More than meats the eye

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Duck neck sausages, parfaits and terrines – it does not sound like the offering of your average Aussie butcher.

Not that Vic’s Meat co-founder Anthony Puharich is making any apologies, proudly noting the European influences on his wholesale and retail produce operations.

“I’m not trying to sound disrespectful,” he says. “It might not be traditional butchery in Australia, but for Europe and particularly France and Paris, rotisseries, soups, salads, pates, parfaits and terrines… all of that wide cross-section is the norm. I wanted to bring that back to Australia.”

Courtesy of their wholesale export business at Mascot and a retail presence in well-heeled Woollahra in Sydney, Puharich and his father Victor are helping to transform the image of butchery in Australia. Their exotic meats and recipes feature on television cooking shows, while their interactive website – which answers everyday questions about meat – demonstrates a modern take on an old business concept.

They are making a dollar, too. Their $70 million-a-year business spans the Mascot and Woollahra arms and fast-growing operations in Shanghai and Singapore, which were launched in 2007 and 2008, respectively.

Puharich puts the business’s success down to great products, superior service and robust financial discipline, even as the business grew rapidly.

“There were a lot of temptations there,” he says. “You’re making money and it’s easy to go ‘Oh god, I’ve been doing this for a couple of months now and I’ve been working really hard, I’m just going to pay myself a couple of thousand dollars or whatever’. We never did that.”

Risks and rewards

When the Puhariches launched Vic’s Meat 18 years ago, there were many unknowns as they sought to target meat sales to top-end restaurants, four- and five-star hotels and airlines.

While Victor had been in butchery for decades, Puharich was “fresh out of university” after graduating with a finance economics degree from Bond University on the Gold Coast and then spending nine months as a merchant banker. He decided the meat industry could be a better career option.

The father-and-son combination made a formidable team: Anthony bringing his sales and marketing nous to the table and Victor focusing on the produce.

“He’ll be the first one to admit he doesn’t have that commercial business sense,” Puharich says. “He’s amazing at what he does, he’s very hands-on in the business but he has a lot of trust and faith in me.”

Puharich started “knocking on doors” to woo clients while building up his knowledge of butchery. Customers loved their meat, and the word quickly spread.

“We relied on word-of-mouth and to this very day (that’s how) we’ve generated all those sales. I can tell you, we don’t rely on traditional salespeople to grow our business.”

Restaurants, hotels and airlines have been prepared to pay a premium for the enthusiasm, service and products the Puhariches deliver. The business has boomed from day one.

Puharich explains: “The growth has been exponential, particularly the first six or seven years. It was just amazing, and it was scary. Managing growth was more challenging than getting the phones to ring. I don’t think we were managing it consciously because we were just unaware of how quickly our business was growing.”

As the orders flowed in, father and son resisted the temptation to delegate and just worked longer and harder.

“Before we knew it we were seeing more money than we’ve ever, ever seen in our lives and it was bloody amazing,” Puharich says.

Unusually for a booming enterprise, early growth did not necessitate going cap in hand to banks for more capital.

“Miraculously for the first three or four years, we funded all of our growth through not taking a big wage, relying on retained profits and just driving and growing the business through cash flow and profit.”

Hunger for success

Like many entrepreneurs, Puharich treated Vic’s Meat’s phenomenal success in Australia as a mere starting point. He yearned for an international business.

With the aid of business partners as financiers, that has come in the form of wholesale operations in Shanghai and Singapore. Armed with the business model that has worked so well in Mascot, Puharich made the “bloody hard” decision to leave his wife and three children behind in Australia while he lived in Shanghai temporarily to establish the new business.

Importantly, having business partners on board has meant Vic’s Meat did not run the risk of running up massive debts, especially in the early stages of the expansion.

“We’re not frivolous, we’re not silly with our money,” Puharich says. “We just wanted to make sure that if it didn’t go as we expected there wasn’t going to be this huge pressure.”

Now with a fourth arm of the business – a European-style butchery in Woollahra named Victor Churchill Butchers that marks his first foray into the retail market – Puharich can reflect on an enterprise that continues to thrive.

“We’re a bit of a household name within restaurants and hotel. Now it’s time to relish the fruits of the labour.”

With 120 staff and a multi-million-dollar operation to look after, life is sweet for Puharich, who is glad he made the call more than a decade ago to abandon a career as a banker.

“Food is my life, my passion, my industry.”

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