Statham's giant legacy in sheds and agriculture

An innovator who saw big and delivered: Neil Statham

Beef
Sundown Valley had a mammoth cattle backgrounding operation and the Statham holdings grew and grew.

Sundown Valley had a mammoth cattle backgrounding operation and the Statham holdings grew and grew.

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From nation's largest farm shed company to cattle king

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It's one of the great stories of Australian agriculture: how an apprentice boilermaker rose to become one of the biggest and most innovative pastoralists of the modern age.

It's a story that is ongoing as the legacy of Neil Statham runs on through Sundown Pastoral and his son David, with whom he had a 31-year business partnership, with cotton interests from northern NSW to far north Queensland.

Neil Statham passed away earlier this year aged 87 on the Gold Coast after a life he could only have dreamt about as a young boy growing up in Perth.

His father migrated from England during the First World War and the family did well enough to send a young Neil to the prestigious Wesley College in Perth.

The school's motto was "By Daring and By Doing".

The family moved to Newcastle where Neil finished his schooling at Newcastle Boys High.

He wasn't a great scholar, but a great all-round sportsman.

He loved AFL and was captain coach of Newcastle City for 17 years and once played in a pre-grand final match at the MCG.

He also loved cricket and tennis, and later learnt to fly planes at the age of 44.

Neil Statham started the business that became Ranbuild and then invested heavily in northern NSW properties, becoming one of the richest pastoralists in Australia.

Neil Statham started the business that became Ranbuild and then invested heavily in northern NSW properties, becoming one of the richest pastoralists in Australia.

But it was in business that he really flew, and it was in business deals that he had his real passion.

All of this was accomplished in a great partnership with his wife and also many loyal long-term employees who worked with him in his manufacturing and agricultural interests over many decades.

Neil met Anne Mort and they married when they were both 21 and Anne became part of the rapid success of the early version of the big company Ranbuild, then known as R&N Building.

In his eulogy at Neil's funeral, his son David, who now co-runs the modern version of Sundown Pastoral with his wife Danielle, revealed some of those exciting early days in getting what would become Australia's biggest farm shed business off the ground.

Later Neil became one of Australia's richest and biggest pastoralists with an early vision that took people's breath away for innovation and scale.

Not many people know how he was the first to introduce dung beetles into Australia as an adjunct to his cattle operation and that he used hundreds of tonnes of chicken manure to kickstart his property at Kingstown.

At one time, the Statham's Sundown Valley property on the Northern Tablelands had more than 260 paddocks and ran 18,000 cattle in one of the nation's largest high performance cattle operations.

Ranbuild

Neil Statham moved from his apprentice boilermaker with BHP in Newcastle to be a sales representative with the National Cash Register Company.

He and his brother, father and his wife Anne had an idea for pre-fabricated farm sheds.

They started pricing steel buildings to farmers and then contracted out their manufacture when they received the orders.

Then they thought 'why don't we just build them ourselves', and R@N Steel Buildings was born.

It eventually became the premier manufacturer of prefabricated farm buildings in Australia.

"Dad, Ron (his brother) and Stanley (father) set up R&N Building trading company in 1955," David Statham said in his eulogy.

"The start of an incredible journey in the steel industry.

From 1955 to 1969 this business which had started in steel buildings and serviced the Newcastle and rural areas of Australia expanded into silos, grain handling facilities farm machinery but specializing in hay sheds machinery sheds and of course the Australian icon woolsheds."

One of its most remarkable sales wasn't even in Australia.

It once sold 2000 sheds to former Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

"In 1969, the name changed to R&N Statham Limited and by 1971-72 had been converted into a public company," David Statham said.

"Dad was not such a good advocate for public companies as he had to conform with other people ideas were different to him and thus his quick exit in 1974.

"In 1971 the board in their wisdom decided to carve off the shed side of the business and put it to one side.

"Decision was made on a Friday. Dad found Harley Marx who he placed inside a new company with himself as a silent partner and opened a new business on the Monday and called it Ranbuild.

"Harley stayed in this position until 1978 at which time Dad took over the reins once again.

"Immediately ramping up the advertising and sales took off once again.

"He launched the Ranbuild man soon after and reconnecting with sales agents across NSW.

'Marketing first, marketing second, marketing third, nothing else counts' as he used to tell me daily (without an order, nothing else really matters)."

Dave Statham joined Ranbuild in 1984 and his first duty was to chase debtors and work with erection teams.

"In 1997 the turning point came when both Dad and I agreed either shut the doors or have a crack at fully automating our shed ordering and process systems through software systems.

"RDS was born approximately five years later, a fully automated shed ordering system with inbuilt engineering that was instantaneous with minimal errors throughout the whole business. overlay this with a change in trading terms money up front or no building changed the dynamics of the company overnight."

Neil with his favourite dog Thor. Neil learned to fly at the age of 44, following in the footsteps of his son Murray, a pilot, who once said to him while flying "Dad, don't tell me where to go until you have a pilot's licence". So Neil went to Bankstown and got a pilot's licence in six weeks.

Neil with his favourite dog Thor. Neil learned to fly at the age of 44, following in the footsteps of his son Murray, a pilot, who once said to him while flying "Dad, don't tell me where to go until you have a pilot's licence". So Neil went to Bankstown and got a pilot's licence in six weeks.

Bluescope Steel were circling Ranbuild and in 2004 the sale was completed.

Neil once told David the secret to success in business.

"You either make money with your brains or make money through other people's brains, if you choose the latter then get your social networking skills going!

"He took all his knowledge from Ranbuild and put it into agriculture."

Sundown Valley

It was an interesting path to his first major purchase - the massive Sundown Valley holdings at Kingstown, west of Armidale.

"Through his Ranbuild journey Dad meet many people in rural Australia none finer than Thea Wilson the owner of a property called Box Forest near Kingstown NSW," David said.

"They became good friends and it was Thea who convinced Dad to buy a property next door to her from an Indian gentleman Golham Mohomid."

He named it Sundown Valley.

The year was 1964. It was situated in the heart of the New England Tablelands, one hour drive west of Armidale, 3000 feet above sea level on top of the Great Dividing Range.

The initial land purchase was approx. 10,000 acres."

The early 1970s and '80s were full of family holidays there, with Neil and Anne's children, Murray, Dave and Philippa getting into farm life with mustering, riding bikes and shooting in between school.

"The journey started with fine wool Merino sheep surpassing the 40,000 head make in the mid to late 80s, with only a small number of cattle on hand."

The booming wool years and the frustration of running sheep came to a complete stop in 1997-1998 with all sheep exiting Sundown Valley.

It was at this time the real work started.

Dave Statham continues the family tradition with Sundown Pastoral which has large cotton holdings from NSW to Queensland.

Dave Statham continues the family tradition with Sundown Pastoral which has large cotton holdings from NSW to Queensland.

"Along came Monk (Matthew Monk) in 1998 the first ever high-performance pasture program was implemented on Sundown Valley," David recalled.

"Matthew was given the cheque book to prove to us both that his theory of pasture management and nutrition would work.

"256 paddocks later with over 50 kilometres of laneways running up to 18,000 head of cattle I think the answer was that it worked.

"A massive cattle trading business was established with Rob Walker and Antony Glynn travelling the full breadth of the eastern seaboard buying cattle every week and supplying Woolworths and major feedlots with a full supply of cattle every week.

"In 2001 a property Paradise 17,000 acres was acquired from the bank in the Sydney airport domestic lounge as it was a mortgagee in possession.

"The most picturesque property I believe that was owned within the company."

"Not many knew that to kick off Sundown Valley, hundreds of tonnes of chicken manure was brought in from Kootingal to fertilise the paddocks.

"There was also a lot of clearing that often didn't go down well with neighbours.

Howard Gardner became lifelong friends with Neil and his family.

Mr Gardner was very senior at Elders Goldsborough Mort and ended up running 14 branches out of Tamworth, then later managing the Newcastle branch.

He and Neil bonded straightaway, and though they may have had arguments, they always were able to smooth things over.

Mr Gardner told The Land that Neil Statham's contribution to productivity through innovation was huge and needed to be recognised.

"It wasn't Neil Statham's thing to be involved in agripolitics, and a lot of what he did isn't known to the general public," he said.

"For instance he was the first to bring in dung beetles in the 1970s, from South Africa via Vanuatu.

"People talk about this innovation now, but he did it way back then.

"People also don't know he brought in hundreds of tonnes of fowl manure from Kootingal to improve the granite country on Sundown Valley."

"Some thought he was crazy doing that. Neil's reply was "it's worth a try".

"That's the kind of thing he did."

"Statham was also one of the first to grow wheat in the area.

Mr Gardner said Neil had many loyal staff over the decades and although seen as a hard buinessman, his closest workers were bonded to the Statham enterprises for a long time.

"I remember we were sitting at the Kingstown shop, it had a liquor licence, both me, Neil and our wives and one of his workers walked in on the Friday there, he was known as 'Stretch'.

'Mind if I get a drink?," he asked Neil (to put on Sundown's tab at the store).

"Sure," Neil said.

"Stretch went and got a carton of beer and walked out. They all laughed.

"He does that most Fridays," Neil had explained.

Mr Gardner said Neil's skill was to "identify good people and employ them" and he was an innovator.

"That was typical of Neil and also his son David now, they lead the way."

Sundown Valley used cutting edge technology with collars on cattle to monitor growth.

Sundown Pastoral traded cattle, buying, backgrounding and thousands of cattle a year, but then concentrated on backgrounding cattle for people such as AACo.

Howard Gardner, who held many senior management positions with Elders Goldsbrough Mort including at Tamworth and Newcastle was a great friend and business associate with Neil Statham over many decades.

Howard Gardner, who held many senior management positions with Elders Goldsbrough Mort including at Tamworth and Newcastle was a great friend and business associate with Neil Statham over many decades.

At one stage 6250 cattle were moved daily, and 32,000 each week.

Matthew Monk once said: "We try to keep the systems really simple. It is big scale and you can't be too complex".

Agronomist Matthew Monk, at left, became an integral part of Sundown Valley's success as manager, working on the motto of "keep it simple" with the massive cattle backgrounding operation near Armidale. He is pictured with Sundown's Rob Walker before the sale to Gina Rinehart with Angus and White Baldy cows in background.

Agronomist Matthew Monk, at left, became an integral part of Sundown Valley's success as manager, working on the motto of "keep it simple" with the massive cattle backgrounding operation near Armidale. He is pictured with Sundown's Rob Walker before the sale to Gina Rinehart with Angus and White Baldy cows in background.

(Mining baron Gina Rinehart's pastoral arm, Hancock Prospecting bought the Sundown agglomeration and feedlot in 2018 to run it partly as a Wagyu operation.)

Sundown Pastoral also purchased a number of key northern NSW properties.

David said in the eulogy to Neil: "In 2003, Newstead was purchased from the Brudenhoff church group with us being the third highest bidder but won the race when we leased the $1m on farm abattoir which they (just finished building) for $1 per annum for 10 years. After several neighbouring property purchases Newstead aggregation totalled 13,000 acres.

"These properties also had dad's creative land clearing touch. He was excellent at visualising how a paddock should be cleared and absolutely loved his relationship with his bulldozer drivers.

"This was his passion. Alan Roberts and Dad shared a very special bond for many years when dad would bring him morning tea every day and discuss which trees should stay and which ones should go.

"In 2012, Gunnee property and feedlot was purchased a 4,600 acre property with a 10,000 head feedlot was purchased from Charlie Mort (a relative from mum's side) who we had a JV with the feedlot.

"All of the above properties were developed to the highest of standards with Matthew overseeing all four properties with a great team of people around him.

"Natural manures, dung beetles and grazing management practices ensured the highest quality pastures with incredible soil fertility and soil carbon levels.

"At the peak, all four properties total 76,000 acres with an associated 10,000 head feedlot.

"An absolute incredible achievement when combined with the Keytah property development overlayed."

Keytah takes off

The family had also branched out into a large property near Moree, Keytah in 1984. It had been running 10,000 sheep, well under its 20,000 carrying capacity, and had "not been flogged".

"Howard Gardner a great friend of dad's suggested he fly to Moree and look at a property 30 kms west of Moree. The property was called Keytah."

David agreed to get involved and run Keytah just as he left school.

"The beef stud stock industry was at its flamboyant best in the late 80s together we started a stud of Hereford cattle.

"The sheep were sold off and replaced with both commercial cattle and stud cattle. Over the preceding 5-6 years one stud grew to three (Herefords Poll Herefords and Salers) the largest ever cattle embryo program undertaken in Australia was carried out.

"There were over 2500 recipient females being monitored every day for months to match the mating cycle to coincide the correct implant times of the embryos.

"The irrigation program had also commenced at the same time to graze the cattle on which were the first six fields west of the Keytah complex known as K1-6.

"Water storages, pump stations, housing infrastructure, Ranbuild buildings being erected at record pace all at the same time.

"From 1987 to 1992 several neighbouring properties were added to Keytah mainly Wathagar and Cudgildool (large properties combining 45,000 acres (18,200ha).

"A large cattle trading business had commenced from purchases mainly from the King Ranch properties in the Northern Territory to all parts of NSW and Qld.

"Keytah had up to 25,000 head of trade cattle being grazed on the farm and sold through the state-of-the-art bull selling complex.

Nick Gillingham, manager, David Statham and Nathaniel Phillis at Keytah, a major innovative cotton enterprise that holds regular field days and shares knowledge to help the industry. (this one was about irrigation systems).

Nick Gillingham, manager, David Statham and Nathaniel Phillis at Keytah, a major innovative cotton enterprise that holds regular field days and shares knowledge to help the industry. (this one was about irrigation systems).

"The cattle high flying days had passed we both decided to exit and over this same period started learning and visiting cotton irrigation properties in the Moree area.

"From 1987 to 1991 we had share farmed out the Wathagar small irrigation area to Ken Arnott at Telegar.

Read also: A shift to automated irrigation at 'Keytah', Moree

"Preceding the first five-year agreement the irrigation development program went into overdrive.

"Fast forward to 2003 we had developed 25,000 acres (10,000 ha) of irrigation development of the highest standard, accumulated 48 water licences, built 11 water storages along with aggregating a total of 15 properties total 63,500 acres (25,000 ha)."

The Wathagar Cotton Gin was added in 2004.

"To hear the words from the chairman of Rabobank to me that Keytah was the best ever property he had seen anywhere in the world is an absolute credit to every single staff member present and past as well as dad's early vision to create an absolutely iconic property that it is today. In his words 'simply the very best'."

Keytah's contribution to the industry keeps on today and was only last year a keystone property at a Cotton Australia Open House presentation.

Cotton Australia's chief executive Adam Kay said the Stathams and Sundown Pastoral had not only been great contributors to the industry but had believed in the good of the industry by sharing knowledge.

"They are always there to help with trials and field days and sharing knowledge. Neil was a key part of that," Mr Kay said.

Sundown Pastoral has just started a cotton operation, St Ronan's, way up in Far North Queensland past Mt Garnet on the Atherton Tablelands where David found good water sources and has just brought in a cotton crop going 8 bales a hectare, in a place no-one had ever thought of growing cotton before on such a large scale.

Neil had a stroke in 2014 and had limited ability to be involved in the company. He passed away on the Gold Coast.

He is survived by his wife Anne, and their children Murray, Philippa and David, a loved father and husband and one of Australian agriculture's great giants, an innovator before his time, with the tradition still alive and well.

The story Statham's giant legacy in sheds and agriculture first appeared on The Land.

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