Filthy rich: Australian families who get their hands dirty

These families have rolled up their sleeves, put a peg on their nose and got stuck into the most unpopular businesses around. But their bank balances, for the most part, have polished up nicely.

One man’s waste is someone else’s livelihood, and there’s money to be made in muck.

Some of Australia’s most successful family businesses have been cleaning up in areas like garbage collection, chicken farming, abattoirs, pest control, plumbing and sewerage.

Not many will goes near this sort of stuff, but these families aren’t squeamish and some of them are making millions. Muck makes a motza.

JJ Richards: Australia’s biggest privately-owned waste management company was established by Joseph John Richards in 1932 when he secured his first refuse and sanitary collection contract from the Murwillumbah Shire, NSW.

The Richards family are the majority owners of the company that now employs over 1500 people, has fleet of 1200 vehicles and performs over 1.5 million household collections every week.  The family ranked at number 29 in this year's BRW Rich List with $390 million to their name, up from $305 million last year.

Run by John Richards, the founder’s grandson, the business has operations throughout Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and New Zealand. Apart from picking up garbage, JJ Richards operates a water treatment service, does environmental consulting and has further diversified into composting and organics.

Reece Australia:  Reece Australia is the nation’s biggest bathroom, toilet and plumbing hardware company. Its roots go back to 1919, when Harold Joseph Reece was selling goods from the back of his truck. The following year he opened the first Reece hardware in Victoria under the name HJ Reece. The company did well and in 1954 it listed on the stock exchange.

In 1969, the Wilson family got involved when Leslie Wilson, who had been working there for a number of years, liked it so much that he bought a controlling stake in the company. The Wilsons haven’t looked back and now own more than three quarters of Reece and dominate its board.

Alan Wilson, the son of Leslie, is executive chairman, his son Peter is CEO and there are a total of four Wilsons on the board of six. In contrast to the ASX corporate governance recommendations that the majority of the board should be independent directors and that the chairman be independent. Reece is a perfect example of a tightly-controlled owner-manager business with one family holding most of the shares.

The company reported a total revenue of over $1.5 billion last financial year. 

Amalgamated Pest Control: Here is a business that grew out of two family companies that date back to 1923 when Jock Wightman, a soap-maker started the company under the name Norris Agencies after coming to Australia from Scotland and discovering the cockroach powder Cidol.

The pest control business was born when he teamed up with the family, the McCarrons. They took the business into residential and industrial pest control to get rid of ants, termites, cockroaches and spiders. The two family businesses officially joined in 1961 to create Amalgamated Pest Control.

With its head office in Brisbane, the company now has branches across Australia and also in New Caledonia, Norfolk Island and Fiji. Amalgamated Pest Control runs its operations as a franchised company. It boasts 72 franchise operations and employs 500 people. The turnover is reported to be $62 million.

Nature Loo: Nature Loo is a family business that’s been selling waterless composting toilets for the last 20 years.  With its manufacturing operations in Brisbane, the company’s toilets come with two composting chambers -- fill one, put it aside for composting and use the second. When it’s time to change chambers, the contents of the first chamber can be used as compost.

The business, operated by Stuart Elliott and his son Tristan, sells across Australia and also has sales to Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and Tuvalu. Most of the sales are online and the clients are mostly those in rural or outer suburban areas where there is ample acreage and where people want to save water.

The company is, thankfully, restricted from selling into cities as local councils require the toilets to be hooked up to the sewerage system. However, there are community gardens in Victoria that buy the composting toilets. The company turns over just over $1 million and Stuart Elliott says there are plans to expand overseas, particularly into places like California where there is a shortage of water.

Opalios: Opal mining is hard, dusty, dangerous and dirty work not for the faint hearted. In Coober Pedy in summer, temperatures get to 50 degrees -- reach for the spanner and you burn your hand. Swinging a pick axe and crawling through tunnels in those sort of conditions means only the toughest survive.

Andreas and Stella Boussios set up Opelios in 1973, about nine years after they had come out from Greece and settled in Sydney. Their son George, who works with them in the family business, said they came to Coober Pedy because a cousin had a bulldozer and thought they could make a buck.

“They thought they would come here for three months, make a lot of money and go back to Sydney,” Boussios says.

“They are still here, it was unfinished business.” When he is not mining for opals, George is making jewellery. His mother cuts the opals that they sell out of their shop.

There are no opal mining companies in Coober Pedy, but lots of family businesses. George says it’s not the kind of world for big companies.

“Would you invest in a company that says we’ll dig here and see what happens?” He says the company’s profits are modest.

“I haven’t bought a yacht yet, it’s more a lifestyle thing,” he says. “On the other hand if I find something I will send you a postcard from the Bahamas next week. It’s like farming; you’re relying on the earth and covering your own costs.”