Meet the $200m bushy, Tom Brinkworth; You won’t find this controversial pastoralist in the social pages nor in the saddling enclosure on Melbourne Cup day. Rather, you will find him sleeping rough as he traverses his vast estate in South Australia

Meet the $200m bushy, Tom Brinkworth

PUBLISHED: 13 HOURS 46 MINUTES AGO | UPDATE: 2 HOURS 36 MINUTES AGO

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Brinkworth in a trophy room bearing the results of the family’s passion for hunting. Photo by Nic Walker

TONY WALKER

Tom Brinkworth is presiding in what he calls his home office – a farmer’s kitchen – with its skillets and meat hooks, cleavers and boning knives, venison chunks and homilies about life and work, and shelves crowded with sauce bottles and condiments. On a refrigerator door, a fridge magnet bears the Churchillian words: Never, Never, Never Give Up. Whatever else friends and detractors – and there are plenty of the latter – might say about the enigmatic 76-year-old, no-one would ever accuse him of giving up, certainly when it comes to accumulating land.

Can acquisition of land become an obsession, I ask? “No, it’s a habit,” Brinkworth laughs. He recounts a friend’s observation that: “Brinkworth would buy out the whole of Australia if the price was right.” Queensland is his next frontier beyond holdings in South Australia and NSW, judging by coloured-in sections of a map of southern Queensland on a long refectory table in a crowded “trophy room” adjoining the kitchen. Brinkworth’s hunting exploits are captured in the mounted heads and antlers of seven species of deer, wild boar and various species of duck. The latter reflects his passion for game-shooting on his wetlands properties.

Tom Brinkworth of Watervalley station, 50 kilometres west as the crow flies from Kingston in South Australia, controls, at last count, 1 million hectares of agricultural land spread across 99 properties in his home state and NSW. By the time this article appears, he may well have brought up his century, such is his appetite for additional land, provided the price is right.“Every year we have to run so much faster to stand still,” he says of his land acquisitions and increase in stock numbers. He won’t be drawn on his net worth, beyond saying he is “worth more than $10”, but on a simple calculation, his assets – including property, livestock and machinery – would exceed $200 million. He avoids discussion about his preferred debt levels, apart from telling me he is “comfortable”. “Wealth is related to the smallness of wants,” he says.

He farms 350,000 sheep, 80,000 head of cattle, produces vast quantities of stock feed, has five large cattle trucks on the road permanently ferrying his stock between properties and market, and is constantly on the move himself. “Our aim is not necessarily to have the top price in the saleyard, but to have the most economic price,” he says.

All this makes the pastoralist – relatively unknown outside South Australia – one of the country’s largest landholders and owners of stock, and one you won’t find in the social pages nor in the saddling enclosure at Flemington on Melbourne Cup day. You might encounter him at a stock sale in his bushy beard (he grew it after nearly being garroted in a motorcycle accident), bush shirt, shorts and work boots. Or on the open road in his ute with a swag in the back. Yes, swag. One of Australia’s wealthiest men sleeps rough on his travels and, famously frugal, feeds on roadkill, if you believe the mythology. Brinkworth laughs when I put this to him. He is not without a sense of humour. What drives him to acquire more land at an age when most men of his vintage are contemplating retirement? Especially if they have suffered, as Brinkworth has, a heart attack, followed by a double bypass, and stroke that would have felled less durable individuals.

“There are only two things I know for sure: either you’re going forwards or backwards; you can’t stand still,” Brinkworth tells The Australian Financial Review Magazine in one of several long conversations in his “home office” over cups of tea. These involve subjects such as contemporary politics – Brinkworth has no time for politicians, he is a cantankerous member of the Liberal Party; government – it should get out of the way of business; taxes – those paying higher rates and taxes should have a bigger say in local government than ordinary ratepayers; the dollar – the high dollar is killing us and will lead to higher unemployment; the carbon tax – silly and unnecessary; farming – low cost producers are survivors; foreign ownership of farming land – foreigners can’t tow it away; conservation – those critical of his broadacre cattle and sheep raising techniques reminiscent of earlier cattle barons don’t comprehend what’s required to survive in agriculture; hunting – Brinkworth runs a deer-hunting side business and hosted 350 duck shooters on his South Australian property’s lake system for an annual ritual in February that resembles a charge of the light brigade for shooters; genetics – a rogue female is more dangerous than a rogue male; opera – he discovered Pavarotti after his heart operation and stroke while in hospital and swears by his curative powers; and reading – Brinkworth is a Churchill buff.

At the door to the section of his large bungalow-style house that accommodates his kitchen office is a sign that tells you quite a lot about Tom Brinkworth’s world view. “The Home is Superior to the State,” it reads. If a man’s home is his castle, Brinkworth’s is his fortress against an intrusive state that might presume to poke its nose into his land use methods, his vast scheme to relocate water on his wetland properties (like an Australian Ferdinand de Lesseps, Brinkworth has constructed a 27-kilometre ditch on the scale of the Suez Canal to siphon saline water from agricultural land to wetland areas), and his alleged mistreatment of animals.

South Australian court records tell their own story of Brinkworth’s brushes with the law. Ranging from illegal land use to animal cruelty, these would fill a large filing cabinet. Brinkworth has won and lost his share, including a confidential settlement in the case that caused him more grief than all others, when he was accused, along with his wife Pat, of animal cruelty. The action, brought by the RSPCA, was described in the Adelaide Advertiser as one of the biggest cases of alleged animal cruelty in the state’s history. This related to the deaths of hundreds of livestock during the terrible drought of 2006-2007, in which the Brinkworths were accused of wilful neglect.

He resists the allegations, saying he was dealing with the worst drought in the state’s history. “Drought can kill your spirits,” he says of a year of hell when his home property received less than half its annual average rainfall. “You wonder if this will ever end.” He deflects questions about the circumstances under which the case was settled out of court, citing a confidentiality agreement after it emerged an RSPCA employee had tampered with evidence.

He might have continued in relative obscurity beyond his home state and his tussles with the law, buthis purchase last year of the historic 80,000-hectare Uardry station near Hay in NSW for about $28 million got people’s attention for reasons that have caused a good deal of aggravation among sheep breeders. Uardry station was, if not pre-eminent in the breeding of Australian stud merinos, ranked in the top five along with other properties in the Riverina such as Boonoke and Wanganella. Its storied history includes bloodlines associated with the Hallmark ram, grand champion at the Sydney Royal Easter Show in 1932. Hallmark’s magnificent image, with its triple-chin wool folds, graced the shilling piece from the 1930s onward and reappeared on the 50-cent commemorative coin more recently.

It would be hard to exaggerate the importance of the Hallmark bloodline in Australian merino breeding, passed down through generations of stud rams and ewes, sustained by some of the country’s finest sheep country. Hallmark was the Black Caviar of his time, or, if you like, Black Caviar’s sire, Bel Esprit. But within weeks of his Uardry purchase, Brinkworth had sold the station’s birthright in a dispersal sale of 18,000 stud merinos. Needless to say, this dismayed the stud breeding industry, and surprised the former owners, the Black family. Graeme Black, who handled negotiations with Brinkworth, would not be drawn in conversation with the AFR Magazine on the extent of the family’s dismay, but he said at the time of the sale: “The great thing is, I think Tom Brinkworth in particular has plans to keep the stud going.”

What happened to change the Brinkworth calculus? Or had he intended all along to sell off the stud and concentrate on Uardry’s potential as a “drought proofing” cropping concern on its irrigated Murrumbidgee river flats? The drought of bitter memory, in which stock feed was scarce and prohibitively expensive, remains a pre-occupation. Brinkworth insists he had an open mind on the sale of the stud, but when he calculated the costs after assuming control, he concluded that retaining it was simply not economic. This remains a matter of conjecture among Merino breeders and those associated with Uardry before its sale, but what the episode shows is that Brinkworth is an unsentimental businessman.

Was there also an element in Brinkworth’s decision of sticking a finger in the eye of the Merino establishment? He is dismissive of those born, as he put it more than once in our conversations, with a “golden spoon in their mouths”. Asked whether he would describe himself as a “ruthless pragmatist”, he replies: “I’ve got an awful determination.” This might be regarded as an understatement. “If circumstances change along the way, you’re stupid if you don’t change,” he says.

In good times and bad, and whether Brinkworth is a good custodian of the land, or an exploitative agriculturalist, what is clear is that he revels in stock work, and the challenges involved in making money in a marginal business. Over several days, I observe him going about his business in cattle yards and shearing sheds, culling bull calves and presiding over the beginning of another year’s shearing of his vast flocks. Brinkworth is not an absentee landowner, far from it. “The best fertilizer on any place is the owner’s feet,” he tells me more than once.

Lowry Tahau, a Maori shearing contractor who has worked for the Brinkworths for many years, laughs when he responds to a question about disputes with “Tommy”, as he calls Brinkworth. “In the end, you don’t argue,” Tahau says against the background whirr of shearing machines and the woolshed smell of lanolin. “It’s either Tommy’s way or the highway.”

Brinkworth is experimenting with shearing sheep every seven months, rather than 12. He deflects questions about why, except to observe that “in the heyday of wool, one fleece would pay a week’s wages, now it won’t pay wages for an hour … We don’t have a lot of fat left in the system, if at all.”

If there’s a core to Brinkworth’s business philosophy, it probably lies in the following: “We’re about being a low cost producer,” he says on our travels around his vast South Australian property. “It’s easier to save money than to make money.” He then relates a story about marbles to illustrate a point about a sort of Darwinian process of natural selection in business: “If you go to a pre-school and give three kids the same number of marbles each, and come back in a few weeks, you’ll find one kid will have most of the marbles and the others will have fewer or none. You’ll find this throughout life.”

All of this philosophising and business talk is light years away from Brinkworth’s challenging childhood in a place called Tumby Bay on South Australia’s west coast. He was born on May 31, 1937, the dyslexic son of an Elder Smith and Company stock and station agent. He still has trouble with the alphabet, although, as might be anticipated, his numeracy skills are out of the ordinary. “I was hopeless at school,” he says. “The teachers would say I would either work for the council or be sweeping the streets.”

Asked whether his earlier unhappy experiences at school contributed to his later drive, he says: “A lot of it is fear of failure.” Brinkworth recalls his start in business when his father, who had become a chicken farmer, gave him 100 chooks. By 19, he had taken a loan, guaranteed by his father, from the local bank to buy five acres at Gawler, north of Adelaide for a poultry farm and pig pens. Before long, he had run out of space and secured a further 20 acres in the same district. By the 1960s, his piggery had grown to 5000 pigs, one of the biggest in the southern hemisphere – one pig was born every three minutes – before he sold out to finance his move into cattle and sheep farming on a large scale.

He had, by this stage, bought land between Kingston and Keith in South Australia’s south-east, and added to his holdings in the district over the years. This area of the state is the Brinkworth family seat. Elder son Ben, 46, who manages his own cropping property, lives nearby, as does younger son Angas, 32. A daughter, Annabel, lives in Adelaide.

“I’ve never had a vision,” Brinkworth says. “My horizon when I was at Gawler was I might own 70 to 80 cows. I would’ve thought then that 70 to 80 was a massive operation.” He recalls that when he was building up his poultry and piggery businesses, he would leave home at 3.30 in the morning and get home after dark. “The harder you work, the more luck you have,” he says.

He displays unusual candour in describing what motivates him. “I used to think I was doing it for my family,” he says. “But it was never for the family, it was for myself.” At this point, his wife Pat interjects: “You’re a workaholic. You can’t stop.” When I ask whether he ever takes a holiday, he launches into a discussion about his shooting expeditions to Africa – his trophy room includes a photograph of a slain elephant – and what he describes as the “sustainable use of wildlife” in which numbers need to be culled constantly to maintain an ecological balance. Brinkworth’s South Australian properties are well-stocked with deer for hunting purposes, to the dismay of adjoining landholders.

Neighbour James Darling is among those most critical of Brinkworth’s agricultural and environmental practices, particularly in relation to deer. “Since Brinkworth imported deer for hunting in the last decade, thousands have escaped from his inadequate deer enclosures into surrounding areas, including national parks,” says Darling, who has farmed in the area for more than 30 years. He is critical of the authorities for failing to enforce their own rules and regulations to stop deer trespassing onto neighbouring properties. “Brinkworth demonstrates little or no accountability for the scale of damage to neighbours and the threat to the wider community caused by deer overrunning local properties,” he says.

Brinkworth feigns a lack of concern about what others think of him, his farming methods and his views about sustainable wildlife. But at the same time, he seems far from insensitive about how he is perceived by his neighbours, and by the wider community. He describes himself as a conservationist. “My hobby is conservation,” he says. This would be news to his detractors in the conservation movement, who would be inclined to make the sign of the cross and throw salt over their left shoulders at mention of his name.

Over several days, he seeks to make a case for his contribution to the betterment of the environment, beginning with his establishment of Wetlands & Wildlife, a registered charitable company whose stated aim is to “conserve, protect and enhance the natural environment, including wetlands and flora and fauna for the benefit of the public”. Wetlands & Wildlife has set aside two areas for conservation, thanks in part to Brinkworth’s own initiative – driven by tax advantages that have accrued. These are the 27,000 hectares of the Watervalley Wetlands adjacent to his property 250 kilometres south-east of Adelaide, and Warraweena, a 35,500-hectare pastoral lease in the northern Flinders Ranges.

As Brinkworth tells it, in a document published in 2005 – Another Point of View by T. K. Brinkworth – these two conservation parks were made possible by the unexpected decision of the then Labor government in the early 1990s to enable tax deductibility for the environment. This is something he had lobbied for without success at state and federal government level. “I could hardly believe it,” he wrote then. Twenty years later, the question is whether his Wetlands & Wildlife initiative has benefited the conservation cause, or whether it has simply been a Brinkworth ploy to persuade people that he cared about the environment as a cover for his exploitative pastoral activities, and his hunting pursuits.

Janice White, a retired researcher in wildlife ecology from the University of South Australia and a director of Wetlands & Wildlife, reflects the mixed views people have of Brinkworth: the ravening pastoralist and hunter, in the perspective of some, and the conservationist, according to others. She describes as “pretty dreadful” some of his land management practices, such as his introduction of large numbers of deer to the south-east. These are vermin, ravaging native flora. Deer are difficult, if not impossible, to contain in a fenced area. On the other hand, she credits him with pioneering work in conservation.

“What he’s done for conservation in South Australia in practical terms – setting aside land that can’t be used for anything other than conservation – is, if not the greatest gift, one of the greatest contributions to the state,” she says. “He’s a total enigma. I’ve known Tom Brinkworth for nearly 20 years, but I don’t know him. He was born 100 years too late. He’s a very divisive person. There are people who would die for him, and there are people who would bring him down.”

If there is one historical figure in the cattle industry that Brinkworth would identify with, it is Sidney Kidman, who pioneered vast tracts of inland Australia for cattle raising, and who controlled 20 million hectares of land before his death in 1935. “I’ve learned a lot from the Kidman story about being able to survive the bad times,” Brinkworth says. “All droughts finish, followed very often by floods.” His philosophy, as he puts it, in good times and bad, is to beware both “irrational exuberance” and “irrational fear”.

Dr Bob Sharrad of the school of biological sciences at Flinders University and a member of Wetlands & Wildlife, like Janice White, is generally sympathetic to Brinkworth’s conservation efforts but is far from uncritical. Referring to the 27-kilometre ditch that cuts through the Watervalley Wetlands conservation area, Sharrad says: “It saddened me greatly. Conservationists saw it as a hideous thing to do.” But Brinkworth insists that something had to be done to preserve both arable and wetlands areas under his “no net loss” approach to conservation, in which farming and conservation are balanced without penalty to the farmer.

In typical crash and crash through fashion, he bought massive Caterpillar excavators and, without official approval, carved his way through the bush, destroying a lot of native vegetation in the process. Eventually, he was compensated by the state government for what, by any standards, is a fairly monumental civil engineering project.

This is typical of a Brinkworth story summed up by his friend, the colourful, earthmoving contractor Elliott Musolino, who worked with him on the early stages of the “drain”, and remarks on his audacity. “He’s got a ton of guts, he’s got a heap of foresight,” Musolino says. “Nothing seems to bother him. He’s fair dinkum. He hunts, he shoots, he kills meat, he loves the environment.” In remarks that won’t impress the anti-deer lobby, Musolino quotes him as saying: “They’ve got to eat, you know. It’s only grass.” Musolino likens Brinkworth not to Sidney Kidman, but to Tom Kruse, the legendary Birdsville Track mailman of the 1930s and ’40s who overcame heat, flood and drought to get mail and supplies to remote settlements. “He’s uncanny,” Musolino says. “He’s a helluva good bushman. All he needs out there in the bush is a bottle of water.”

Robert Hudd, a friend who first got to know Brinkworth three decades ago when he sold him earthmoving equipment, has this assessment of doing business with one of the country’s more eccentric businessmen: “Tom always commits to his word. In any of our commercial transactions, he’s honoured every commitment. These are verbal commitments, never in writing. In our business dealings, Tom always says, ‘Robert, you’ve got to have a plan’. Because he’s so focused on what he sees his plan as being, he can come across as confrontational. He doesn’t intend it to be that way.” Others who have found themselves in the path of a Brinkworth bulldozer might differ with this assessment, but as his friends say, he is a “unique” and “complex” character.

We end our discussions where we started, in the Brinkworth “home office” in the company of Pat and their sons Ben and Angas. While Brinkworth is yielding reluctantly to being photographed and is out of earshot, Ben admits the only day off he’s had since October was Christmas Day. He has responsibility for the Uardry facility on top of his own place. Asked what it’s like being part of a dynasty, Ben replies; “not yet”. Angas adds: “You’ve got to be down the track a bit before you’re at that point.”

Both believe the family suffers from the Australian tendency to cut down tall poppies. “We’re scrutinised excessively by government departments,” Ben says. “We get continual tax audits. If we want to get a vehicle registered, they try extra hard to find something wrong.” This echoes his father’s observation that Americans celebrate success, whereas Australians “want to cut you down to size”. Asked what he has learned from his father, Ben responds: “Be open to change.” He provides an insight into the family’s land acquisition strategies when he says: “It’s still cheaper to buy land to increase production than by improving land you already own.”

This brings us finally to a discussion about success and failure, and what distinguishes those who are successful and those who are less so. “In farming, a lot of people try and get 90 to 100 per cent of a farm’s potential, but that’s not the way to make money,” Tom Brinkworth says. “Let it run at a lower cost rather than the higher potential. One-third of farmers are going backwards, or not doing well, one-third will be standing still and one-third will be doing really quite well.” So what distinguishes the ones who are doing well and ones who are going backwards? “Those who work hard and never give up,” he says.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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