He might be 74 but Australian/Canadian businessman Jack Cowin has no plans for retirement or slowing down and tells The Guide he’d only last “10 minutes on the beach”.
He’d rather talk about what he’s good at – diversifying his business – and outlines how his Canadian business Quantum has just bought out American company Apache Industrial Services and merged it with its portfolio company Skyway.
“We had an existing business in Canada. We merged it into a larger US company in the gold industrials, an industrial services business called Apache,” he says.
As a $500m revenue company, he says it’s a “pretty substantial business”.
With Cowin now reportedly worth now worth more than $1.7 billion, it’s a far cry from the days when he hit up 30 friends for $10,000 each so he could buy his first KFC store in Perth.
It was December 1969. The store was on the corner of Canning Highway and North Lake Road in Alfred Cove. Hungry Jack’s was yet to come.
It might have been 48 years ago, but he remembers it well.
“The reality was I had come from Canada and I was 25 years old. I had a wife, a six-month-old child and this desire to get into my own business but no money to speak of,” he says.
“So I got 30 people to lend me $10,000 each. That was the stake to get started and it was kind of a dramatic moment of if that failed everything would fail.
“It was all on the line to win or lose.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
Cowin went on to found Hungry Jack’s in Australia, which now has 400 stores. His retailing, manufacturing and exporting company Competitive Foods Australia Pty Ltd employs more than 16,000 staff in Australia and New Zealand.
When asked what it’s like to go from borrowing $10,000 from friends to being rated 1234 on the latest Forbes list of world billionaires, he says it’s irrelevant.
“If you are buying or selling something that might be a factor, but the reality is when you are on the treadmill of running a business, growing a business, expanding a business, you are not buying and selling it as a commodity. You are building it brick by brick, by brick. You are building a wall of earnings and people and talent and things like that, so I wouldn’t spend 10 seconds on it.”
Whopper lunch with HJ’s founder
The world may have changed in the last five decades but people still get hungry.
And that hunger has been a whopper deal for Australian Hungry Jack’s Founder and Domino’s Chairman Jack Cowin, who went from owning one KFC in 1969 to being ranked 1234 on this year’s Forbes World’s Billionaires list with a $1.7 billion fortune.
His company, Competitive Foods Australia Pty Ltd is now a diversified food retailing, manufacturing and export company with $1.5 billion in revenue and employing more than 16,000 people throughout Australia and New Zealand.
It has 400 Hungary Jack’s stores throughout the country, the beef processing side of the business exports to 26 countries and CFAL is one of the largest seafood importers in Australia and New Zealand.
Cowin says the three key ingredients for a successful Hungry Jack’s empire – people eating three times a day; their desire for good tasting food; and wanting it in a hurry – haven’t changed much since he started in the industry almost 50 years ago.
“We spend a lot on market research trying to find out what people want and what they don’t like,” he says.
“Business changes but in many ways when you talk about what makes the industry I’m involved in work, in many ways, it has remained the same over the 47 or 48 years since I started.”
Cowin says diversifying your business interests and treating it like a horse race are important.
“No one has a crystal ball to predict what the future might bring and it’s like a horse race. If you go to a horse race and you have more than one horse in the race you’ve got a better chance of winning,” he says.
“Things go wrong, you’re not always right and, as a result of that, if you have more than one entry in a race then that helps so diversification is important … it’s a balancing act of trying to say how do I spread the risk because business at the end of the day comes down to risk in many ways. That’s a very important kind or criteria.”
Despite being 74, Cowin has no plans to retire and says he’d last 10 minutes on the beach.
“The secret and the real question is: can you design your life to do things that you like doing rather than the hard yakka of going to work and thinking it’s only 9.15am and you’ve got another seven hours to go, you know, it’s a tough sledding,” he says.
“A lot of people find themselves in work because they have to pay the bills, they’ve got to pay the school fees and the mortgage.
“The real secret is – are you lucky enough to end up in something you enjoy and I’ve an expression ‘when you can’t tell the difference between work and play you’re in the right place’.”