Rinehart forges her cattle empire

Paul StarickThe West Australian
Gina Rinehart tours one of the Kidman stations.
Camera IconGina Rinehart tours one of the Kidman stations. Credit: Pictures Supplied

The sinking outback sun casts a fierce spotlight on the dusty road, flanked by squat gidgee trees.

Four white Toyota LandCruisers, bearing the legendary S. Kidman & Co logo on the front doors, snake along the gravel in 45C heat. The convoy draws to a halt near two Santa Gertrudis cattle, grazing on saltbush and burr grass in undulating, green-tinged country.

Australia’s richest woman strides out from one ute, near the convoy’s rear, walking towards the cattle about 50m away.

The rest of her entourage pause awkwardly, wondering whether the cattle will scatter in fright.

But Australia’s new cattle queen Gina Rinehart, raised partly on stations in the remote North West, has a trick up her sleeve.

As she slowly draws close to the steers, she moos softly at the animals. It’s a ploy she was taught by her father, iron ore magnate Lang Hancock — but one, she later warns, that is not good to try if you’re inexperienced with cattle.

In her case, it works beautifully.

The steers are frozen still, calmly returning her gaze.

It’s a historic scene at Durham Downs Station, an 8910sqkm linchpin of the Kidman empire in south-west Queensland, near the South Australian border. Here, Rinehart rules over all she surveys, having become the principal owner of Kidman just before Christmas.

It’s just after 7pm and these are the first cattle she’s seen on Durham Downs since the jet swept on to the tarmac at a nearby gasfield airstrip about an hour ago.

Durham Downs, nestled along the Cooper Creek, is the final stop in her post-purchase tour of Kidman stations. Within 24 hours, she will be in Melbourne, unleashing a wave of new investment in the pastoral chain at her Hancock Prospecting Group’s first joint board meeting with new Kidman minority co-owners, China’s Shanghai CRED Group.

Just before Christmas, their joint venture, Australian Outback Beef, paid $386.5 million for 10 Kidman stations, spanning 80,000sqkm in three States and the Northern Territory, a bull breeding stud farm and a feedlot.

Buying Kidman spreads Hancock’s cattle interests across northern Australia, puts the firm in the nation’s top three beef producers and is believed to make her the nation’s largest private landholder — ironically the biggest since Sir Sidney Kidman.

It follows the purchase of three other NT cattle stations last year.

Rinehart’s father and company founder Lang Hancock discovered iron ore in the Pilbara in 1952 and forged a fortune. When he died, his estate was bankrupt and, his daughter says sadly, the company he founded was in considerable difficulty.

She has taken over and, in late 2015, achieved a long-held dream by shipping the first iron ore from the $10 billion Roy Hill mine and port in WA’s North West.

But Rinehart, 63, is not stopping with the Kidman purchase.

Already, she is vowing to spend millions to increase cattle numbers, install a high-tech communications network, create a fleet of drones and helicopters, and spearhead a drive for markets in China.

For now, though, she has eyes only for her new cattle.

We are given a rare insight into the multi-billionaire’s inner sanctum when exclusively joining her station tour.

This is not the polished, slick media management typical of a political leader’s travelling party, even if the high-powered group includes Watroba, senior NAB executive Spiro Pappas (her banker) and former NT chief minister Adam Giles (newly appointed as Hancock Pastoral’s general manager external relations). For all her wealth, Mrs Rinehart displays a reluctance to be the focus of attention. This might stem from her father of whom, she has said, people were jealous.

In turn, she has been pilloried for her pro-rich views, her wealth, pushing economically selfish politics and using the courts as her plaything (although preferring private arbitration). She has been locked in a long-running court dispute with two of her children involving deeds signed years ago regarding their mining fortune, worth about a billion dollars.

Whatever her thoughts about the media, from the outset she welcomed me to her travelling party, and she is unfailingly polite, courteous and generous.

Perhaps it’s because she’s heading for station country, reminiscent of her Pilbara childhood home that she is relaxed and cheerful.

When asked about her ambition for Kidman, she tells of her pride at becoming the iconic group’s principal owner.

“My ambition is to invest carefully to see our properties become some of the best in Australia,” she said. “Our investment in technology, as we do at our Hancock stations, has brought improvements not only to the stations but also to the staff working on the properties and towards better animal welfare.”

She also gives a clear sense that this is more than just a business, but goes to the historic forging of the nation’s economic roots and character — and her own.

“I am an Australian — multi-generations,” she said. “And our family has held pastoral stations continuously since the late 1800s, so I well understand that pastoral businesses are important to the outback, provide jobs in the bush and are about jobs for Australians.

“I can’t help but be reminded of my childhood in the outback, an upbringing I believe I was very fortunate to have. It taught me much about practical common sense, working together without complaint, and good old-fashioned values, devoid of misrepresentation or entitlement.”

During the Durham Downs visit, she regularly pauses for brief chats — off the record. Later, she supplies extensive written answers to questions.

“The regulatory burden concerned with putting down a new bore or building a new dam or introducing better pastures in some States is excessive. Kidman could expand its herds by thousands if it was allowed to put a few more bores and or dams into some of its properties,” she declares.

At Durham Downs, Kidman’s former owners had run a lean operation with few of the profits reinvested into the properties.

The station can carry 21,500 cattle but now runs about 11,000.

The property had inadequate bores and dams to hold cattle numbers in drought conditions.

Four years of crushing drought broke last year. The Cooper’s flood plains erupted with feed.

Rinehart revealed plans for a large trial of drones in Hancock’s Kimberley stations which, if successful, would result in aviation authority approval for drones on Kidman properties.

“We are trialling drones at our Hancock Kimberley stations for doing such things as photographing water tanks and troughs, where reliable daily water is critical especially in heat, and photographing fences and filming operations around the station,” she says.

The trial drones can carry up to 4kg, which she is predicting will be useful in emergencies for quickly carrying items such as medication.

But Rinehart’s horizons are far more expansive than even the wide vistas of Durham Downs. Exports to the world, especially China, is very much in her thinking.

Before we flew to Durham Downs, she stopped in Warwick, 130km south-west of Brisbane, to launch a new full-blood Wagyu beef brand for export to Asia, witnessing the first consignment being packaged for China.

The 2GR brand includes Wagyu from three Hancock cattle stations in western NSW, near Dubbo, which hold about 8000 head.

They are grain-fed near Warwick before processing.

Spending even a short time with Gina Rinehart, it quickly becomes obvious that family heritage is important. This is reflected in both the Kidman purchase and the 2GR brand — bearing the initials of her and daughter Ginia.

The 2GR name is inspired by Rinehart’s paternal great-grandfather, who ran one of the first station’s in WA’s North West, Ashburton Downs. Her ancestors had sailed, she says proudly, into nearby Cossack (now a historic ghost town near Karratha) aboard the wooden ship Sea Ripple, becoming the first European-heritage settlers.

Her great-grandfather John Hancock established the H3B brand (standing for Hancock three brothers) for cattle and sheep in honour of his three sons, one of whom was Rinehart’s grandfather, George Hancock.

She has repeatedly and proudly spoken of her grandfather, James Nicholas, Sir Sidney’s business partner and friend. Their ventures included partnerships in pastoral stations and an extensive Cobb & Co. carrying business in WA.

“I believe as an Australian, our forebears and our heritage is what helps to make us, and I was exceptionally fortunate to have a gentleman as my mother’s father, James Nicholas, as one of my forebears,” Rinehart declared.

Two of Australia’s richest family empires have fused together in the Hancocks and Kidmans.

But in bringing in a Chinese partner to help open new opportunities, she also has an eye to the future. Australia’s new cattle queen is now forging her destiny.

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