When Rob Frew first joined the family meat processing business in 1981, he was just the sixth person on the payroll. Four decades later, Frew Foods International employs more than 500 people, supplies major supermarkets across Australia and exports top-quality lamb, mutton and goat around the world.
Starting as a small regional domestic abattoir to becoming a major export player in Australian meat processing, the Frew facility has always been quick to embrace innovation and technology while seeking out new markets.
Frew credits the legacy of his late father, Arch Frew, for establishing the foundations for the company to flourish, along with his dad’s commitment to customer service.
"He had a very good work ethic and reputation in the industry," Frew says. "I think that has really helped the company, long after he passed away in 1999."
His career at the company started out small, working odd jobs for his father when he was young. He gradually took on more and more responsibility, assuming the Managing Director position after his father’s passing.
Since then, he’s successfully guided the company through some significant challenges, from devastating droughts to strict restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic and financial crises, and the company continues to prosper.
A lasting legacy
Frew has recently announced his retirement, effective 30 June, which will mark the end of an era for Frews in the meat industry. He says he plans to spend more time with family, indulge in some horse racing and play a lot more golf.
"I’ll try to get my golf handicap down," he quips.
It’s with excitement for the future of Frew Foods International that Robert and the Frew family hand over the company to Thomas Foods International.
But his passion for agriculture and his country still motivates Frew, who suspects he’ll be keeping an eye on the industry, regardless, and offering advice if needed.
"I probably won’t do much with the industry after being in it so long. I say that, but that might not be the case," he laughs. "I’ll help out if I need to with people I know in the industry."
I just followed in Dad’s footsteps. If he asked me to do something, I’d go and do it.
It’s been a remarkable ride for Frew, which almost didn’t happen – his father actively discouraged him from joining the meat processing business when he showed interest as a young man. Instead, Arch Frew urged Rob to attend university and receive the education he’d never had the opportunity to obtain himself.
But Frew was hooked on agriculture and determined to follow his father into meat processing.
"The timing was good. It was 1981, Dad had just gone out on his own and I’d just left school. It all sort of fell into place," Frew recalled in a 2019 interview with The CEO Magazine. "I just followed in Dad’s footsteps. If he asked me to do something, I’d go and do it. I’d help load the trucks or work in the runner room, which was pretty much as low as you can get, stripping guts or opening up lamb heads."
Arch Frew leased the Stawell Abattoirs in 1984 and later purchased it in 1986, which catapulted the business towards the success it enjoys today. Located 230 kilometers north-west of Melbourne, Frew describes this regional base as central to drawing livestock, while also being conveniently located to cater to the domestic market and offer ready access to ports for export.
The company’s Stawell facility, now part of a much larger Thomas Foods International business, can supply most countries around the globe with quality chilled and frozen small stock products. This has been a major boost to the Stawell facility.
Most of the production in the early days was sold domestically, with 95 percent sent as whole carcasses to butcher shops and five percent supermarkets. These days, it’s the supermarkets that account for 85 percent of domestic sales.
Having that transport arm in our business has assisted us to be able to be more reliable in the industry.
And amid this remarkable growth, Frew says the customer has always come first.
"In the early days, it was just more service level. We did all our own transport, so we controlled the whole movement of the product that we processed, delivering it to butcher shops, supermarkets and distribution centers," he explains.
"Having that transport arm in our business has assisted us to be able to be more reliable in the industry and to our customers."
Establishing strong, long-term relationships with key retailers, such as Woolworths and Aldi supermarkets, has also allowed the company to flourish.
"We’re fairly big on long-term relationships," Frew says. "If you get some really good customers, you can build your business around those customers."
To be sure, the Frew family has faced its fair share of challenges in building their business – with the COVID-19 pandemic its most recent hurdle to overcome, with it hindering exports, although domestic markets did pick up some of the slack, Frew says.
It also reduced his workforce by one-third, partly due to restrictions put in place on visas for overseas workers. Staffing has remained a challenge post-pandemic, with affordable housing becoming more scarce in the Stawell area. Frew also points to demographics – rural populations are aging and younger locals are seeking work in other industries.
Frew remains optimistic about the situation, pointing to the newcomers to Australia settling in rural Victoria and starting careers with Frew Foods International.
Australia’s a great place to settle. We’ve just got to get more of those immigrants to the regional areas to assist with the jobs that are there.
"Our culture has changed with the different nationalities working for us now, which is absolutely fantastic. That’s another plus for regional Victoria – with a lot of different migrant groups coming to Australia, it is really assisting the country to grow," he says.
"Australia’s a great place to settle. We’ve just got to get more of those immigrants to the regional areas to assist with the jobs that are there."
The Frews have dealt with these shortages by also embracing automation.
"The red meat industry is probably one of the least automated industries in Australia, mainly because the product that we use is quite variable in size and quality," he explains.
Automation brings advantages like traceability, which he believes will provide invaluable feedback to farmers, "so they can breed stock better and feed stock better, and just help the industry as a whole to improve so everyone gets better yields out of what they’re doing," he explains.
"This system just gets you a little bit closer to what’s going on in your business and it helps you make the right business decisions, because you basically know your costs as it’s happening."
Sustainability has also become a priority for Frew. He has installed 5,300 solar panels on-site, which he says has halved the plant’s electricity costs. A biomass boiler system, meanwhile, has swapped gas for sawdust, reducing gas usage by 90 percent.
"That’s been a big plus on the energy side of it, especially with the cost of gas and electricity these days," Frew says.
He has also actively been preparing the company for the future, selling part of Frew Foods International to South Australian-based company Thomas Foods International (TFI) in 2020, which will assume full ownership upon Frew’s retirement later this year.
TFI will invest more than US$40 million over the coming years into the business, creating upwards of 350 new jobs and introducing a second processing shift.
"They have exposure to more markets that we didn’t have – we’ve had the domestic exposure, they’ve got more of the export exposure," he says.
Most importantly for Frew, however, is keeping the company in Australian hands. And that’s something his father would certainly be proud of.