
It's something as an industry we should embrace as it provides a real comparative advantage to Australian producers and plays to our national strengths.
It is an area we will continue to be involved in and drive further innovation.
Q: How else has TFI altered its strategies to continue to meet the evolving demands of its consumers while remaining a profitable business?
A: Overseas growth and supply chain investment strategies have been key, along with an increased focus on our online offering.
With the pandemic and social restrictions, we've seen a significant move by consumers seeking the convenience of high quality local produce delivered to their door.
We operate an online platform under our Thomas Farms retail brand where consumers can access wholesale, retail and online delivery services.
Thomas Foods International has been operating with an online presence for more than eight years, however 2020 has seen us dedicate more resources to this area including revamping the website and offering of Australian beef, lamb, chicken, pork, fruit, vegetable and seafood products.
As a result, our online sales have grown significantly.
Q: Do you think it's important for Australia to invest in and sustain its onshore processing and manufacturing capabilities?
A: Australia has a strong history in food processing and I want to see that continue.
Food security is certainly an important topic and one I believe that needs to be included in the national interest debate.
We have outstanding produce in this country so it goes without saying we should have outstanding processing facilities here too.
Our farmers, customers and workers all deserve it.
COVID-19 has shown us all the importance of local manufacturing.
It's one of the reasons we're embarking on an ambitious plan to build the most advanced meat processing plant in the southern hemisphere in South Australia to replace the plant that burnt down in 2018.
This facility will allow us to incorporate the latest in processing technology, automation, animal welfare while maintaining the highest possible food safety standards.
It's a major undertaking and significant investment for our family company and will create a plant to see us into 2050 and beyond.
Q: TFI exports its products to more than 80 countries around the world. How important are these export markets to Australia's meat industry and how does a company like yours strengthen those relationships in times of crisis like these?
A: Australia's export markets are crucial for a whole number of reasons including growing customer demand for our nation's produce and creating jobs along the way.
Yes there are challenges to strengthen or maintain relationships particularly when international travel is restricted.
It's therefore very important to have strong local teams on the ground.
We have offices and local operations in the US, Europe and across Asia which are led by outstanding teams who know their markets intimately.
As a global business with its head office in South Australia, maintaining communication with our overseas-based teams has been vital.
The use of online meeting platforms has enabled us all to remain connected and in regular communication, perhaps even more so than before.
Q: TFI now includes an online meal delivery service called Thomas Farms, in which recipes and ingredients are delivered to your customers doors. Do you think these sorts of delivery services will be the way of the future?
A: I think this market segment will only grow further.
Consumers are seeking more convenience, but not at the expense of quality.
It's a trend that is being witnessed across all industries, not just food.
As a business, we understand this and are focussed on staying ahead of the curve.
Q: What do you credit your company's success to?
A: Hard work, great people, backing yourself and sticking to your values.
We're a family business with its roots in regional Australia and we run our business with those same family values.
It hasn't been an easy path over the years and as anyone in the agricultural sector will know, you get nowhere without hard work and a great team.
At the same time we have not shied away from taking calculated risks, so having a positive overall outlook and attitude helps.
Q: What is the best piece of advice you've been given?
A: You receive many pieces of advice along the way and some of the ones that spring to mind, in no particular order, are value your employees, respect your competitors but do not fear them, side with strength and listen more than you speak.
Q: What are your goals for the future?
A: I want to continue to grow our business both here in Australia and internationally which I hope, in doing so, will give Australian farmers greater confidence.
Through ongoing investment in technology I aim to deliver greater efficiency and convenience for our customers and suppliers by challenging traditional supply chain methodologies.
I'm also very passionate about seeing young men and women entering the agricultural and food processing industries as there are some wonderful career paths on offer.