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Josef Chromy: A life in wine & food (Part 1)

From penniless immigrant to a leading entrepreneur in the Tasmanian wine, Josef Chromy has certainly come a long way.

The Czechoslovakian Years

Like so many other European refugees who fled from their homeland after the second World War, Josef Chromy came to Australia penniless but with deep hope in his heart. Born in Czechoslovakia, he enjoyed a happy childhood spending his spare time from the age of ten with his father in the meat business. It was always presumed he would follow his father’s chosen occupation and he completed a master butcher and smallgoods maker’s diploma by the age of 20 – at that time perhaps one of the youngest to achieve this. Unfortunately, these were dark days for Czechoslovakia, devastated by successive Nazi and Soviet occupation. Josef experienced World War II first hand in his early teens. During the war Joe’s hometown was a base for regional Nazi command and the Czech people experienced atrocities on a daily basis.

After the end of World War II, wanting to escape the oppression of successive Nazi and Soviet regimes, Josef decided to escape from his homeland in 1950. Josef joined two friends and prepared a plan to escape Czechoslovakia. Not even his parents, brother or sisters knew about his intention to leave his homeland as they would have been persecuted and jailed if proven to have known of such a plan. This was a very hard decision to make at such a young age as he knew that he may never see his family again once outside Czechoslovakia.

Setting off to Russian occupied Austria, Joe and his friends had to negotiate the border between the two countries that was guarded by minefields and soldiers patrolling with dogs. The actual crossing of the border was successful for all of them but unfortunately both of his companions were later caught when trying to board a train destined for Vienna. They were returned to Czechoslovakia and imprisoned. Fortunately, Josef eluded the authorities and boarded another train several hours later. During his journey on the train Joe learned an important lesson that he believes helped him many times in his life thereafter. That lesson was to ensure that whatever you plan or whatever you undertake in life always have a second option available.

Speaking Czech and only very little German, Josef knew that if he had to speak to the train conductor he would get caught. He decided to place his train ticket on display in the breast pocket of his coat and pretend to sleep once he saw the conductor. Sure enough the train conductor came. However, the conductor tried to wake him up. At that moment Joe was terrified and as he slowly opened his eyes he did not know what to do. Suddenly it came to him – pretend to be deaf and dumb. He moaned and gesticulated like a deaf mute and the conductor was so convinced that Joe was able to complete his journey to Vienna where the city was occupied by the Allies. Joe was so shaken and close to capture that he swore in his own mind to always have a backup plan in future. Once in Vienna Joe survived five further months of privation before sailing for his new home, Australia – a country he believed had a bright future and offered him a home as far away from communism as he could get.

The early Australian Years

These were difficult times for the young 20 year old as he knew no one in Australia, spoke no English and was penniless. Josef found a job with Goliath cement and asbestos sheeting factory at Railton in north western Tasmania but he always knew that it was only a means to an end as he was determined to realize his ambition to open his own meat business. He was so strongly motivated that he worked at two jobs, saving every penny until two years after his arrival in Australia he was able to start his own business. It soon failed however from lack of capital and Josef’s limited grasp of English. It took nine months but all creditors were paid in full.

It was at this time he met Alida, a lovely young Dutch girl who could not speak Czech while he couldn’t speak Dutch. However, love overcame all, they communicated as they learnt English together and they married in 1954. In 1957, Josef opened his own butcher shop in Burnie called Continental Butchers. He was already planning a far larger and more diverse operation, so in 1958 he changed the name of his company to Blue Ribbon Meat Products, believing that this name symbolized quality, success and achievement. His turnover at that time was approximately $160,000 per annum employing five people. It was not until 1968 when Czechoslovakia was under softer and more liberal communist regime that Josef was able to see his parents for the first time after 18 long years. It was a very emotional encounter. They stayed with him in Australia for 6 months. On the day of their planned departure from Australia at Sydney airport Josef and his parents learned from the press that the Russian army had just entered Czechoslovakia and occupied the whole country. Joe urged his parents to stay with him in Australia but nevertheless they decided to continue their journey home. Once again, Josef was not sure whether he would ever see his family again.

The Blue Ribbon Meat Products Years

Over the next two decades Josef continued to expand his business, increasing the number of shops and acquiring other enterprises such as a small abattoir, two farms, and enlarging the impact of his smallgoods business until he had a dominant market position on the north west coast of Tasmania. By 1972 he had 4 butcher shops and distribution centres in Launceston & Hobart. The same year he built a totally new smallgoods ham and bacon factory at Camdale employing over eighty people. At the opening ceremony, Josef spoke of his belief in vertical integration and his plans to establish an export standard abattoir so that he could enter overseas markets with premium Tasmanian meat products. In 1973, the assets of Universal Smallgoods, Ham & Bacon in Hobart were acquired.

He commenced the first phase of vertical integration in 1976 through the acquisition of Barkers Bacon Pty Ltd, a piggery with a capacity of 8,000 pigs and an annual production rate of 15,000 head. By that time Joe also owned 18 butcher shops all over Tasmania. In 1979, he continued the vertical integration of his business with the acquisition of the domestic and export licensed Killafaddy Abattoir at Launceston. In addition to pigs and sheep for Blue Ribbon’s own requirements, Killafaddy serviced fresh meat requirements across Tasmania. This enabled Blue Ribbon to commence exporting Tasmanian meat products and thus in 1979, Josef Chromy achieved another of his major objectives. In 1982 he further expanded his operations with the acquisition of the Huttons abattoir and smallgoods ham and bacon business in Tasmania which gave Blue Ribbon a large increase in market share and access to a new product range with its associated customer base. In a similar vein, he purchased Dornauf’s Smallgoods in 1985.

In 1984 Joe and Alida moved to the Launceston area purchasing a small house at Dilston. In making the home suitable to entertain his many local and overseas business guests the renovation budget was exceeded by a multiple of ten! The number of people who have enjoyed Joe’s excellent hospitality, especially the 5 or 6 course dinners, in the years since would run into the thousands. The move to Launceston was to facilitate the efficient running of what was evolving into a substantial state wide business with plants at Smithton, Camdale, Launceston and Hobart. In Joe’s opinion Launceston has been and remains the most efficient place in Tasmania to conduct business from, being central to the major cities and towns and with ready access to the mainland and overseas through the airport. In the mid eighties there were seven licensed export abattoirs in the state but sufficient export quality livestock to service only 2 or 3 establishments economically.

An industry-wide rationalization was proposed by the RMI group and in 1985, Josef Chromy sold all of his red meat operations to RMI in exchange for shares in the group. However, the proposed rationalization was not carried out successfully and the group ultimately collapsed in 1986, rendering the shares worthless. After the collapse of RMI, the Blue Ribbon Group in 1987 comprised only of its Smallgoods Ham and Bacon business, turning over about twenty million dollars annually and employing 190 people. However, Josef appreciated the value of fully integrated abattoir and meat processing, and decided to rebuild his red meat business by buying back some of the assets of the failed RMI group. This was done in the face of very strong competition from a multinational group which was attempting to secure the bulk of the abattoiring industry in the state.

With his desire to expand his business Josef Chromy repurchased the Killafaddy Abattoir and secured the future of 100 to 150 jobs in Launceston taking Blue Ribbon Meat Products total employee number to 350. However, to gain possession of the associated plant and equipment, he was forced to sign a covenant with his competitors that Killafaddy would not be used as an export facility for five years. The last remaining avenue for Blue Ribbon to re-enter the beef export business was through the acquisition of United Meat Products Ltd, a defunct public company which still had assets in the form of an export licensed abattoir at Smithton which had been closed for four years and effectively gutted. Josef and his staff then embarked on the massive task of entering the highly competitive beef export industry from a tiny, remote and under equipped facility with no staff, no management, no suppliers, and no established export markets. However, he had substantial community support, enthusiastic employees, and an abundance of tenacity and confidence.

The purchase and recommissioning of two abattoirs in less than twelve months placed enormous strain on Blue Ribbon’s financial and management resources, and inevitably the company experienced losses over the next two years. However, Josef’s courage and determination continued to drive the group forward, and within three years, sales had grown to over sixty million dollars and employment had risen to a level in excess of five hundred. This occurred as the Australian economy was spiralling into recession and during a period of the highest interest rates in the country’s history. In 1992, at age 62, Josef was named Tasmanian Executive of the year having been the major contributor to the rationalization of seven export works to two. Many industry stalwarts were all gone through purchase by Blue Ribbon or closure. An industry beset by inefficient production and undercapitalization had been transformed. Longford had the only remaining export works in competition with Blue Ribbon. In the early 1990’s Joe approached the Japanese owners twice with offers to purchase but the time was not right and the final plank in export beef rationalization never came about.

As Australia emerged from its worst recession in recent history, Blue Ribbon employed over 540 people, with annual sales in excess of seventy five million dollars. Having consolidated his business and become the largest private employer in Tasmania, Josef decided to convert Blue Ribbon into a public company, selling seventy percent of his business when it was floated on the Australian Stock Exchange in December 1993. The 1994 Australian Exports Awards saw Blue Ribbon win the Austrade Agricultural Products category, a mighty achievement in an era when Australia’s position as an exporter of premium foods was building.

Click here to find out more about the wines of Josef Chromy in British Columbia or click here for Alberta 

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