PFD Food Services has been a valuable partner of MVRC for many years.
By Spencer Rogers, Communications Editor, MVRC
To listen to Rick Smith AM, you wouldn't think from his soft Scottish accent that he has lived in Australia for the past 60 years. And not one for seeking the limelight, youcould be forgiven for not knowing much about his incredible achievements since leaving Dundee in 1959.However, as the man behind Australia's biggest and most successful food distribution companies PFD Food Services, Rick is one of Australia's most successful businessmen. He is also a great family man, a hugely generous philanthropist, and a multiple Group 1 horse owner. He still dreams of winning a Melbourne Cup and Cox Plate – and such is Rick's recipe and commitment for success, both of thesecould easily become a reality.
I caught up with Rick recently to find out about his journey to creating PFD Food Services, his philanthropic work, and his life as a horse owner.
"Everyone has sliding door moments in their life. I have had quite a few – and nearly all involving my wife."
When Rick first met Joan in Dundee in 1958, he was about to start a journey of sliding door moments. Within two years,he would create a new life as a driver-salesmanon the other side of the world in Morwell, Victoria, atPFD Food Services (known then as Processed Fish Distributors).
Having recently become engaged in early 1959, Rick followed Joan and her parents (Jim and Annie Markie) who decided initially to relocate to Queensland – thoughthe hot weather made Traralgon in Victoriaa more attractive proposition, and they moved south renting a property from the local barber by the name of Jim McDonald.
"Jim had a son who was training to be a priest at the seminary in Werribee,"Rick recalls. "Well, the son had a part-time job at PFD as a driver, but he gave notice to pursue other ambitions and recommended a young ex-truck driver from Scotland who might like the job."
And so – in another classic sliding doors moment – Rick was introduced to the barber, Jim McDonald, and he seized the opportunity to become PFD's new driver-salesman. Rick had form as a driver-salesman, having worked in the role previously for a soft drinks company back in Scotland after leaving school at the age of 15. Despite being awarded a five-year scholarship, application to studies didn't suit Rick's personality at the time,and "I made a right mess of it which is something I've always regretted," remarked Rick.
The company started as a fresh fish merchant about 100 years before Rick's arrival in 1864, trading as J Hill & Son. By the time Rick joined the Morwell branch as a driver, the Processed Fish Distributors business was under the control of the processed fish products group Irwin &Johnson, a large global seafood supplier based in South Africa.
Over the next eight years, the PFD Food Servicesbusiness quickly grewthanks to severalacquisitions that saw Rick become manager of the branch beforehe was offered the role as general managerbased in Kensington in Melbourne – in the early 1970s.
When I&J decided to sell out in the mid-1970s, Rick was first in line. The only problem was money.
"I knew I had some long service and superannuation that I could use for some of it," remembers Rick.The other half of the equation was to form a buyout consortium with one of their big customers – Melbourne's wealthy Liberman family.
When the Libermans decided to realise their investment after a decade or so of solid growth, Rick seized the opportunity to take full ownership of PFD and became the sole owner of the company in 1988.
Further expansion continued from 1988 under Rick's stewardship as the business completedalmost 30 acquisitions to make it the country's largest food distribution company. Rick's daughter, Kerry Smith,is the company's chief executive and has overseen the company's growth to become a business turning over about $2.2 billion.
The organisation employs more than 2,500 people across a network of almost 70 distribution branches and has nearly a thousand trucks delivering fresh and processed foods and dry goods.
The next generation of the Smith family now controls the day-to-day operations of PFD,with Rick still involved but in a more advisory capacity and as a Board member.Along with Kerry, Rick's son, Lindsay looks after variouswholly owned joint ventures under the family's control, and his daughter Sharon oversees their philanthropic activities.
Rick admits that he has turned down numerous approaches over the years from private equity firms and competitors looking to buy into the business. However, in June this year, he finally completed a deal three years in the making that sawWoolworths acquire a 65% buyout of PFD Food Services.
Despite the takeover, PFD will continue to operate independently under chief executive Kerry Smith, and Rick will still provide valuable guidance.