Remembering George Gilbertson

Jon Condon, 21/07/2015

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.

George Gilbertson

George Gilbertson

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.




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  1. millie schillick, 21/10/2020

    My father Ivan Schilich of Altona, a WW2 Eastern European Migrant who came here in 1949 started work for Gilbertson’s in Nth. Altona in 1965 in the boning room. He would tell me how Mr. Gilbertson would walk through the factory saying hello to everyone and often having a chat with workers and thanking them. My dad worked his way up through the meat chain and was made Head Foreman of Don’s Smallgoods. He could speak 10 languages which was very handy as there were so many Migrants working there. My father and ‘Mr George’ as Ivan called him admired and respected him saying he ran the Company ‘the old fashioned way’ which worked for everyone. Dad retired in 1985 (30 years service) was one of the longest working employees there and passed away in 1991.
    Thank you to Mr. Gilbertson for looking after his men. He was indeed a gentleman and ‘the best of bosses’.
    written on 20.10.2020 – by Ivan Schilich’s daughter – Millie

  2. Wes Albert, 21/02/2017

    I first met george in 1981 when he offered me a position as a trainee livestock buyer, to start once l finished high school. Once that came about however Australia was in the middle of a drought and my opportunity evaporated.
    George, to his credit, wanted to honour his offer of a job however and gave me a position in the maintenance department at the Kyle Road abattoir, less than 100 yards from his office.
    Over the 8 years that l worked there, l would often bump into him as he was knocking off work, and he would always give me a few minutes for a chat.
    They were some of the best years of my life, and l am eternally grateful for George’s involvement and influence on my life.
    I was saddened to read of his death – a true gentleman

  3. George Zammit, 24/01/2017

    My father emigrated from Malta in the late 1950’s to Maltese family have been and still are butchers. Prior to my father passing away in 2014 he always spoke about his time in Melbourne and especially his time working at Gilberson butchers. My parents lived in Melbourne for appx two years before moving back to Malta because of family matters. On arriving back in Malta my father opened his own butcher shop naming it Australia Butcher. RIP Mr G Gilberson. My fathers name was John Zammit. RIP Dad

  4. Phil Walker, 10/01/2017

    I remember my mother, Florence Walker, worked at Gilbertsons butchers part time for many years. I think it was in Collingwood or Fitzroy not sure but I remember her sometimes working in the Moonee ponds store. I know she loved working there and it was like a part of the family to us kids and her.
    Pineapple Ham Steaks and quality TBones and even Brains were served on our table. Great memories for me and my family. My mum is still going strong at 86 and talks fondly of her days working at Gilbertsons.

  5. Jennifer Gilbertson, 23/11/2016

    A very lovely tribute to George Gilbertson and the Gilbertson family.

  6. paul kennedy, 01/02/2016

    My mother attended every Saturday morning pre-closing time auction at the Puckle Street shop for about twenty years. They used to pack in about a hundred housewives just before noon to grab the bargains. “What do you offer for this tray of lamb chops, ladies? Who’ll give me ten shillings?”

  7. Klaas Visser., 21/07/2015

    George Gilbertson was always kind and generous in his dealings with me over a period of time starting with the supply of an Automatic Air Blast Freezer to Champion Meats, a wholly owned R.J. Gilbertson (RJG) subsidiary operating the Newport Freezing Works. My Association started with RJG started in 1966 and continued until the early 1980’s, when RJG – through Peter Gilbertson – allowed us to test the first large aluminium plate for the publicly funded Large Scale Automatic Plate Freezer (LSAPF) project on ammonia at their Longford Tasmania plant at some inconvenience to the plant. Ten years prior to that George and his fellow Directors had given approval to test a small scale prototype APF at their Kyle Road, Altona plant, but this never eventuated as we ran out of money. RJG quickly understood the benefits of LSAPF. Now some 75% of Australia’s meat exports are frozen in LSAPFs. The reason for telling this story is that George was always prepared to do things in the interest of the Australian meat industry and no doubt this brought him to the the Chair of both the AMEFC and AMC with peer support. The most important thing George ever said to me was: “Klaus, you have to get ready for the good times in the bad times!” I will always remember George for his generous support, honesty and integrity in all his dealings with me. The world is a lesser place without George.
    I feel for the family having lost their beloved husband, father and grandfather.
    Sincerely, Klaas Visser.

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