May 23, 2016

Ethnic Business Awards flashback: From war-torn Lebanon to CEO of a $160m business

With the call to entry for the 2016 Ethnic Business Awards now open, it’s the perfect time to celebrate some of the 2015 winners, including Joseph Kairouz, CEO of Cedar Meats.

“Imagine coming to Australia as a stranger. The language, customs and laws are all different, but you’ve just got to get on with it and start your new life. Fortunately, it took me just six or seven months, to find my feet,” says Joseph Kairouz, CEO of Cedar Meats, which picked up the 2015 Ethnic Business Award in the Medium to Large Business category. More than 30 years later, it’s clear that his ambition, hard work and big thinking haven’t diminished one bit. Joseph’s father was a butcher in Lebanon, and when the family arrived in Melbourne, the youngest siblings went to school and the two oldest boys went to work to support the family. They found work in the boning rooms of a wholesale meat export business where it didn’t take long for Joseph’s ambition to surface. “I soon started thinking that if somebody else can do that, then why not me?” With that thought in mind, the two Kairouzbrothers started looking for a butcher’s shop that would allow Joseph’s ambitions to flourish. Joseph found his shop in Northcote, Melbourne. “I was looking for a butcher’s shop with a big room out the back,” he says. “But when I went to the bank for a loan they said that breaking into the wholesale export market would be very hard. You couldn’t start small; you had to start big – very big,” says Joseph. However, Joseph quickly convinced his first Business Bank Manger to give them a go. “I explained that 100 miles starts with one step. And from then on, he was my supporter and business educator. He gave me the confidence to continue.”

Life will teach you everything

With his studies interrupted by war, Joseph was forced to learn as he went along. “My business started with orders for three lamb and a quarter of beef,” he says. “Now it’s 35,000-37,000 animals per week. There is no limit to this type of business, but we learnt as we grew – one step at a time”. To prove his point, Joseph explains how they started with small exports to the Middle East before gaining licences for the US and Europe, and most recently, their Chinese permits. Cedar Meats now employs around 400 people directly and sources its livestock from around the country. The established lamb, mutton, veal and goat facility are in Brooklyn Victoria, but Joseph has recently acquired another production property in Mildura, also in Victoria. He points out that meat is a rapidly expanding market, and even before opening this new operation, Cedar Meats will turn over $160 million by the end of 2016.

Pay homage to the past, give meaning to the present

Determined not to forget the culture the family left behind in Lebanon, the Kairouz brothers decided to name their company Cedar Meats. “We came from the area in Lebanon where cedar grows,” Joseph says. “It was important to me to acknowledge my roots and show that we still hold the Lebanese belief that we are stronger together than as individuals”. And with the six original brothers, a son and his nephews currently in the business, Joseph is certainly living those family-centred values. However, once you look at the large number of employees who have been with Cedar Meats from its early days, you quickly realise that the Kairouzwelcome extends beyond blood family. “If somebody comes to us without any skills, we spend a bit of money, time and effort to try them out,” Joseph says. “If someone is suitable, they will be trained as a slaughterer, knife user or saw man. If not, we make them a labourer. Whoever comes, we try to keep them for as long as possible.”

No resting on his laurels

Before the Ethnic Business Awards accolade, Joseph was awarded the Centenary Medal for his charity work. He firmly believes that since Australia gave him the opportunity to build his dream, it’s his obligation to give back. The business is a generous supporter of the Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne and is also active within the Lebanese and general community. Joseph is also a very proud Justice of the Peace. Winning an Ethnic Business Award holds special meaning for him. “I felt like I’d won the whole world,” he exclaims. “It was a big deal for the Lebanese community too. I got letters from different countries because it was reported on TV in lots of places.” Joseph admits that winning the award sharpened his focus and determination. “I said to myself, ‘Now you’ve got to work harder and extend the business more’. It also made me appreciate our government and what it has done for refugees like my family”.

Do you or someone you know have a story that rivals Joseph’s? Visit the Ethnic Business Awards website to nominate for the 2016 awards. More from NAB: