The Chicken King’s second sell-off

When Jack and Bob Ingham’s father Walter died in 1953, he left the brothers two assets that would define their lives and make them fabulously wealthy.

The first was a thoroughbred broodmare called Valiant Rose, who was descended from a champion English racehorse and would go on to launch the Ingham’s breeding operation, Woodlands Stud, which was, at its peak, home to over 1,300 horses and countless champions.

The second asset in Walter’s will was 42 acres of land outside of Sydney that Walter had used to build a small poultry operation, starting with one cockerel and six hens in 1918 and slowly building through the Depression and war years.

It was from this humble inheritance that the Ingham brothers would build Australia’s largest chicken producer, the $2.2 billion a year Inghams Enterprises.

Bob Ingham sold off the Woodlands Stud racing operation in 2003, five years after the death of his brother Jack.

The deal saw Dubai’s racing royalty Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum’s Darley Stud pay $500 million for the empire.

Given the business was a loss-maker, the sale price was staggering. But Ingham’s timing was perfect. Another year, or even another few months, and the GFC may have scuttled the chances for a payday this big.

Now, just four years on, Bob Ingham is putting the rest of the family farm on the sale block.

Ingham says yesterday that it was the right time to sell Inghams Enterprises, which now has plants across Australia and New Zealand and over 8,000 staff. Bob owns the business outright.

“My decision marks the next phase for the successful ongoing development of the company and is one that I, as sole shareholder, have considered for a number of years,” he said.

By all reports, Ingham still has his health, but he was aware that failing to sell the business could lead to succession issues. None of Bob’s children are heavily involved in the business.

How much the Ingham family will get for the business isn’t known. Based on revenue of $2.2 billion and the notoriously tight margins in the sector, the sale price could be anything from $900 million at the low end to as much as $1.5 billion.

If the right parties – read, private equity or a big international food producer – get into a bidding war, we should expect the price to jump past $1 billion.

How the sale proceeds – less any debt that the family might be carrying – will be carved up is not clear at this stage; while Bob’s children Debbie Kepitis, Lyn Ingham, Robby Ingham and John Robby Ingham are slightly more media friendly than their notoriously private father, they aren’t likely to trumpet their plans anytime soon.

As for Bob, his focus will probably return to his other great love – the racetrack.

Ingham Racing, the successor to Woodlands Stud, has 45 horses in work and the famous cerise colours of the stable are once again becoming a regular feature on the Sydney racing scene.

In the 1980s and 1990s, when the Ingham brothers dominated Australian racing, the gentlemen owners became much loved by punters, who christened them The Chicken Kings.

Bob Ingham might offload his poultry empire, but he’ll never offload that nickname – or the wonderful story of the bloke who inherited a chicken farm and a race horse.

James Thomson is a former editor of BRW’s Rich 200 and the publisher of SmartCompany and LeadingCompany.


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