THE isolation of growing up on his family’s sheep and cattle station, Minderoo, in the Pilbara enabled billionaire businessman Andrew Forrest to dream big as a child. However it is unlikely even his own childhood dreams could have matched the business empire and life he has since created. Mr Forrest’s successful business ventures in a broad range of industries, including mining, agriculture, property, hospitality and sports and entertainment, continue to fund perhaps one of his biggest passions, giving to the community. Setting up the Minderoo Foundation with wife Nicola in 2001, the philanthropic organisation has committed $2 billion to a range of global initiatives. Farm Weekly journalist BREE SWIFT asked Mr Forrest about the experiences that have shaped his path, his biggest achievements and his hopes for the future of mining and agriculture – two industries that continue to drive the economic prosperity of our State.
QUESTION: How did growing up on Minderoo station shape your views on the agricultural industry?
ANSWER: It showed me it’s full of good, real people. You might not have gotten along with everyone all the time, but you could respect everyone almost all of the time. There is a high level of camaraderie, mateship and a sense of purpose in the agricultural industry and I found that growing up at Minderoo on a sheep and cattle station. From farming to food – it seems to attract people who actually want to make a difference and do something that is appreciated and valuable to others. That’s what I loved about my childhood at Minderoo – the people. Having that immense isolation and, when you’re a little kid, it’s unimaginable isolation – ripped the blinkers off and enabled me to think that anything was possible and, indeed, if you ran out of water and you were 50 kilometres from home, you had to make it possible.
Q: What do you think are the main challenges faced by those living in remote and rural areas?
A: First-class education for kids is something which concerns me and making sure that when these kids grow up to be young adults and choose which way they’re going to go that they understand the agricultural industry is probably the most critical industry in the entire world. Big tech companies might get all the press but if you removed Google or Facebook from the world it would still click on. It might not be as convenient or connected but it would adjust after a week or two – but you couldn’t do that with agriculture. To have kids know they are part of an essential industry that has huge advances to be made on animal husbandry, technology, traceability from paddock to plate, value adding and smart farming where you really look after your environment is really important. To be productive with your land and, at the same time, build the environment back up so you’re not degrading it means the kids that take over from you will get an even better farm with even better ecosystems than the ones we grew up with.
Q: How did it feel buying Minderoo station back in 2009 after it was sold by your father in 1998?
A: It wasn’t the biggest transaction I’ve ever done but it was certainly amongst the most meaningful. It brought that station back to the family. The old-fashioned, romantic notion of buying back the family farm is a bit of a fairy tale which came true. I think my father and mother were relieved – they love the place and go up there whenever they can. That sense of purpose is very much still there and the potential I see in Minderoo, the agricultural industry and the cattle business is still very high. The best part of the agricultural industry, farming and indeed Minderoo’s future, is that while it’s not bad in its history, what’s much brighter is the future ahead of it.
Q: You started your first mining company, Anaconda Nickel in 1994 and founded Fortescue Metals Group nine years later. With no history of mining in your family, what prompted you to enter the resources sector?
A: That actually has a very agriculture relevant answer. When I went to university I pined to be part of a sector which seemed so worthwhile and as real as what I grew up in. I realised the difference between this industry and all of the other industries that I was looking at was that its primary production. It creates something from the earth from where there was nothing – and that was the difference. The station definitely wasn’t going to afford two brothers and my brother had said he was pretty happy running it. I was delighted for him and I’d go up and give him a hand whenever I could because we were best mates. I could see that we only really needed one manager there so I thought the next best thing for that sense of purpose was probably mining. It had people who were pretty solid and who shared that depth and sense of purpose that I grew up with, so I was really happy to be part of it. It is an industry with huge potential.
Q: Mining and agriculture are two of the biggest drivers of Australia’s economy and you have a large foothold in both sectors. Do you think these two industries will continue to dominate Australia’s economy?
A: I think Australia’s economy really needs to build out into the services and technology sector as well. We need to spread the success story we have in agriculture and the resources sectors to other industries that downstream and value-add. I’d like to see the Australian economy grow these other areas to match what we have achieved. But I don’t want people to think that we have in any way reached our peak – both agriculture and mining have a long way to go. In particular, improving the habitat and the ecosystem of our farming and agriculture industries so that they become more productive, not less.
Q: Did/do you ever think about following in the footsteps of your uncles and becoming a politician?
A: I obviously look at everything, but no. I have my head down and tail up with such a big challenge already.
Q: What did you want to be when you were younger?
A: When I was very young I used to think I could be a really good stockman. Initially I was really content with that isolated sheep and cattle station childhood. But as I got older I wanted to understand the books and get involved in the product we were producing on a more value-adding basis – by making an exclusive wool or beef which we could market into different products.
Q: In your early schooling years you were taught by the School of the Air program. The impact of COVID-19 has highlighted some of the alternative mediums that can be used to teach our younger generations. Do you think these alternative methods are as effective as classroom-based teaching?
A: In some ways I think they’re more effective. When you’re in the School of the Air program you have great exposure to the great outdoors – you’re in an isolated town surrounded by a huge amount of country on a farm or station. So you have that very stimulating natural environment all around you. Then you have the education coming through on the radio which teaches you a little bit about technology and how to communicate openly and on the radio, which is never that easy, particularly for me as a child with a stutter. Thirdly, you get that personal tuition with your mum or governess which gives you this intention to get through your set work. What I loved about it was that we had to do 20 sets a year and if you worked really hard you got through all 20 sets by say, July/ August and that was your year done. You could look forward to taking a very long Christmas holiday.
Q: You have a diverse range of investments in your portfolio. Is there a particular industry that you are most passionate about?
A: I am most passionate about anything which is sustainable. Sustainable farming where we improve the ecosystem, not degrade it. Sustainable mining, where we start switching over to green energy and even green metals. I know that’s a broad answer, but what excites me is anything that is going to leave the world fairer and richer in its environment and ecosystems.
Q: You are regarded by some as Australia’s biggest philanthropist, making the country’s largest ever donation of $655 million to a variety of causes in 2019. Why do you think it is important to give to the community?
A: If you’re a great swimmer and you can swim 100 metres in record time, then I think that’s fantastic, you make your country proud at the Olympics. Or if you’re a great writer you produce prose and other literature which will stimulate, entertain or educate people and if you’re a great farmer you will produce a product or clothing material which will sustain the world. Where you happen to be a very good businessman – I don’t see that as having any more important talent than a great writer, swimmer or farmer. You just happen to be able to develop operations or projects where there’s a margin involved and that margin has been able to be distributed at a greater rate of margin than what other people do. Once you’ve satisfied the ability to send your kids to school and pay off your house, that satisfaction of helping others in the community is necessary in humanity. Empathy – the ability to understand other people’s situations to associate with them and then if possible to help them, goes to the key character which sets us up as sustainable beings I come from a family where that was wired into our DNA by my mother and father, who used to do everything they could for a traveller who came through, people not as lucky as us and, whenever they could, the indigenous populations, helping to educate their kids and improve their own course of history. I definitely picked up that philosophy – that wherever you can, you help other people.
Q: Given you have so many demands on your time, what is something you haven’t been able to do that you’ve wanted to?
A: I’d love to take horses out from Geraldton and across the desert in the same manner as my forebears did, to join Australia east and west across the nation in the search for the telegraph line. It’s that epic exploration done by John and Alexander Forrest and their two indigenous partners. I’d also like to spend more time at Minderoo.
Q: Your company Tattarang (formerly known as Minderoo Group) bought Harvey Beef six years ago and you have since reinvigorated and built a bright future for the business. What prompted the purchase of the company, which was struggling at the time and what are your hopes for its future?
A: It was to build up the co-ordination, productivity and, therefore, prosperity of the beef cattle industry so that it could get much closer to the marketplace. We seemed to have this complete disconnect between what cattle breeders wanted to breed and what the market wanted to buy. I saw Harvey Beef in the middle of that and not doing much to help the situation and doing even less to communicate what the market was looking for. To purchase that junction point so we could increase the productivity and volume going through Harvey Beef and supply more of what the market wanted seemed to be a win-win-win situation.
Q: What achievement are you most proud of?
A: I think bringing up happy, empathetic, hardworking, considerate kids.
Q: What would you like to be remembered for?
A: I would like to be remembered for being useful – for having made a small difference in the agricultural sector and the economy of Western Australia wherever I could. I am as imperfect or more than the next person, but being seen as a person who had a real crack and set a reasonable example to others that they too can follow their dreams if they stay determined.
This article first appeared in The Farm Weekly on 20th August, 2020.