Since the 1990s Angus beef cattle have been storming their way to the top of the food chain in Australian beef market. Known for its marbling, tenderness, texture and flavour, Angus beef dominates the menus and supermarket shelves across the nation. But what really sets Angus beef apart from the herd is Michael Pointer: the man behind the brand.
Now in his 80th year, the charismatic, fascinating legend of the beef industry lives a somewhat quieter life in Melbourne. Though his days of blue-collar work in agriculture are behind him, Mr Pointer is still the executive director of the Australian Association of Psychologists and an advisor to various agribusiness boards.
His career successes read like an adventure novel, spanning continents, governments and political leaders. Although perhaps best known for his role in the beef industry as founder of Certified Australian Angus Beef, Mr Pointer has been intrinsically involved and influential in many aspects of Australian agriculture’s domestic and global trade markets for more than 60 years.
“In the 1950s,” Mr Pointer recalls, “the most glamourous industry in the country was the wool trade. It made the paper every day and wool producers around the country were driving Rolls-Royces. And because the wool industry was such a glamourous industry, I decided it was just the industry that needed me!
“I started work in agribusiness on the 16th February 1955, employed by Max Glover, a man introduced to me by family friends. In fact I found myself not in the wool trade, but the sheepskin business, and the best thing that ever happened to me, after being the nearest thing to God that I ever would be as a school boy at a prestigious boarding school, was to find myself out in a green skin shed in Footscray with a broom in my hand sweeping the floor.”
Mr Pointer worked his way to general manager of the skin department of T. Dewez & Company wool and sheepskin merchants. In 1959 he was sent to Mazamet, France, the capital of the sheepskin business world, for six months to meet clients and agents and learn about the manufacturing side of business. “I had the great misfortune of travelling back to this beautiful part of France many times,” he jests, “where I created many life-long friends.”
When the wool trade plummeted in the late 1960s Mr Pointer and Max Glover purchased the Dewez Sheepskin Company. The pair re-structured the business dramatically after bringing in a “wonderful friend and client” from France as a partner. Mr Pointer also started supplying to more than 40 tanneries in the former Yugoslavia manufacturing sheepskin seat covers for Mercedes Benz in Germany. “When we bought that business and I was the managing director we had a $1million a year turn over. And when I sold it in 1988 we had a $50 million a year turn over,” Mr Pointer says.
Out of the blue
In 1974 Mr Pointer was approached by a trading company he didn’t know, asking him to represent them in a commercial arbitration in Shanghai, China, over some United States sourced sheepskins. This serendipitous journey – including armed escort into China via railway and a flight to Shanghai where the first class seats were allocated to boxes of bananas – started a love affair with China for Mr Pointer.
The following year he was asked to return to the Canton Fair (China Import and Export Fair) where he made the first direct sale of Australian hides and skins from an Australian packer to the Chinese.
“The Chinese became very keen to be able to deal directly with Australian suppliers… I was there two or three times a year every year after that for a long time. I developed a substantial amount of business, not only did we sell and supply a lot of sheepskins, hides and wool but I also bought carpets, Angora rabbit hair, and became the largest importer of black tea from China into Australia – and that sounds fantastic except that we didn’t buy that much tea in China those days. One of the things I discovered early on is that Chinese people have the most wonderful sense of humour and I think I was able to use that fairly effectively for a long time.”
Early trade with China had its difficulties. The Whitlam government had only established diplomatic relations with China in December 1972 and Mr Pointer says there was an obvious need for an industry body to assist with interaction between Australian and Chinese businesses.
Gathering “a few friends” together, Mr Pointer established what was then known as the Australian China Chamber of Commerce Industry, which later merged with the Australian China Business Co-operation Committee to form what is now the Australian China Business Council.
He was consequently appointed chairman of the Victorian Government China Advisory Committee, which he chaired for five consecutive Victorian premiers, and sat in on a number of Federal Government activities including a three year appointment on the Australia China Council, two years of which were chaired by former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.
“To have had so much to do with the rise of China as Australia’s major trading partner has been very important to me. We achieved an enormous amount,” Mr Pointer says. “To work alongside Whitlam post being Prime Minister, being able to participate with him, his intellect and his wit, that was one of the most enjoyable and entertaining things that I’ve been involved in for a long time.”
In 1984 Mr Pointer received the Victorian Governor’s Award for significant export achievement in Victoria. Two years later the Dewez Sheepskin Company took out an Australian Export Award for companies achieving sustainable growth in international business.
A happy coincidence
“Like many things in my life, getting into Angus cattle was basically by mistake,” Mr Pointer says.
Following the sale of his sheepskin business in 1988, Mr Pointer and his wife Fran purchased what was intended to be a hobby farm on the rich pastoral lands of Alexandra, north-east of Melbourne. A motley herd of cross-bred cows joined with a Murray Grey bull soon became a “complete disaster” and it was quickly determined a fresh start was needed.
“I thought perhaps if I tried breeding just one breed of cattle I might do a little better,” Mr Pointer says. “And that thought process just happened to coincide with the sale of a pretty good Angus herd in Victoria. For some extraordinary reason there was a big draft of two-and-a-half-year-old beautifully grown Angus heifers.”
He purchased a “fair sized” draft of heifers, a couple of Angus bulls, and two years later had his first Angus calves to sell. When it came time to weigh the calves ahead of the weaner sale, Mr Pointer keenly asked the local Alexandra identity who’d been assisting him how much the calves were likely to fetch at sale.
“He said, ‘I don’t know.'” Mr Pointer recalls.
“Having been in the skin business I knew all the livestock buyers, so I asked, ‘well, who are the buyers that come to the sale?’ He said, ‘I don’t know.’
“I said, ‘you mean to tell me we’ve invested all this money and done all this work for something that not only don’t we know what it’s worth, we don’t even know if any bugger wants to buy it?’
“He said, ‘that’s the cattle business.'”
“We better change the cattle business,” Mr Pointer decided.
Fortuitously, as the search began for a way to market his own calves, Mr Pointer was approached by the local agricultural show society who were keen to host an Angus feature as part of the next annual show. Through his inquiries to help organise the show he then joined the Angus Society of Australia.
In the mid ’90s the Angus Society hosted founder and CEO of the American Certified Angus Beef program Louis ‘Mick’ Colvin. “Like all good Americans Mick could speak under wet cement and was thoroughly entertaining,” Mr Pointer recalls. “He absolutely blew me away when I saw what he had done with Certified Angus Beef in the US.
“I then got in the car and the whole way home I was wondering why on earth we’re not doing the same thing here. The next problem I had was how do we start, where do we go to get started?”
Branding Angus beef
Soon after, Mr Pointer was on the Victorian committee of the Angus Society when they received a letter from Trevor Bilney, acclaimed executive chef at the Rockman’s Regency Hotel, Melbourne, asking to source some Angus beef.
Utilising contacts from his sheepskin days, Mr Pointer contacted the owners of an abattoir at Foster, Victoria, who agreed to process a select number of cattle, and Angus breeder and future present of the Angus Society Dennis Ginn provided 12 steers to be specially processed for the Rockman’s Regency Hotel. “From day one I knew that I wanted to call it Certified Australian Angus Beef (CAAB),” Mr Pointer says. “And I still have in my archives a photograph of what I like to call The First Supper: Dennis, Trevor, the processor and myself eating the very first CAAB meal. That was in 1996.”
From there other Angus breeders began feeding their cattle into the program. By 1999 it was determined that all beef in the program had to be a grain fed product, CAAB had licensed Cargill Australia’s Wagga Wagga abattoir as the brand’s only processor, and it was obvious an export component would be vital for the business to continue to expand.
From 1996 to Mr Pointer’s retirement from the company in 2011 CAAB had built from processing 12 head of cattle in one year to nearly 100,000 head per year. The product was going to Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, the Maldives, Dubai, the United States, the United Kingdom, and was branded in 32 chains of supermarkets in Japan.
“It was very interesting when we first started exporting to Japan because it was before the BSE [Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, commonly known as mad cow disease] outbreaks in Japan and their supply channels were so tightly controlled by trading companies that you could never meet an end user,” Mr Pointer says.
“A number of trading companies basically went bankrupt overnight when the trade stopped over the BSE. That changed the whole relationship with Japan and so we were able to go over there, do cooking demonstrations in supermarkets and actually talk to the consumers, which was fantastic.
“That really was a great success and it was the precursor to everybody in Australia now selling Angus Beef. You can’t go anywhere now without seeing Angus Beef.”
A second career
Iconic Melbourne butcher Peter Bouchier was the first Australian retail butcher to stock CAAB and Mr Pointer recalls the excitement of first seeing his products displayed at both Peter Bouchier’s and Coles, the first Australian supermarket to sell CAAB. After two years of negotiations between CAAB and McDonald’s, the restaurant chain launched their Angus line of products in August 2009 – “a coup that was really more than interesting!”
“Providing the meal for Bill Clinton and 100 guests at the Ritz Carlton in Sydney when he came to Australia in 2001 was a highlight and we also fed him in Vietnam on one occasion too,” Mr Pointer says. “But the overall highlight really was getting the brand known, having it become a national brand and winning a gold medal in the first branded beef competition that we entered.”
Mr Pointer dreamed of CAAB holding the same position in Australia as American Certified Angus Beef does in the United States and admits to a certain extent he’s a little disappointed it hasn’t reached that mark yet. He also believes there’s an enormous amount of work to be done in genetic improvement and smart water use in the Australian cattle industry, although he remains one of the industry’s biggest champions.
He retired as CEO of CAAB in 2009 and from the company in 2011. “So that was my second career,” he says. “I learnt plenty. I learnt that the meat business is a fascinating business and it was a great joy to be involved in it.”
After ten years of drought in Victoria Mr Pointer dispersed his Angus cattle herd in 2007. “What I set out to start in 1988 as a hobby farm became very serious,” he says. “I was very pleased that by good luck I became a breeder of Angus cattle and became involved in what was happening in the Angus world.”
Mr Pointer has been awarded life membership of the Angus Society of Australia and the Australian China Business Council. In 2008 he was honoured by the President of France with the rank of Chevalier De L’Ordre National Du Mérite for his work in sustaining the sheepskin business in Mazamet and in 2012 he was thrilled to receive the Merial Howard Yelland Beef Industry Award in recognition of his leadership in developing and promoting branded Australian beef to a domestic and global food market.
“I’ve still got plenty to do,” he says. “Living in Melbourne now I’m not physically involved in any agribusiness but I am still actively involved in several organisations that I’m an advisor to. I will continue fighting the good fight for my psychologists and I’ll continue fighting the good fight for my colleagues in the livestock businesses, dealing with the concerns of things like Johnes disease control in Australia… it’s always rather nice to be asked advice about something.
He continues to buy CAAB porterhouse from Peter Bouchier’s Bourke Street David Jones store, which he enjoys cooking for family and friends, and believes the future of Australia’s beef industry is as bright as ever.
“We’re moving into a situation where for the first time in 50 years the world demand for beef will exceed the world supply of beef,” he says. “By the year 2030 there will be 3.2 billion middle class people living in the Asian Pacific area on our doorstep… and they’re the people starting to eat beef. They’re going to have a major impact on our long-term beef production.
“I am now in my 80th year; if I was in my 18th year I would be very confident in establishing a beef cattle operation because I think the long term outlook is very, very sound indeed.”
Featured Image: Michael Pointer
This story was first published in Leading Agriculture magazine.