McBride Family (AJ & PA McBride)
Location: Pastoral SA, South East and Vic Wimmera
Farming since: 1920
Operation: Sheep and wool, beef cattle, wine grapes
PROMINENT woolgrowers AJ & PA McBride Ltd have ridden the highs and lows of the industry, from the prosperous 1950s when the fibre was worth a 'pound for a pound' to the wool collapse of the 1990s.
But in its 100th year, the family-owned company remains a dominant force as the fourth largest woolgrower in the country.
It has 10 properties under its control spanning a vast 1.3 million hectares, from the north-east and north-west pastoral areas of SA to the higher rainfall South East, and is running about 375,000 sheep, along with a significant beef cattle herd.
The past decade has been the company's period of greatest growth, including the nearly $80 million purchase of a land aggregation at Telopea Downs on the SA-Vic border, considered the largest rural land deal in Victorian history.
More than 100 shareholders - all descendants of the company founder, Albert James McBride, or their partners - are beneficiaries of the foresight he showed when he began acquiring sheep grazing land in the early 1900s.
By 1920, when he and wife Louisa started the company with their eldest son Philip, they held the crown leases to Faraway, Teetulpa and Braemar, east of Burra, as well as Wooltana in the Far north and Yardea in the west.
Four years later, in search of more land, they added 507,300ha Wilgena Station, near the railway town of Tarcoola.
Michael McBride - the son of AJ and Louisa's seventh child - says they could see the potential of the country north-west of Port Augusta, especially with the railway linking it to Adelaide.
Importantly it was outside the area where there were restrictions on the amount of land individuals could own.
By the time of AJ's death in 1928, the company was shearing about 150,000 sheep a year.
Expansion continued with purpose in the next decade, with the company investing in the higher rainfall South East, which was just being opened up.
We have parts of the family that are passionate northerners and other parts of the family are passionate southerners.
"Ashmore, the first of the properties, was bought in 1937, the year I was born," Michael said.
"It was perpetual lease country and there were eight children in Dad's family, so I remember hearing some of the blocks in Ashmore were in his sisters' names - they had to do that to get a property of that scale," he said.
In subsequent decades, the present chairman Keith McBride, a great-grandson of AJ McBride, says there have been many more land transactions - some which have been held until today, while others have been re-sold.
The property portfolio is now a balance of country inside and outside Goyder's Line.
"We have parts of the family that are passionate northerners and other parts of the family are passionate southerners," he said.
"If you go back and look at the results of properties you get a dry sheep area quite a bit cheaper in the north than down here (in the SE), but there is a reason for that - we've just been through a drought, but given good seasons those properties perform exceptionally well."
The one consistent, according to Keith, has been the family's dedication to wool - but this was also nearly their downfall with the crash of the early 1990s.
When Keith took over as chairman of the board in 2006, he says the company's shareholders - all descendants of AJ's eight children - issued the board with an ultimatum to "shape up or ship out".
The after-tax profit the previous year had been less than $60,000.
But through a turnaround in the fortunes of sheep and wool prices, and lifting the flock's wool cut and quality, along with diversification, they have been able to ensure larger annual shareholder dividends.
Like any family, Keith says they have had their share of squabbles through the years, but is proud of the way the family has stuck together in business.
"Some other families have trimmed the family tree a bit but we didn't do that, just of late I think we have had a reasonable mechanism that if family members want to leave the company they can do so reasonably fairly but it hasn't happened," he said.
"We have been fortunate enough we have had more people asking if they can buy more shares rather than get out."
Both Keith and Michael agree a major contributor of the company's success has been its fantastic staff, many of which have worked for the company for decades or from families where multiple generations have been on the payroll.
"This family right from my great-grandfather (Robert James Martin McBride) was a great believer that you are only as successful as your employees," Michael said.
The McBride family has been synonymous with agri-politics in SA, with many members serving on industry boards and two even being elected to parliament.
It began with company co-founder Philip McBride, who was a Senator for SA with the United Australia Party in the 1930s and later worked with Sir Robert Menzies to form the Liberal Party, which saw Philip make a return to politics.
Two years ago Sir Philip's great-grandson Nick McBride was elected Member for MacKillop, after winning a strong Liberal Party preselection race in the South East seat.
Nick says his interest in politics was set at a young age.
"I thought that the industry our family business was in could be better represented, and the region in which I lived could be better represented," he said.
He says he has been driven by the desire to see more money flowing to the regions for roads and telecommunications, but also investment in health and education.
"Why have we not got better infrastructure that attracts people to the regions and builds the population of our regions?" he said.
Michael McBride - who received an Order of Australia for his service to primary industry - has also left his mark.
He says he was fortunate to be supported to take on industry positions during his 40-year tenure on the McBride board, before he retired in 2005.
As an executive member of the Wool Council of Australia in the 1980s and 1990s, he was able to achieve some wins for industry, but also had a front row seat as the wool crash unfolded.
He says the council fought hard to ensure the reserve price scheme remained a means to reduce the fluctuation of wool prices, rather than a way to manipulate the market and lift prices to unsustainable highs.
By the time they had made the Wool Corporation see this it was too late, with the industry left with a five-million bale stockpile.
Michael, who also served on the Pastoral Board of SA for 26 years, says it is more vital than ever that farmers continued to lobby for their industry.
"Farmers generally live a long way away but every group now has a voice to the government so they need to be at the table too," he said.
BEEF, BOUQUETS AND BUILDINGS
Wool is still king for AJ & PA McBride but since the early 1990s the company's chief financial officer Nathan Wessling says the cattle herd has more than doubled and they have invested in viticulture and horticulture.
"At the time of the wool crash, something like 65 per cent of our income came from wool, the board at that time effectively promised it would never get in that position again," he said.
"Our diversification strategy now is it either has to complement our wool enterprise like cattle or it has to be a passive income - we don't want to take our eyes off the main goal."
In the late 1990s, the company established a native flower farm at Brooklyn Station on its poorer quality grazing land, this is currently leased out.
They entered the wine industry in 2003 with the purchase of a 33ha vineyard, Faraway Hill, at Wrattonbully and a decade later bought a 37pc stake in another great family business, Bleasdale Winery at Langhorne Creek.
Nathan says buying commercial real estate in Adelaide has also proven a good financial move.
"When we first went into commercial real estate in the early 2000s we were still in the last effects of the wool crash and because returns were so low in regional areas, apart from capital growth, the board was never comfortable to leverage grazing assets to borrow because it was hard to service the debt," he said.
"Commercial buildings have given us a consistent income from year to year and even month to month to leverage assets for future acquisitions."
The purchase of the 47,677ha aggregation at Telopea Downs in 2018 from Hassad Australia - owned by Qatar's sovereign wealth fund - was a massive leap of faith for AJ & PA McBride.
But, Keith says the board saw the walk-in, walk-out deal, negotiated by Elders, was a smart strategic decision to lift its wool clip by about 40pc.
The purchase included 25,000 largely Merino ewes and 30,000 lambs, as well as 600 Angus cattle and 1000 trade cattle, along with about 10,000ha of the property dedicated to hay and grain crops.
Keith says the company is still "feeling its way" but they have maintained their cattle numbers and have sourced 24,000 more breeding ewes for the self-replacing Merino flock.
A major clay spreading program, which had seen the carrying capacity of nearly half of the land improved, has been put on hold to prioritise other infrastructure improvements but they plan to get back to it soon.
"Some of the country hasn't been divided up, or the fences have been taken out, so there are some huge paddocks that are not that suitable for grazing, and some of the watering infrastructure we would like to change, so we need to do that first," Keith said.
The board of AJ & PA McBride Ltd has set itself an ambitious target to turn off 10,000 bales a year, which would cement it as one of the nation's largest woolgrowers.
Keith admits it will require further land acquisitions and good seasons to lift from the about 6500 bales it produced last year, but he believes it is achievable.
"That figure to me more than anything says we have committed ourselves to the wool industry and that we think there is a future in the wool industry," he said.
"Because our shareholder base is growing I think we need to grow our income as well.
"We hope to do that by purchasing more land but also continuing to improve the properties we already have."
Book celebrates storied history
To commemorate the centenary of AJ & PA McBride Ltd, the company has released a book - Faraway: 100 Years of Wool.
It has been a 3.5-year labour of love for Jim McBride (pictured) who has coordinated it, from firstly commissioning the author Kristin Weidenbach, to gathering family photos, letters and even family trees from descendants of AJ McBride's eight children.
An earlier book - Faraway and Beyond - was published in 1980 following the retirement of Sir Philip McBride after 50 years as chairman, but Jim says the new release is a chance to update the last 40 years and also provide a more comprehensive record of the company.
He says Kristin has done a wonderful job of interweaving details from the company's minute books with well-told stories of the people who have made the company a success.
Jim believes they have achieved their aim of publishing a book that has wide appeal, rather than just being a history book for the family.
"Not many people make it to that point in a family company, they were shirt sleeve to shirt sleeve for three generations and we have managed to make it to six (generations)," he said.
"They started with nothing and built a business slowly but surely and kept going, I believe because they were astute in their business dealings but also got really good people to help them," he said.
The book is available from the company's website here and selected book stores.
Scholarship winner finds future with McBrides
Young station hand Ebony McCauley (pictured above) may not have grown up on a farm but she is in her element working for AJ&PA McBride Ltd at Ashmore Station near Kingston, whether it is mustering stock, feeding lambs or conducting faecal egg counts in the paddock.
The 20-year-old has been working at the 7354-hectare property since late 2017.
Her association with the company goes back even further to her days at Urrbrae Agricultural High School.
She was the recipient of one of many scholarships the family has provided to students at the school in the past decade to encourage the next generation in agriculture.
Ebony says the company has been great to work for and so supportive of women, with female staff members nearly outnumbering men at Ashmore for a short time when she started.
"They are always giving you opportunities to grow your knowledge and try new things, but also encouraging you to do training courses. I've just done Lifetime Ewe Management," she said.
Ebony is also studying a Bachelor of Agriculture part-time through Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga, NSW, but she already sees herself being a long-term McBride employee.
"I love working in the fresh air and you also have an appreciation for where your food and fibre comes from and satisfaction that you are a part of that process," she said.
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