RICH PICKINGS: Tony Quinn's five steps to Petfoods paradise

From his humble Scottish beginnings, the owner of VIP Petfoods has overcome many hurdles, but the overarching message is simple – enjoy life.

Tony Quinn, the man who saved beloved chocolate brand Darrell Lea from extinction, is exactly 172 centimetres tall.

This is not information that I am usually able to share about rich list members, but several of Quinn’s vital statistics are available for all to see on the website of his racing car team attached to his main business VIP Petfoods (daily drive: Porsche, favourite racetrack: Mount Panorama, Bathurst).

Quinn, who made his debut on the BRW Rich 200 list in 2011 with his wife Christina with a fortune of $219 million, and rose to $350 million in the magazine’s May edition, is one of those entrepreneurs who have flown underneath the radar for years, despite the rapid growth of his business.

But when you save an icon, you’re bound to get a wider audience.

"It's made me feel good to rescue a great Australian brand," Quinn told AAP last week.

"Let's have some fun. Let's fix this thing."

Quinn declined to be interviewed for this piece, but his stated motives for the deal appear to be relatively simple – he loves chocolate, and he could.

"You've got to be excited by what you do in life. We're only here for one journey and so you need to make sure, as best you can, that you enjoy what you're doing.

"The beauty of what we do in manufacturing goods is we get to test our products on dogs and cats or children or old people. It's a great thing.

"Another area I'd like to be involved in as well is ice cream. I love ice cream."

We’ll wait patiently for Quinn’s entrance into the ice-cream game. In the meantime, here are five lessons from the man who saved Darrell Lea.

Have a spirit of adventure

Tony Quinn was born in the Scottish town of Aberdeen and had a tough upbringing – his family lived in a caravan and as soon as he was old enough he went to work in his father’s small pet food business.

In his 20s he bought a signwriting business from a deceased estate and built it into the market leader in Aberdeen. Then, on a whim, he decided to come to Australia and took aim at Perth, a market he believed would be two or three years behind Aberdeen, where neon signage was all the rage. It was, he told BRW, the "craziest f-cking thing” he had ever done.

He hit Perth in 1979 and was quickly disappointed. Australia was well ahead of Aberdeen when it came to signage.

"There was no internet and I’ve never really been one for market research,” Quinn told Gold Coast Business News last year.

"I had incredible success and thought I could do the same in Perth, but it wasn’t to be.”

Quinn started a lawn mowing business but soon packed up his family and headed to New Zealand. On the flight over the Tasman, he saw a cow in a paddock and decided to get back in the pet food game.

The business did well, but in 1994 Quinn moved again, to the Gold Coast, where VIP Petfoods was born – after quite a journey.

Turn defence into attack

In late 2011 it seemed very unlikely that VIP Petfoods would be buying anything under the Quinn family’s ownership – indeed, it seemed unlikely that even the VIP Petfoods brand would be under Quinn’s family’s control.

In late 2011, private equity firms Pacific Equity Partners and CHAMP were in the race to buy VIP Petfoods, which the Quinns had put on the market with a reported price tag of $400 million. The deal gathered momentum but by February it had petered out, with CHAMP walking away.

Tony Quinn hasn’t commented on what happened, but he is an entrepreneur not afraid to take a stand on the value of his business. In 2007, international pet food company Bush’s International approached VIP with a takeover offer. But Quinn would soon turn the tables.

"Bush’s came to us four years ago and wanted to buy us out; they were quite obnoxious and said ‘here you go’ and gave us a dirty, great big cheque. I said ‘no thanks’ and soon after they were targeted by private equity which came into the marketplace with no idea what they were doing,” he told Gold Coast Business News

"It was then that we made the snap decision to acquire it.”

Keep it in the family – to a point

It’s no surprise that Tony and Christina Quinn are jointly listed on the rich list – you could only imagine that the years of moving to new places and starting new business would have forged an extremely close relationship inside and outside the business.

"We love what we do so there’s no separation; we don’t leave the business when we go home,” Christina told Gold Coast Business News last year.

"I have always had complete faith in Tony. It has been an exciting journey – there’s never a dull moment.

"When we first started I worked in sales, administration, everything. I slowly moved out of it as we grew and now look after all of Tony’s appointments and try to bring some organisation in to his life.”

The couple’s four adult children also work in the business, with son Klark set to run the Darrell Lea business, which won’t be an easy task given its problems.

Of course, working with family is always fraught with danger – personality clashes between parents and children have brought more than a few great businesses unstuck. And so it was when Tony Quinn worked with his father in Scotland in the family’s pet food business – the two clashed to the point where Quinn’s father challenged him to turn a profit from the offal and bone by-products.

Quinn pulled it off – but the taste of responsibility also gave Quinn the impetus to strike out on his own.

Simplicity matters

The idea of the pampered pet seems very normal today, but when the Quinns started the business on the Gold Coast in 1994 there wouldn’t have been many pets getting chilled meat.

But with Australians spending as much as $2.8 billion a year on pet food – including increasingly gourmet options – Quinn’s decision has been a smart one.

This is a seriously big business, with eight factories around Australia, 600 staff, a large export business and annual turnover above $300 million. It’s an operation that sounds complex, but Quinn says his focus is on simplicity, a lesson he learned when he made his first big deal in Australia – selling his $600-a-week mowing business – Lawn Ranger – for $18,000 in the early 1980s.

"I cannot see past the simple way of doing things. When I have a board meeting, they know not to talk about history, what happened a month or two ago. I’m only interested in what’s ahead,” Quinn told the Gold Coast Business News.

"There are moments of tears and of joy for anyone who has gone down this path. If it gets too complex, I always think about the ‘Lawn Ranger’.”

Quinn had a big simplification job when VIP bought rival Bush’s International for $75 million in 2009. The business was losing $400,000 a week and Quinn and his family had to act fast.

"There was unbelievable waste in the company. There were eight accountants and 12 sales people. I thought, ‘how can so many people get it so wrong for so long?’ Now there’s one accountant and four sales people.”

Enjoy life

Racing cars, a chocolate business, a dream to one day sell ice-cream – it’s clear that Tony Quinn knows how to enjoy the spoils of a pretty impressive business career.

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