Peter Walsh: Happy And Humble

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Businessman and prominent thoroughbred breeder-owner Peter Walsh has achieved great success in his working life to date, however, it can be argued that the down-to-earth character’s most admirable accomplishment is not only his humbleness, but the respect he has gained from his many peers in the multiple industries he has been involved in.

Not that he would ever want to admit that.

Walsh, 63, is a former butcher-turned-tycoon who was the middle of five children born to well-known South West couple, Vern and Jean Walsh, in Busselton.

Now a father of four and grandfather of three, Walsh’s meteoric rise from a bar manager and local football coach­­­—to developing one of Australia’s biggest meat services and also establishing the highly-reputable Amelia Park brand that boasts premium meat, award-winning wine and a leading thoroughbred breeding and racing operation—is fascinating.

Walsh’s journey began growing up in the seaside town of Busselton and, after showing a talent for football in his junior years, he made a temporary move interstate to pursue the venture further.

“The old man just had a little butcher shop,” Walsh said.

“He had a little abattoir in Vasse, where Amelia Park is now, that killed for the locals in Busselton and there were only three people working there.

“I captained the Busselton footy team when I was young and then I went to Adelaide and played for North Adelaide in the South Australian League for a couple years.

 “I played in the 1978 premiership with them and then I came back and coached North Albany.

“Then I came back home to work and coached Margaret River for three years, before finishing off coaching a couple years for the Busselton league side.”

Walsh’s introduction to horse racing was through his father, who had a keen interest in the sport and enjoyed considerable ownership success with trainer Vern Brockman, including taking out the 1977 Group 1 Railway Stakes with Alpine Wind.

Walsh remembers his early experiences at the races vividly and, after tasting some of his own success when delving into ownership in the early 1980s, he has been involved in the industry ever since.

“Dad’s first horse he ever owned was trained by Vern Brockman and it was called Swift Wind,” Walsh said.

“Vern trained a lot of Dads’ horses and they were good friends.

“I still remember her winning her first start, it was Perth Cup day in 1972.

“Dad had some very good horses.

“He only had a small band, but they were all winners and that’s what got me going.”

Vern Walsh passed away in December 2012 and, as Peter reflects back on the impact his father had on him, he makes mention of the type of morals and traits instilled in him from a young age.

“He was always a gentleman and taught me a lot of things,” said Walsh.

“He was old school and taught me that if you ever take a woman out, you make sure you don’t let her pay, and to always give a bloke a dollar, rather than rob him a dollar.

“He was very family orientated, which virtually all of our family is.

“We don’t live in each other’s pockets, but we’re all very close.”

Rewind to the early 1980s and Walsh, who was coaching local footy at the time, found himself stuck in a rut and unsure about his future.

He ended up talking his father into letting him run his parents’ local meat business—V&V Walsh—and the rest, as they say, is history.

“I’m a butcher by trade and my brother, Greg, is the smart one,” Walsh said.

“He’s an accountant.

“I was a butcher, then I was a bar manager at the Esplanade Hotel, then I went interstate to coach footy.

“I thought, ‘I better start doing something’ while I was in Albany coaching.

“I told the old man that I might come back home and try to get the abattoirs going, and he said, ‘what for? You’re wasting your time’.

“Back in the early 80s there didn’t appear to be much blue sky there, but I really didn’t have much else to do, so I didn’t have a choice, really.”

Only a small-time local outlet at the time, V&V Walsh would transform into an international exportation powerhouse over the following years and now operates with more than 1,000 employees.

The company occupies an office in Beijing and exports meat to several countries around the world, with its WA plant having the ability to process 3,500 sheep and 400 head of cattle each day.

Reflecting on V&V Walsh’s incredible growth, Walsh says that, after a tardy beginning, his confidence in the future of the abattoir industry began to grow in the mid-1980s.

“I did it myself for a couple of years and then I rang Greg up, he was playing footy for East Perth,” he said.

“I said, ‘how about coming back to have a go at the abs? It’s starting to come up a bit’.

“That’s what he did, and we just did it slowly and built it up to about 45 local people.

“We went to Perth and got a bit of support from Coles and then we got a contract with Woolworths.

“We moved the business to Bunbury and there were zero people, so it wasn’t working, but then we got stuck into it and now there’s over 1,000 staff and we’re going all over the world.”

Whilst V&V Walsh is a 50-per-cent joint collaboration for the Walsh brothers after they sold half of the company to Craig Mostyn Group in 2017, Peter’s sole venture, Amelia Park, has developed into an industry-leading innovation in recent years.

The Amelia Park trade name has been famous for producing high-grade meat since the 1990s and, more recently, adding the Amelia Park winery and a tavern, Amelia Park Lodge, to the Vasse property that has been in the Walsh family for more than 50 years.

“That’s what it was all meant to be,” Walsh said.

“It’s booming.

“We stick behind our brand, I think brands are everything and you can’t just name a brand, you need to put the product behind it.

“We won the best chardonnay in Australia a year ago and then our business partner and wine-maker, Jeremy Gordon, went to England two years ago after he was nominated for the best red wine makers in the world.”

Whilst Walsh had always dreamt of Amelia Park’s expansion into more food and beverage ventures, an unplanned addition to the brand was the rapidly-growing thoroughbred breeding and racing operation that has become Amelia Park Racing.

Walsh recalls the impulsive purchases in 2001 that, unbeknown to him at the time, would lay the foundation for the formation of one of the state’s most prominent racing establishments.

“I was flying to China and I thought I’d go to the yearling sales the day before, not intending to buy anything, and I ended up buying bloody six off the spur-of-the-moment,” Walsh said.

“I’m useless at sales, I’m bloody terrible

“My father had his farm on the market himself for a year or so at the time, and I rang him on the morning I flew out and said, ‘I might buy the farm off of you, I bought six horses yesterday and I can put them down there’.

“When I got back, I bought the farm from my father and I thought I’d just do agistment but then I started dreaming more and more.

“I started putting racetracks and all sorts in and it all sort of snow balled from there.”

After commencing building at the end of 2002, Amelia Park Racing now boasts fully-fledged racehorse breeding, pre-training and rehabilitation services.

Asked how many horses he currently has an interest in, including broodmares, Walsh says the number has grown to almost 80.

Never one to skimp out at an auction, whether it be a charity event or a yearling sale, the humorous Walsh says his Racing Manager, Sharon King, and Farm Manager, Sarah Brown, keep him on a tight leash now.

“I’m not allowed to buy anything anymore, they’ve banned me,” he said.

“When we went to Sydney, we didn’t buy one on the first day and then they left the next day and, by that evening, I’d bought three.

“They give me budgets and sometimes I throw the budgets out the window.

“Sarah and Sharon inspect all of the horses, so I just listen to them and they’ve guided me right in the last four or five years.

“They know what they’re talking about a lot more than I do, to be honest.”

One of Walsh’s most enjoyable moments on the racetrack was the win of his Gingerbread Man gelding, Achernar Star, in the Listed Amelia Park Bunbury Stakes in March earlier this year.

An uncharacteristically-emotional Walsh was elated following the feature race victory and, when asked what it was that made the win so special, the always-proud South West product says it was a sentimental occasion.

“Number one was because it was local in our area,” he said.

“I was sponsoring it, which was even better, and my father had also won the race with Alpine Wind before.

“(Jockey) Damien Oliver had been a friend of the family since he was grade one, so it all gelled and it was a big thrill.

 “We had a good crowd there and, because we were sponsoring it, we had 50-odd friends there in the box there so it all went well, and then we went back and had dinner with Damien at The Lodge.

“It was just a really good night.”

Achernar Star has accumulated more than $880,000 in stake earnings and bonuses in his 21-start career to date and, after claiming two Listed wins and five minor placings at Group level, Walsh hopes the five-year-old can land him a maiden Group 1 victory this spring.

Despite having owned winners of prestigious and time-honoured races such as the Group 2 Perth Cup and Group 2 Karrakatta Plate, Group 1 glory has eluded Walsh several times.

“I’m used to finishing second,” Walsh said.

“I’ve ran seven seconds in Group 1s, I’m the greater runner-up ever.

“I’ve had two thirds in a Group 1, too.

“I haven’t really had any standout horses, but I’ve had some really good and consistent horses.

“I’ve had Group and Listed winners and they seem to get to around the half-a-million-dollar mark, but I’ve never had a million-dollar horse yet.”

Renowned for his generosity and humility, it was of no great surprise to hear the unassuming Walsh pay tribute to those around him when the conversation began to centre around him too much.

He says the success of his businesses wouldn’t be possible without the assistance of countless people behind the scenes.

“People ask me how I keep an eye on everything, with the winery, the meat and the racing, but it’s just because I have a great team around me,” he said.

“It’s been a good journey, but I’ve had a great team around me.

“Most of the blokes in the abattoir business have been with me for 30-odd years.

“I recruited pretty well all of them, some of them I coached in football and I thought they had good character and work ethic.

“They came and joined me when I started young and they’re still with me today.”

Whilst Walsh concedes that, at age 63, it seems he’s getting busier the older he gets, he says he plans to retire by the time he reaches 70.

One thing appears certain, however, that the conclusion of his remarkable career in the meat industry will not spell the end of his horse racing pursuits.

“I’ll keep the horses going, that’s my escape,” Walsh said.

“I still get excited when the barriers come out and it gives me good interest.

“And it’s exciting because, it’s like golf, you can never master it and need to keep chipping away.

“When you get a win, there’s no thrill like it.

“And then there’s Sarah and Sharon, it’s like a big team and I don’t want to drop that team off.”

 

MICHAEL HEATON
www.rwwa.com.au

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