Live export pioneer
Ken Wilcock speaks with John Kaus, whose involvement in live export from Australia dates back to 1985.
FOR some people personal ambition and career interests take them on an unwavering pathway through life but for others the journey is far less certain and results in many twists and turns as that mysterious force known as ‘something in the blood’ exerts its influence.
For John Kaus the bug for the bush was already in his veins from his grandmother’s side of the family and her ownership of a rural property in Victoria’s high country.
However being born in Brisbane and going to school at Churchie (Church of England Grammar School) in the 1960s, John didn’t become aware of his liking for the bush until he started visiting the homes of some of his classmates who boarded during term. These school holiday ventures took him to places such as Blackall and Warwick where a young Peter Wyatt from Rokeby was his best mate at the time.
Not surprisingly, a two-year course at Emerald Pastoral College followed in 1972-73. At age 19, John, in company with his brother Roger who was 23 at the time, set out to jointly run the family property in Victoria.
The arrangement, however, was short-lived. The manager was reinstated, Roger returned to Queensland and John departed for New Zealand where he worked in woolsheds for a time.
Next came a stint in Western Australia’s wheat belt driving tractors in 12-hour shifts for $4 per hour but at least his employer paid the cost of the air fare from New Zealand.
Back in Queensland if jackarooing ever had an idyllic aspect, John came close to finding it at Marble Island off the Queensland coast near Shoalwater Bay.
Operators Duke Island Pastoral Company ran Santa cattle there against a backdrop of fine beaches and great fishing.
In 1976 John turned his hand to the agency sector with a move to Elders, firstly at Cannon Hill saleyards and then various country branches.
After a whirlwind 12 months, he left Elders and went back to have a second go at running the family property. This time he stayed for about four years.
In 1981 he leased the property out for a year to take some time travelling around Europe. He went back the next year and sold the place, keeping just 90 acres to maintain a family linkage of over 150 years.
The trip to Europe was a ship/jet deal which sailed from Fremantle carrying cattle, sheep and horses and about 200 passengers. It was John’s first insight into the business of shipping livestock.
Back in Australia in 1982 John returned to the agency game briefly with Dalgety’s at Texas. Some real estate and small business interests occupied the next couple of years until he felt the need for something different; live export beckoned.
He was offered a job with Dalgety International who were shipping sheep out of WA. But before taking up the role, Bob Gillespie suggested he should go to Darwin for six weeks to get some understanding of what was involved.
Bob arranged a role for John with Carabao Exports then owned by David George and Ian Britten-Jones. John’s first shipment was a load of buffalo and Brahman heifers to Kuching in Sarawak.
Something about that voyage and the nature of the business clicked and John decided to stay in Darwin and turned down the sheep job in WA. That was in 1985.
John spent the next four years working the boats to destinations including the Philippines, Sabah, Brunei, Sarawak, West Malaysia, Indonesia and occasionally Thailand.
The close contact he experienced during this time with importers and traders led John into the marketing side of the business and when David George sold Carabao Exports to the Brunei government in 1989, John was tasked with opening a regional office and given the choice of Brunei or Manila.
It was an easy choice and John operated from Manila for the next four years during which time the size of the business doubled.
Contributing to this growth was the Land Bank program in the Philippines, which resulted in the importation of around 35,000 breeding cattle.
John said, “We were the first ones on the ground there and went all through the provinces to meet the co-operatives. We won a lot of deals straight up because no one else was doing it.”
The early 1990s also saw the start of big increases in feeder cattle into both Indonesia and the Philippines.
Then in 1994, while attending Beef 94, John was shocked to learn that a decision had been made to downsize Carabao Exports to service just Brunei.
Returning to Manila, he was able to continue living in the big Carabao apartment for a time and this no doubt helped in his decision to stay and form a business of his own.
SEALS (South East Asian Livestock Services) was formed and for the next two years operated as an agent for John Montague’s Quality Livestock business selling into Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines.
In 1996 John decided it was time he got his own export licence.
He rang his old boss from Carabao days Sid Parker with a simple plan, you buy them and I’ll sell them.
SEALS began trading in its own right, one ship a month at first and business started to grow from there.
Not content with just one major event in his life in1996, John took on the responsibilities of married life the same year.
He and Violeta (Violy to all who know her) met in the Philippines in the late 1980s. All of their three children April, Michelle and Scott were born in the Philippines and spent their early years there until schooling necessitated a move back to Brisbane. Following family tradition, Scott went to Churchie and the girls went to St Margaret’s.
Another great relationship that started around that time was with North Queensland shipping magnate Sid Faithfull.
Through exclusive chartering arrangements SEALS used smaller vessels the Molunat and Norvantes until they went out of service. Still in service is the Nine Eagle which replaced the Norvantes.
John was never inclined to get into bigger ships as the smaller ships he operated were ideal for SEALS’ core business in Sabah, Sarawak and Brunei.
This aspect of the business and the fact that he lived in the marketplace worked to considerable advantage when the Asian currency crisis came along in 1997-98.
SEALS was able to continue supplying into the Philippine market by dealing with importers who paid in cash in the local currency, Peso.
John said, “I would collect the cash go to the bank and change it into A$ and send it back to Australia. Couldn’t do that if you didn’t live there. All the ships were sitting at anchor in Darwin and elsewhere and we had this little blue ship carrying 1200 head chugging backwards and forwards to the Philippines. That was good business and we kept going.”
In 2010 John in partnership with Sid Parker, Steven Gross (later Dean Ryan) and Sam Collings bought Karumba Livestock Exports from Sid Faithfull. The partners shared Sid Faithfull’s vision as the location tapped a huge supply area.
Twenty-one years on from taking out that export licence, John has now seen fit to sell off part of his ownership of SEALS.
Singapore-based Yarra Corporation already owned and operated a sourcing and exporting division in Australia as well as feedlot and abattoir facilities in China. It was in its capacity as an export supplier that Yarra originally came in contact with SEALS.
Later they enquired if John was interested in selling and negotiations went on from there.
Outwardly SEALS is unchanged. But effectively the new part owners have provided SEALS with an important advantage in the form of in-house market access to the emerging Chinese market.
As John said, “We never wanted to go into the China market against the big boys but now we have our own market to supply to.”
John can foresee the need to charter additional vessels to do the China business and is confident that Darwin will remain the centre of focus and head office for SEALS.
Even though the trade will initially come out of the south, supply volume, price and location factors will mean that eventually all the feeder cattle will come out of northern Australia.
John is looking forward to stepping back a bit but at the moment he is still doing most of the marketing.
He sees some good things ahead with Vietnam and also with some of the developments going on in Brunei and Sarawak.
“Indonesia is now the hardest business but we will continue to do some business there with the good clients we have always served,” he said.
Importantly, “I still like waking up each morning to the challenge.”