From a scrub block to Coles and then Wagyu: The Lee family's ACC story

From a scrub block to Coles and then Wagyu: The Lee family's ACC story

Beef
WAGYU SHIFT: Australian Country Choice cattle. IMAGE: Nancy Gray.

WAGYU SHIFT: Australian Country Choice cattle. IMAGE: Nancy Gray.

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ACC's Anthony Lee at Wagyu Edge: "Understand the customer and never say no."

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FOR a family cattle business to take an undeveloped 5000 hectare scrub block and turn it into 1.6 million hectares across 30 properties, three feedlots and a processing facility supplying both the domestic market and dozens overseas, there must be some serious know-how at play.

Yet Anthony Lee, the third generation to help steer what is now one of the world's largest family-owned vertically integrated beef supply chains, Australian Country Choice, has no hesitations in sharing the blueprint.

Two messages from the ACC story resonate, he says.

Understand exactly what your customer wants and never say no - instead work out how to do it.

Mr Lee, ACC's chief executive officer, delivered an enthralling presentation at the Australian Wagyu Association's annual conference, Wagyu Edge, held on the Gold Coast today.

He spoke about everything from climate change to food security but it was the tale of how ACC evolved, and the lessons it brings with it to the Wagyu game from more than four decades of supplying Coles supermarkets, that most captivated.

CAPTIVATING: ACC's chief executive officer Anthony Lee speaking at today's Wagyu Edge conference in Queensland.

CAPTIVATING: ACC's chief executive officer Anthony Lee speaking at today's Wagyu Edge conference in Queensland.

ACC has a standing breeding and backgrounding herd of around a quarter of a million cattle today.

The 30 properties supply the feedlots, which also take cattle from other producers from the north, west and south of Australia's eastern seaboard.

The feedlots service a processing facility with a capacity of 350,000 head per annum.

Product leaves that facility either in a retail tray headed for supermarket shelves or as boxed beef destined for 30 overseas markets.

Norm Lee bought the family's first rural property, Brindley Park, near Roma, in the 1960s. His son, Trevor, developed that property and recognised the difficulty of producing cattle and just hoping for a profitable sale without any visibility of the customer.

In the early 1970s, Trevor Lee kicked off an arrangement with Coles for 20 bodies a week.

"Supermarkets want their carcases like their cans of Coke, each one identical, so it was a frightening proposition at the time," Anthony Lee said.

The need for a feedlot was born, but there weren't a lot in Australia at the time. Thus, Trevor went to the United States to study them.

It was learn-as-you-go but the Lees operated under the philosophy 'never not supply ' and kept up with Coles' insatiable growth aspirations.

The next step in the evolution, the acquisition of a meatworks at Cannon Hill, was made to counter the tendency for processors to focus attention overseas every time export markets boomed, Mr Lee explained.

ACC's Cannon Hill processing facility.

ACC's Cannon Hill processing facility.

A factory was built to supply Coles with shelf-ready product. What Coles did not take was marketed overseas.

ACC has now parted ways with Coles and moved into service kills for meat brands, underpinning their needs with its supply chain.

And the business is turning it's attention to Wagyu.

The Wagyu shift

ACC has made significant investment in a Wagyu herd, upgraded feedlots for longer-fed animals and retrofitted the processing facility to handle bigger carcases and more complex cut plans.

"We haven't rushed into Wagyu," Mr Lee said.

"We knew the challenge would be the variable quality of a bigger herd running at broadscale. To tackle this, we needed good genetics and operational control through each step.

"Supplying a domestic retailer for more than 40 years has taught us plenty around always delivering a consistent quality article and we believe these disciplines are transferable to the intensity needed in Wagyu production."

ACC cattle at Brindley Park, near Roma, in Queensland. IMAGE: Nancy Gray

ACC cattle at Brindley Park, near Roma, in Queensland. IMAGE: Nancy Gray

The big advantages they see in Wagyu includes fertility improvements and the ability to adapt to all climatic conditions - they bought their original herd out of Victoria to run in Queensland and those cattle haven't missed a beat, Mr Lee said.

"Thirdly, the barriers to entry are more difficult than other breeds and so it allows those who are game enough to have a point of difference not easily copied," he said.

The resilience of Wagyu meat sales through the pandemic has cemented their decision.

There were serious concerns about the effect of the pandemic on high-quality beef demand.

"As food service shut down, it seemed inevitable the ripple effect back into the supply chain was going to be severe and sustained," Mr Lee said.

Yet the demand for Wagyu resurfaced quickly, albeit through different channels.

"The rise of online sales was occurring prior to COVID but there was a rapid uplift in the platform, which we believe is here to stay and will continue to grow," Mr Lee said.

"People still wanted to eat meat - they just had to get it through different means. Instead of going out for a steak they bought it from a supermarket, butcher or online.

"We were able to get through the tough times with more resilience than many other sectors.

"What would you invest in that is better than a business feeding people?"

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