Lion-hearted Bega chair Barry Irvin beat cancer to win his ultimate prize

Barry Irvin, CEO of Bega Cheese (left) and his long time adviser David Williams in Melbourne. Picture: Stuart McEvoy/The Australian.

On the evening of January 29, 2020, as Barry Irvin wined and dined the night away at Melbourne’s famed Flower Drum Chinese restaurant with his most trusted adviser, David Williams, the Bega Cheese executive chairman felt on top of the world.

Fresh from chairing his first Bega board meeting in nine months that day after seemingly winning a life-threatening battle with bowel cancer, Irvin was looking forward to returning to fulfilling his life’s ambition: building a great Australian food company.

But within weeks, the 49-year-old dairy farmer-turned-famed agribusinessman suddenly realised the enormous toll a punishing chemotherapy program had taken on his body.

“In all honesty, I was back and I was sick,” he tells The Weekend Australian. “I had lived this careful, very medically controlled life when I thought I was well. Within a month I was extraordinarily ill.

“I was struggling both mentally and physically. I didn’t realise the damage that the chemo had done until I tested myself. I have no feeling in my hands, limited feeling in my feet and everything takes an enormous amount of concentration. Early on, as soon as I came under pressure, it didn’t work. Before, when I came under pressure, I performed.

“By the end of the first month back I thought ‘I can’t do this’. What was keeping me going was the loyalty to the people around me. They would try to take pressure off me. I would occasionally candidly say ‘I am struggling here guys’. And they would see I was angry because I couldn’t perform the way I wanted to perform.”

Fast-forward nine months and Irvin and Williams had pulled off one of the corporate deals of the year, Bega’s $560m acquisition of the Lion dairy and drinks business, which turned Bega into a $3bn food colossus boasting brands such as Dairy Farmers, Pura and Farmers Union to add to the ­famous Vegemite brand it bought back from the Americans in 2017.

Dream deal

Now Irvin reveals the untold personal story of the deal he dreamt of all his life.

“When I was talking to the board about Lion in the initial ­stages, I told them we must be there. They asked me why. I told them this was the business I always feared. I never thought I had the weapons to beat them if they had their house in order. For the last decade it was a business I thought we did not have the weapons to compete against,’’ he says.

“We had multiple thought processes over the years about how we could get exposure to it. It was always what we wanted but we never had the capacity. The acquisition of Vegemite, with the extra manufacturing capacity and the scale, actually got us in the zone to have a go.”

But in March, as Lion’s parent company, Japanese drinks giant Kirin, was looking for a buyer for its embattled Australian dairy ­assets, Irvin was struggling just to stay on his feet when walking.

“I would fall over all the time because I had no sense of where I was — no feedback from my hands or feet. The only sense that was working was my eyes. When I closed them I fell over,’’ he says.

“I couldn’t write. I always thought when I wrote, so I had to retrain my brain. Every afternoon I would spend half an hour learning cursive writing. But it hurt. I don’t have feeling in my hands but somehow they hurt!”

Williams, founder of corporate advisory firm Kidder Williams and the man who helped Irvin through the first wave of his cancer ordeal, was nervous.

Only a month earlier, in an interview with The Australian, Irvin had proudly declared victory in his health battle to the world.

“I was worried that Barry would overstate the situation and the Bega board would panic,” Williams says. “I always felt the best for him. My natural inclination is to think he is going to come out of it. He is enormously fit. And I was always optimistic,’’ Williams adds.

Coping with Covid

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March proved a godsend for Irvin. He fled his Lane Cove family home in Sydney suburbia to the safety of his Bemboka farm outside Bega.

“I am the only person who would say the best thing that happened to them was to be sent into isolation because of COVID,” Irvin says. “I was in the ironic situation of ultimately being able to protect myself by isolating at the farm.”

Irvin’s 31-year-old son Andrew, who runs the family’s dairy farm, moved all the cows that were going to have calves onto his father’s property.

Irvin bought himself a new motorbike and each morning rode around the paddocks to check on the herd.

“My life suddenly became isolation, Zoom meetings and cooking for myself. So I started living this hermit life,” he says.

Andrew would also routinely bring his father groceries, putting them on the front porch, but would only converse with him from the end of the long driveway.

“The instruction was wipe down all your groceries. So I used to get all the fruit and vegetables and shove them in the dishwasher on the cold cycle. I thought that was a piece of genius,’’ Irvin says.

“I also made myself a coffee in a takeaway cup each mid-morning to pretend I was at work.”

Once a month he would drive himself up to Sydney to visit St Vincent’s Hospital for blood tests, which should have reunited him with his 28-year-old autistic son Matthew.

During his father’s absence the staff at Giant Steps, a charity that runs schools for autistic children in Sydney and Melbourne that Irvin established and now chairs, had looked after the young man Irvin calls “Matty”.

“Giant Steps was wonderful. The normal care I would provide for Matty was taken on by Giant Steps,” Irvin says. “He would look at the window at home on a Friday and I wouldn’t turn up. But the activities I would normally do with him, one of his carers would do. So he was fine. But it was more difficult the other way.

“When I came up to Sydney for the blood tests, it was a strict routine. Straight from Bega to Sydney, into the hospital for tests, straight out. Into Lane Cove, into the room that my wife kept for me and then out again. We would not let Matty see me because that was too tough for him. So I would literally arrive, go straight into the room and leave early the next morning and drive back to Bega.”

As hard as it was, Irvin and wife Harriet had learned early in their son’s life what was best for him.

“When your child is upset and crying, you pick them up and give them a hug. Matty, when he was a little tacker and was crying, you knew that if you picked him up it made it worse,” Irvin says. “So that has always been very hard. But you train yourself in a discipline of what is best for him.’’

Father and son were reunited in August when Harriet brought Matthew to Bega. By then Irvin’s blood tests were good and the Lion deal was looming.

Looming Lion deal

All the negotiations were conducted on Zoom and only in the final week of the deal did Irvin venture to Kidder Williams’ Melbourne office to burn the midnight oil.

But even then, his body was not ready for the rigours of 2am finishes. On several occasions, he left the room to vomit in the toilet.

“[Lion’s adviser] Deutsche Bank had compressed down into one month what should have taken 12,” Williams says. “So it was tough on everyone. But he wasn’t match fit and he still recovering. After midnight he would say ‘I’m starting to struggle’.”

Irvin says the real “sobering moment” came when signing the contract.

“I now write like an 8-year-old. For all the glamour and preparation, the big challenge was ‘can you sign that contract?’ We all have our own pride and egos. As much as I knew these people knew about my situation, I said ‘I would rather not have people watch me struggle to sign the documents.’ So it was just one other Kidder Williams guy that witnessed me sign,” he says.

The deal signing marked the 12-month anniversary of Irvin’s last chemotherapy injection.

He says the Lion deal was a test of his recovery, and he believes he has passed that test.

Irvin now looks forward to Bega justifying its new-found label as “The great Australian food company”.

“The thing that has always bemused me about Australian agribusiness was we always did the agriculture bit well, but we left the food bit to foreigners,” he says.

“We don’t create companies that can invest in foreign markets. People might call us the Great Australian Food company but we haven’t achieved that till we have invested abroad.’’

Barry Irvin is back, this time he believes for real. He says Bega, its management team and its board have emerged from his past tumultuous 24 months stronger.

“I always had this belief that whatever happened, it wouldn’t stop me,” he says. “So the experience of the past nine months has made me way more humble.

“I had to suddenly recognise I am not what I was. And that is not a bad thing.”