The Man From Macquarie River

Young Roger Fletcher gave up a potential career in rugby league for droving – 'the greatest university you could have’. Now sprawling Fletcher International Group is one of the biggest family businesses in the country.

To create a family dynasty, you have to do two things. First you have to build a business that makes money, and then you have to get your children to keep it going intact – to make it their life as well.

Roger Fletcher, now 67, has definitely done the first part. The second part is now ahead of him – or, more importantly, his three kids. And the reason the first Fletcher succession event will be a big deal when it happens is that Fletcher International Group is Australia’s largest integrated meat exporter, turning over about $400 million a year.

During the course of one life, Roger Fletcher has created a sprawling, complicated monster of a business. The Dubbo-based family owns two abattoirs with a total capacity of 90,000 sheep a week, exporting to 90 countries; two big farms that run up to 100,000 sheep, including 40,000 breeding ewes; and another 40,000 acres under crop and irrigated cotton, as well as their own intermodal transport business, including a railway line.

Son Faron runs the Dubbo abattoir; daughter Pamela works in the West Australian abattoir and his other daughter Melissa was working in the business but is now raising three kids of her own in Brisbane.

Succession is not imminent – after all, Roger is a very fit 67 – but at some point the question is going to be put to Faron, Pamela and Melissa: do you want to keep the business together? Can you?

The thing is that Roger, and therefore the business, is the product of an extraordinary man’s remarkable life, in which he learned as he went along.

He was born to a family farm in Glen Innes, which is halfway between Armidale and Tenterfield in New South Wales. He was the second oldest of six children and wasn’t going to take over the farm. “I was clean,” is how he puts it: “no strings attached”.

So at 20, in 1967, he left home with enough money to buy 2000 sheep and he drove them up and down the “Long Paddock” – the stock routes that wind through outback Australia, on which you can graze animals without owning farmland.

He had been heading for a career as a rugby league footballer, but one day a former captain of Australia said to him: “Listen son, you’ll make money if you go to Sydney, but they’ll expect you to spend it, so you’ll have none left.”

And then another wise mentor said to him: “Listen son, to succeed in life you have to do what you love.” So he decided to go droving, which he did for 10 years.

It’s a bit like that with Roger Fletcher. His life has been punctuated and fuelled by aphorisms from wise mentors, and now his own conversation is sprinkled with them.

For instance, after he’d been droving for 10 years he was leaning mournfully over a rail at the Moree saleyard, having just bought the two worst, lowest-price pens of sheep at the sale, and was contemplating giving up and getting a job, when he moaned to an old bloke – a man he still calls a mentor – “I’ve got nothing to show for 10 years’ work.”

Ron Hunter replied: “Yes you have son, you’ve got knowledge. Start using your brains.”

As he reflects on it now, “droving was the greatest university you could have. There are no phones, no one to ask for help. If something goes wrong, you have to fix it, on the spot”.

So he built an abattoir in Dubbo, one of the first privately owned plants in the state, and he set about learning everything the council abattoirs did wrong and making sure he didn’t do that. The result was the most efficient abattoir in the country.

Almost immediately he set up an export office in Sydney and decided to go to the easy countries first: the United States, Japan and Britain. Later he started selling sheep meat to other Asian countries and the Middle East, and converted the processing to 100 per cent halal slaughtering for efficiency.

The business grew steadily, and quickly. He built another abattoir in WA, between Mount Barker and Albany. He moved into farming sheep to ensure some supply, and then into crop farming to spread his risks. In the ‘90s he built a woollen mill to deal with the skins but later closed it. He was having trouble getting the product over the Blue Mountains, so he bought a transport business and a railway line.

Over the years, many people have tried to talk Fletcher into a partnership, including Kerry Packer and Paul Keating, but no dice: “I’m more comfortable running my own business. I can move more quickly.”

These days Fletcher International Exports is by far the biggest business in Dubbo and one of the biggest family-owned businesses in Australia. Roger sits on the board of Infrastructure NSW and is chairman of the National Export Lamb, Sheep and Goat Industries Council; board member of the Australian Meat Industry Council and the Australian Processor Council; and Vice Chair of Australian Wool Innovation.

But most of all, Roger Fletcher is the drover who built a remarkable business by using his brains, living frugally and reinvesting all the cash back into the company.

The family business could be split up, if that’s what the children want, but he’d prefer it to stay intact because “there’s strength in unity”. That would require the kids to get on with each other and run it together, and at this stage there’s no reason to think that won’t happen.

As for the future of the business itself, Roger is inclined to stick with what he knows, which is sheep – although he says he could go into beef. “It depends what doors open. Doors open all the time, you just have to be ready to go through them.

“We expect universities to produce business people, but they can’t. You have to learn for yourself.”

As an old man once said to him: “Listen son, if you can get through the first 10 years you’ll succeed. It’ll get easier after that.”

Which it did.