THE man behind the the latest cattle industry ginger group, John Gunthorpe, is an enigma.
As his profile grows, so too do the questions about his motives and beef industry credentials.
His push to have his Australian Cattle Industry Council (ACIC) replace peak producer representative group Cattle Council of Australia (CCA) is gaining momentum.
Hundreds of farmers have turned out to NSW and Queensland meetings and independent reports confirm strong support at those meetings for Mr Gunthorpe’s proposition.
Given there are 47,021 agricultural businesses with cattle in Australia, that’s not a lot - and by his own admission, only around 60 have put their $10 where their mouth is and become financial members.
That’s only because he hasn’t yet had time to send out all the membership invoices, Mr Gunthorpe says.
Still, many beef producers are asking why a Melbourne business and accounting consultant who owns no cattle has taken it upon himself to lead, at his own expense, a crusade against CCA.
His time as executive chairman of dairy export company China Cattle, which made news headlines 10 years ago for its financial loss and shareholder concerns over a hefty consultancy fee paid to Mr Gunthorpe, is also on their mind.
In an industry where everyone knows exactly how many head every one of their representatives runs, and quite often how their farm profit and loss statement for the year reads, those questions are fair enough.
And Mr Gunthorpe seems happy enough give answers.
He says he has no commercial agenda – he just wants a better deal for cattle producers.
When (not ‘if’ in his mind) ACIC is the peak producer body, he intends to step aside and allow it to be run by directly-elected representatives.
His issues with CCA are well documented. Mr Gunthorpe is a prolific writer of letters to the editor and more recently has demonstrated an ability to issue press releases and work the media that leaves most other beef representative groups for dead.
He says it’s these issues with CCA, and his desire to get a better deal for the producer – “someone has to” – that is his sole motivation.
His empathy with the cattle producer, he says, originated during his time in the late 1980s and early 1990s as chief executive of Australian Meat Holdings (AMH), the consortium of four big meat processing companies pivotal in rationalising the sector in Queensland.
He describes AMH, now under the wing of JBS, as the “bringing together of four companies that had been fierce competitors and creating a new culture and stronger disciplines”.
“We worked hard to remove corruption from the industry but the most significant change we bought was the introduction of flexibility into employment and the reduction of strike action,” he said.
“It became clear to me that cattle producers were the most affected party when unions went on strike.
“The closest I got to producers the better the quality of people.”
For 30 years, he and wife Julie, who have seven children and 15 grandchildren, owned a beef property, “Mayfield”, in South Australia.
Sold in 2014, it bred stud bulls for commercial producers, with the progeny bought back and taken to feedlot weights on 200 hectares of irrigated country.
It was successful as a business, he says, although never his sole source of income.
Mr Gunthorpe has a commerce degree and has always worked as a consultant, advising on business strategies and doing accounting work.
Some clients are in agriculture, some are not.
He was president of the Australian and New Zealand Agribusiness Association in the early 1990s, served on the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation and is a director of Australian Beef Industry Council.
As for China Cattle, which the Sydney Morning Herald reported in 2008 paid Mr Gunthorpe’s Four Jays consultancy company a $480,000 fee in a year it made a $2.8m loss, Mr Gunthorpe says there is nothing there to hide.
He did a three-year stint with the company, relationships broke down and as a result China Cattle merged with another Chinese food company, he said.
Four Jays survived the affair, he said, and although not active today is still in existence.