THERE have been few more iconic families in the Australian meat processing business over the last 100 years than the Gilbertsons.
One of its most distinguished family members was George Gilbertson, who passed away in Melbourne on Saturday after a short illness, aged 82.
The family company, RJ Gilbertson Pty Ltd reflected the Australian dream starting with a single butcher shop in Moonee Ponds in Melbourne around 1900 and growing over three generations, spanning almost a century, into one of Australia’s top three meat processors, smallgoods manufacturers and retailing operations.
As part of the third generation, George Gilbertson was responsible for much of that success. He began with the company as a livestock buyer in 1949 while he continued his accounting studies, rising to become company secretary, and later chairman.
From its original boning room attached to Melbourne City Abattoirs, the company built a new abattoir at Altona North in 1948, and continued to expand its domestic processing, wholesale and retail interests during the 1950s.
The company also branched into export, during the same era. The Gilbertsons started shipping carcase lamb to the US in the mid-1950s, with beef starting in 1959. George also sold some of the first commercial loads of boneless mutton into Japan through Marubeni, in the early 1960s.
He became a director of the company in 1972 and its chairman in 1989.
Gilbertsons also included the highly successful and familiar Don smallgoods brand – a name assimilated from the family’s great love of the Essendon Football Club.
By 1960, Gilbertsons had grown to 26 retail butcheries in Australia, but its focus was squarely on the emerging US market. The company bought the Longford Tasmania abattoir in 1964.
By the mid 1970s, containerisation opened up the way for chilled meat exports to the Japanese market and the company was an early pioneer in this new trade. The same year the company purchased the Newport freezing works, and in 1972 expanded into South Australia, opening a boning room at the Gepps Cross abattoir. At its peak in the early 1970s, the company processed 2.7 million sheep a year through company operations, before the liquidation of the Australian sheep flock started.
In 1975 Gilbertsons opened a boning room in Wagga Wagga adjacent to the council owned abattoir, and leased a boning room at Hamilton in Brisbane, as well as in Goulburn in Victoria. By 1978 the company operated 77 butcher shops, fed through three meatworks, five export boning rooms and two smallgoods factories, adding the Grafton NSW cooperative in 1980.
In 1989, 40pc of the company representing the interests of some family members was sold to Japan’s Sumikin Bussan, previously a major Glibertsons customer. In 1996, as the Gilbertson family’s focus shifted to property development on Melbourne’s fringes, they sold their remaining share to Sumikin, bringing to a close a century-long connection with meat processing.
The business was re-named SBA Foods, which later sold to Tasman Food Services, today controlled by JBS.
George Gilbertson also invested a lot of time and effort in industry affairs. He was elected chairman of the Australian Meat Exporters Federal Council in 1994, and chaired the Australian Meat Council from 1994 to 1996.
Steve Martyn’s processing industry history “World on a Plate” includes an extensive profile with George Gilbertson, including an outline of the history of the family company.
Mr Gilbertson is survived by his wife, Margaret, daughters Susan and Christine, a former Meat & Livestock Australia boardmember, and an extended family.
He was a true gentleman to the end and a stalwart of the meat processing sector.
A Memorial Service for Mr Gilbertson will be held at St John’s Uniting Church, cnr Mt Alexander Road and Buckley Street, Essendon, VIC this Friday, July 24 at 11am. The Service follows a Private Family Cremation.