Wealth Management

Rich Pickings: Five lessons from Tony Quinn, the man who saved Darrell Lea

James Thomson /

feature-quinn-chocolate-200Tony Quinn, the man who saved beloved chocolate brand Darrell Lea from extinction, is exactly 172 centimetres tall.

This is not information that I am usually able to share about Rich List members, but several of Quinn’s vital statistics are available for all to see on the website of his racing car team attached to his main business VIP Petfoods (daily drive: Porsche, favourite racetrack: Mount Panorama, Bathurst).

Quinn, who made his debut on the BRW Rich 200 list in 2011 with his wife Christina with a fortune of $219 million, and rose to $350 million in the magazine’s May edition, is one of those entrepreneurs who have flown underneath the radar for years, despite the rapid growth of his business.

But when you save an icon, you’re bound to get a wider audience.

“It’s made me feel good to rescue a great Australian brand,” Quinn told AAP last week.

“Let’s have some fun. Let’s fix this thing.”

Quinn declined to be interviewed for this piece, but his stated motives for the deal appear to be relatively simple – he loves chocolate, and he could.

“You’ve got to be excited by what you do in life. We’re only here for one journey and so you need to make sure, as best you can, that you enjoy what you’re doing.

“The beauty of what we do in manufacturing goods is we get to test our products on dogs and cats or children or old people. It’s a great thing.

“Another area I’d like to be involved in as well is ice cream. I love ice cream.”

We’ll wait patiently for Quinn’s entrance into the ice cream game.

In the meantime, here are five lessons from the man who saved Darrell Lea:

1. Have a spirit of adventure

Tony Quinn was born in the Scottish town of Aberdeen and had a tough upbringing – his family lived in a caravan and as soon as he was old enough he went to work in his father’s small pet food business.

In his 20s he bought a signwriting business from a deceased estate and built it into the market leader in Aberdeen. Then, on a whim, he decided to come to Australia and took aim at Perth; a market he believed would be two or three years behind Aberdeen, where neon signage was all the rage. It was, he told BRW, the “craziest f-cking thing” he had ever done.

He hit Perth in 1979 and was quickly disappointed. Australia was well ahead of Aberdeen when it came to signage.

“There was no internet and I’ve never really been one for market research,” Quinn told Gold Coast Business News last year.

“I had incredible success and thought I could do the same in Perth, but it wasn’t to be.”

Quinn started a lawn mowing business but soon packed up his family and headed to New Zealand. On the flight over the Tasman, he saw a cow in a paddock and decided to get back into the pet food game.

The business did well, but in 1994 Quinn moved again, to the Gold Coast, where VIP Petfoods was born – after quite a journey.

2. Turn defence into attack

In late 2011 it seemed very unlikely that VIP Petfoods would be buying anything under the Quinn family’s ownership – indeed, it seemed unlikely that even VIP Petfoods would be under Quinn family control.

In late 2011, private equity firms Pacific Equity Partners and CHAMP were in the race to buy VIP Petfoods, which the Quinns had put on the market with a reported price tag of $400 million. The deal gathered momentum but by February it had petered out, with CHAMP walking away.

Tony Quinn hasn’t commented on what happened, but he is an entrepreneur not afraid to take a stand on the value of his business. In 2007, international pet food company Bush’s International approached VIP with a takeover offer. But Quinn would soon turn the tables.

“Bush’s came to us four years ago and wanted to buy us out; they were quite obnoxious and said ‘here you go’ and gave us a dirty, great big cheque. I said ‘no thanks’ and soon after they were targeted by private equity which came into the marketplace with no idea what they were doing,” he told Gold Coast Business News.

“It was then that we made the snap decision to acquire it.”

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James Thomson

James was the editor and publisher of SmartCompany and LeadingCompany for five years. He is now the Australian Financial Review's companies & markets editor, and a former BRW editor.

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