The live cattle export industry has lost another connection with its early history with the passing last week of one of the sector’s pioneers, Gordon MacNicol.
Gordon family had their roots in the land on a property between Cowra and Young in the central west of New South Wales.
After a stint in the army and on the family farm, he and his brother moved to Queensland in the mid-1950s, purchasing a property at Blackall, and eventually owning two or three holdings in the district, including Melrose and Inverness.
The partnership, in which Gordon was the silent partner, later split, with Gordon purchasing his own cattle run at Moura, adding to his commercial interests in Brisbane, which included a retail tyre and retread business, Bandag, which he later sold to Beaurepaires at a considerable profit.
In a 2003 profile on live export industry identities, former Livecorp communications manager Trevor Johnston wrote that Gordon blamed his good friend, Pat Shaw, than a pastoral inspector with Hooker Pastoral at Cloncurry, for introducing him to the live export trade.
Pat had arranged a trip to Hong Kong to talk to potential customers about beef exports. Gordon cadged a ride to help ‘open the gates’ and keep Pat company when he was in idling mode.
After tagging along to several meetings and conversing with their participants, Gordon saw identified an opportunity for live cattle exports. Many of the locals were interested in importing cattle that arrived one day, were slaughtered the next, and retailed immediately afterwards.
He struck up a relationship with an entrepreneur who had three ships, and they mutually agreed to form a partnership to service the business. They agreed that the trade required a dedicated livestock transport boat, hence they purchased a large vessel which they converted to carry livestock, subsequently called the “Beaupre Island.”
“We bought the ship together. Borrowed most of the money from the bank. Hardly put in any ourselves. Paid about as much as you would for a decent family cruiser today. We purchased it in Cairo, walk-in walk-out, with a load of fertiliser on board. We sold the phosphate in Singapore and had the boat converted to carry livestock,” Gordon recalled.
Pat Shaw finished up with Hookers, and oversaw the conversion.
“Our main contract was with Hong Kong people in the early 1980s. She had a capacity of 1400 head, which was large for those days. One of our early trades involved doing a delivery from Townsville during the wet season. We purchased the cattle from two properties near Julia Creek, railed them overnight to Townsville, and straight onto the ship. In Hong Kong they were unloaded from the ship onto a barge which took the cattle straight to a meatworks in Kowloon.
“We called the business the Hong Kong Cattle Co, and during the dry season we worked out of Darwin and also Wyndham in WA. We were delivering 1400 bullocks every 18 days or so for about two years, and they were pretty rough bullocks.
“We must have bought 20,000 head from Top End cattleman, John Underwood, but they were pretty wild cattle in those days. In Hong Kong they were used to leading them around by the nose, but after one of these wild Territory cattle hit a Chinese stockman, you could have put him in a small suitcase and still had room to spare.
“We generally had to slow the ship down on the return voyage to clean it out, which had to be done thoroughly with white wash and lime.”
After the arrival of bluetongue, the business had to shift its source of supply further south, shipping from Brisbane and Tasmania (Launceston) for a couple of years. Cattle were also shipped from Gladstone and Fremantle at various times.
The Hong Kong market eventually closed, and the business moved its focus elsewhere, doing good trade into Malaysia for about three years.
“We had a regular contract supplying slaughter cattle to Kuala Lumpur every 16 days. This was a good contract that we supplied mostly from Darwin and Wyndham. The beauty of it being we could generally source a boat load from one property. In contrast, when we did business in Tasmania, a boat load of 1400 head could involve dealing with up to 200 vendors,” Gordon recalled.
“Tancreds started to undercut us in the Malaysian market, and ultimately ruined our market there, but we then started to charter ships to Tancreds, so made some money out of that.”
The business then gained a strong foothold supplying cattle into Korea, which had run out of cattle. At one point six or eight loads of feeder steers had to be sourced from New Zealand to meet the market’s requirements.
Pat Shaw was responsible for loading and managing the cattle and flying back from Korea, while Gordon’s son, Andrew, was in charge of the buying.
“We gained a contract in Korea in the late 1980s for about 10,000 Charolais, but could find only 1000-1500 head in Australia, so Andrew ventured to Canada where we found them amongst the ice and snow.
“We also moved into the Indonesian market about then, but these were smaller contracts and our ships were too big for their ports.”
Gordon then split with his Hong Kong shipping partner, selling the ‘Beaupre Island’ and he then began chartering ships from Bent Skjellerup.
“After our Canadian contract, we also began hiring Flying Tiger freight aircraft out of Brisbane, shipping up to 280 light steers by air. By then I had a property at Toowoomba and a feedlot, and we would truck them to Brisbane, transfer them into crates at the airport, and the crates would be wheeled on rails onto the aircraft.”
Gordon’s business did about 10 loads using this technique, when air-freight costs were similar to ships.
“Then the unions started to give us a bit of stick because they were worried about job losses,” he said.
“It was a difficult business the live export business. You had to have buying, marketing, finance, organisation and logistics skills. It was difficult for one person to do all these jobs. We learned a lot from Doug Mactaggart.”
The business’s biggest shipment out of Australia was 1400 head of slaughter bullocks, but it shipped as many as 2300 feeder steers out of both New Zealand and Canada into Asian markets.
“In those days we did not feed them pellets like today. We threw hay into the alleys between the cattle and those that could reach it did, and those that could not went without, but we lost very few cattle, although they did not put on any weight like they do today,” Gordon said.
Yards and facilities overseas were very primitive when his business was active.
“Most yards were old or inadequate, and propped up by stays or posts. It was not uncommon for three-tonne trucks to come and pick the steers up from those makeshift yards, and overturn within sight of the yards down gullies or off the side of hills along equally makeshift roads or tracks.”
“But we always got great satisfaction from at least delivering our consignments on time. The BeaupreIsland was a great boat. It could cruise at 26 knots and had a crew of 35, so we were always efficient and reliable.”
“I don’t know how some of these firms today can handle orders of 14,000 head or more. The bigger the order, the more problems the overseas buyer can find with your consignment, the more things can go wrong, and the more your customers can screw you. Even the vendors can screw you because they know you have to fill your vessel, so they can hold you to ransom on price, and with margins fairly low, there can be no profit in it for the exporter,” Gordon said.
“To offset this, we always had cattle on hand. We always had two or three shipments on hand at Toowoomba and Julia Creek, but I certainly would not like to be doing that today with commitments to deliver 14,000 head.”
Gordon said his business could not have achieved the success it did without the contribution of good stockmen, and he had one of those in Joe Price, who came from Mactaggarts.
“He would have done at least 90 boat loads overseas for us, travelling back by plane, because we had to give them a spell between voyages,” Gordon said.
Gordon terminated his live export activities in the late 1980s, after a decade in the business.
By then he had bought Birralee, a large-scale grazing property near Collinsville in North Queensland, and a second breeding property, Piccaninny Plains, in the Gulf.
Large coal deposits were later found by Drake Coal beneath the Birralee holding, leading to the property’s sale for mining development.
After completing his colourful pioneering exploits in the live export and shipping business, Gordon continued to hold grazing interests and maintained a long love of Thoroughbred breeding and racing, which stemmed from a horse stud at Toowoomba and his previous part-ownership of the Magic Millions business on the Gold Coast, now one of Australia’s major racing and sales organisations.
He was inducted into the Live Export Industry Hall of Fame in 2001.
“Gordon was the most unlikely live cattle exporter you would ever meet, but a great bloke with diverse interests and a fascinating background,” Trevor Johnston said in his industry memoirs published in 2003.
- Gordon MacNicol’s funeral service will be held at Kenmore Uniting Church, 982 Moggill Road Kenmore, on Friday 17 January 2014 at 2.00pm.