How this multi-million dollar Brisbane export business started from a chance encounter in a car in China

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Tastes are changing in China. Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images

A chance meeting in China three years ago started a multi-million dollar beef export industry.

David Foote, the managing director of Australian Country Choice, one of Australia’s largest privately-owned beef businesses, had been visiting a dairy in Chengdu, China’s fifth-largest city, as part of trade mission during Australia week.

He was picked up by a car whose driver had very good English.

It turned out the driver, Ming Yang, had spent three years studying at Queensland University. He also liked the beef he was eating while gaining a degree.

On the way back, Yang told Foote: “I studied in Brisbane.”

And the conversation went from that to business possibilities.

“Can I sell Australian beef?”

Foote said yes. “These are the rules. Do it this way and we’ll be successful.”

Yang now has a string of butcher shops, importing 100 tonnes a month, and Australian Country Choice has a growing export market.

While beef isn’t traditionally a meat of choice in China, younger Chinese are eating it more and more as the middle class grows.

Australia’s reputation for safe and clean food also helps.

“Basically it’s gone from a business of nothing to a business of great substance, within a two year period,” says Foote.

Australian Country Choice is a paddock-to-plate operation, part of the Lee family business started in 1958. It does everything from growing the cattle and processing it and moving it all the way to the supermarket shelves — in this case an exclusive supplier to Coles Since 1972.

The company is the fourth largest cattle owner in Australia with 1400 staff, 207,000 cattle and 5.8 million acres of farmland. About 84 animals are processed each hour and a carton of meat every three seconds.

Walk into a Coles supermarket on the eastern seaboard and you have a two in three chance of walking out with meat from Australian Country Choice.

The expert market

The export market provides balance to the seasonal patterns of Australian consumption of meat.

“Australia is really fortunate that, seeing the Southern Hemisphere and Asia being our closest destinations, we have opposite climates,” says Foote.

“So our summer is their winter and winter their summer. Barbecue items in June, July, outside of Queensland, aren’t that popular in Australia. It’s more slow cook or roasts.

“Whereas we’re in full barbecue season in the Northern Hemisphere. So there’s a really complimentary balance that we maintain our full supply and we just shift the locations with the cuts in mind with the seasons.”

And in Asia offal is popular.

“Our neighbours and near neighbours do like to eat their animal from the inside out,” says Foote. “And we like to eat it from the outside, in. So, it’s a really happy fit,” Foote said.

A drover herding cattle at Goondiwindi. Photo: Bradley Kanaris / Getty Images

Australian beef sells particularly well in Chengdu and much of that comes from brand Australia.

Even products that are packed in Thailand but sourced from Australia have a higher market value and acceptance.

“The association to Australia in food, is number one in China,” he says.

And Australian Country Choice has scale and reliability created from its long association with Coles.

“We don’t close, we’re here all the time. Our volumes are very, very consistent and our product quality is unparalleled in its consistency,” he says. “That’s what you have to be when you’re supplying a retail supermarket chain.

The next wave of entrepreneurs

Chinese buyers sampling wines. Photo: Laurent Fievet / AFP / GettyImages.

David Foote is conscious of the youth of China.

“I’m in business with people who are younger than my children,” he says. “Potentially disconcerting but you got to understand they are the generation that are developing China in business. They are supported by the family but they are the go-getters.”

Some of the next wave of entrepreneurs are already at universities around Australia.

Ming Yang’s business story all started in Brisbane.

Foote argues Brisbane is a wonderful location to be in the export beef processing industry.

It’s got Australia’s second-highest shipping frequency. There are major with flights to Asia and the nearby Gold Coast is a magnet for tourists.

“It’s frequented by the customer base we’re trying to look for,” he says.

And in the middle of the year — June, July, August — it’s hot and steamy in Asia but full sun, blue skies and 24 degrees in Brisbane.

Looking for a steak

Foote says Australian consumers are lucky when it comes to steak.

“I think the Australian consumer is really lucky, it’s actually really hard to get a bad steak in Australia now,” he says.

Putting aside specialty steaks, the best meat, with the most consistent quality, is in the supermarkets.

“I know the work that goes behind the selection of the 6,000 animals that come in here and the rigger that supplied to only let those through to the consumer that are eligible to go through,” he says.

“The eating quality of your average, supermarket steak will generally far exceed the eating quality of other retail steaks.

“Industry over last 10 years has developed some wonderful systems to basically the superior eating quality or from our position, equally importantly, to identify the less than acceptable eating quality products.”