JR McDonald: a Bindaree Beef legend
WHEN JR McDonald left his family home on the scrub-clad slopes of Doon Doon, deep in the Tweed Valley, he was virtually a babe in the woods.
"I was quite fearful of men," the 80-year-old entrepreneur admitted at a recent open day held at his Inverell abattoirs - the home of Bindaree Beef.
His four classmates, who attended the one-roomed school at Doon Doon - in the shadow of Mt Warning - were of a similar nature. Most never left the canopy of their rainforest home. Even today one is a hermit and another a bachelor.
On the other hand, young John, named after his father, had driving ambitions and that had a lot to do with his mother.
Consider this: JR's father and uncle Jack earned a living at the rear end of a bullock team, hauling hauntingly beautiful scrub timber out of the rainforested slopes north of Mt Nardi. By any standard that's a hell of a way to make a living - living bush with the world's beauties. And who would judge a man to remain a part of that lifestyle?
But his mum had words of wisdom for the young lad and it had to do with money.
"When poverty comes in the front door, love goes out the window," she told him.
The boy couldn't have been more than nine years old because it was about that time that he helped his old man drive a mob of cattle to market at Murwillumbah.
Young JR woke at 3am, and with stout nature beyond his years, he mounted his horse, riding alongside the other men before reaching Uki, Tyalgum and beyond.
His aunt lived in Murwillumbah and before the sale he paid her a visit, bunking down for a quick nap. He never woke to witness the sale, but by all accounts it was a failure. JR, his father and the men drove the cattle back home with no sale at all.
"I learned a lesson back then," he recalled.
"Make sure you have a market before you sell your produce."
JR left school at 13 and soon after mounted his horse. He rode down the Doon Doon Creek to the Kyogle Rd headed south, before turning east towards Blue Knob.
The close bush of the Great Scrub rose before him but it was open pasture that he craved.
"I left my horse and caught a calf truck to Casino," recalled the bright octogenarian. And it was there, in what is today regarded as the Northern River's beef capital, that JR began his rise as an entrepreneur and a determined meat trader.
But first he earned a living doing what he knew best - droving. And his accommodation at the three-bedroom boarding house in Casino was an education.
What JR had been used to in terms of social integration was something different.
His one-roomed school at Doon Doon with its five students was a world away from that crowded boarding house where some 20 blokes bunked down in their swags on the veranda.
"I was illiterate and fearful of other people," he recalled from his office at his Inverell abattoir.
The elderly man with a ready smile paused for a moment to check his computer.
On its screen lay the progress of a ready bid for 600 central Queensland cattle.
"But I learned a few things things. After seeing the men from my boarding house after a Friday night I have never been to a pub and I never drink," he said.
"After witnessing a food fight in the mess hall where everyone's dinner ended up on the floor, I have never been involved in a brawl and I learned to stay out of trouble."
JR admits that his fear of people, having come from that gloriously quiet life in the Tweed Valley, caused him to miss several opportunities in life.
But to look at him now, still in his prime as leader of Bindaree Beef, you would think otherwise.
JR's style of management is old-fashioned and effective. He calls his 800 staff by their first name - true, they wear that in texta on their overalls.
But with many he goes on to ask them about a family issue or life event.
His senior staff admire him and many have been on the books for more than a decade - some for the full 18-and-a-half years that he has owned the Inverell operation.
JR's empire is a place where people seem to pull strongly in the same direction.
And with the release of several branded lines of quality beef and new lucrative contracts with Aldi, along with a promising export future for Australian processors in general, times look good for the foreseeable future
He credits his love of the church with rewarding him in that way.
JR's mother was religious, but JR himself found solace in the Inverell Uniting Church as a 70-year-old and today speaks openly about the need to do good for other people.
In fact, every Christmas he and his "little wife" Norma make a decision to financially aid a local family for the ensuing 12 months.
But the likable old man has travelled a long and sometimes rough track to get where he is today.
From the time he left home he took risks and yet he always kept a hand in the game.
He knew his cattle, and their cuts and he knew his market.
When overseas buyers demanded top grade - back when there were only three of them: blue, red and black - they got the best within the best and JR made sure of that.
He was often seen at the abattoir drafting his own cattle for sale.
He continued in that vein when he moved to Sydney, creating niche export markets for processed product and at the same time kept up operations at Casino with a loyal and hardworking staff, his father "Crackerjack" among them.
Always one to stay one step ahead of the pack, he bought into an old state-owned abattoir at Dubbo and went hard in the game, with buyers recalling that he had only one fault: He never knew when to pull up.
But outside events conspired against him at Dubbo and he, like many entrepreneurs before him, went to the wall financially.
The failing set him back personally and left some feeling rueful about his ways.
There are a few who have never forgiven him, but the man clawed his way out of that financial turmoil and he set upon a new, related path.
He bought an old abattoir by the banks of the Wilsons River at South Gundarimba near Lismore and, under his wife's guidance, named it Bindaree, meaning "place by the river" in local Bundjalung dialect.
It was only because operations outgrew that location that he moved on and when Smorgans relinquished control of its Inverell abattoir, JR took the bait and jumped aboard.
That was 18 years ago and he hasn't looked back.