The story behind one of the state's biggest commission buyers

Les Smiles reflects on his commission buying career

Beef
Les Smiles enjoys a quiet life at home in Gunnedah but he has plenty of memories as a commission buyer across the country.

Les Smiles enjoys a quiet life at home in Gunnedah but he has plenty of memories as a commission buyer across the country.

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How a 14-year-old boy fell into commission buying.

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It's March 1951 and a 14-year-old boy has been dropped off at the Dalby pig sale by his uncle.

He was training to become a mechanic, but nobody needed to know that.

Despite his nerves he bought 28 pigs for a Queensland cooperative and was paid two shillings and six pence in buying fees and the same for trucking, about 50 cents today.

It was well above the odd $3.75 his apprenticeship earnt and sparked a life ambition to become a top livestock buyer instead.

His name was Les Smiles, now known as one of the country's biggest commission buyers.

Also read: Mike Wilson shares his gutsy fight

"My father (Ronald) was a livestock buyer and I used to go to the sales with him on school holidays, and a lot of unauthorised holidays," Les recalled.

"I used to have my own little book and I would book up what he was purchasing. I'd put my weights on and then when the weights come back from the abattoirs, I'd check them off against mine.

"I started doing this when I was about 10-year-old and he was a big dealer and he became very ill in north west Queensland.

"He was hospitalised and couldn't get back to do the sales at Dalby so he contacted the management of Queensland Bacon Company and asked them if I could purchase these pigs."

A buyer's book from 1955.

A buyer's book from 1955.

Les is in his 80s now.

It's been almost 20 years since he packed away his pencil to enjoy a quieter life in Gunnedah.

Most sales he had orders for 10 different clients, up to 18. Everything from feedlotters, backgrounders, dealers and vealer producers were on his list that saw him buy from sales in Queensland, NSW, Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia.

"Every time I got to the saleyards I was excited; every day was different," he said.

"The only bad thing about it was the amount of miles you had to do to get to the yards and get home.

"On a Monday I'd do Tamworth sale, Gunnedah on Tuesday, Moree on Wednesday, Thursday I'd do Narrabri and every second week I'd go from Narrabri to Walgett and after Walgett I'd drive late that night to Coonamble, stay in Coonamble Thursday night and do the fat sale in Coonamble on the Friday.

"I'd get back to Gunnedah probably six or seven o'clock Friday night and I'd have to do all the bookwork."

It was 1960 when Les relocated from Queensland to Gunnedah, fresh off the back of the new local abattoir establishment.

But five years into it the local area was struck by one of its worst droughts and there wasn't enough cattle at Tuesday's sale for local consumption.

"You have to realise in 1965 there was no feedlotting and not many people had irrigation so if you didn't have feed then you were gone," Les said.

Les Smiles at home in Gunnedah.

Les Smiles at home in Gunnedah.

So he flew to Tasmania, began buying cattle out of Devonport and Launceston and organised with local abattoirs to kill the stock. From there it was loaded on refrigerated trucks and transported into Sydney.

He eventually employed another buyer and Les relocated his wife and two young children to Mackay for six months to arrange a similar set up.

Eventually things settled down on the seasonal front and numbers recovered.

In 1973 Les received a call from the livestock manager of Smorgons Meat Company who had just secured the Inverell abattoir.

"They wanted to put the sheep on the road so they would have a lot of sheep to start off the kill and the sheep in the 70s were very, very cheap," Les said.

"I bought them 76,000 sheep in four months and they put them on the road in mobs of about 7000 or 8000 and when they started killing, they had all these sheep backstop. I went as far as Walgett, Coonamble, Armidale and Walcha."

His cattle orders were equally as large and in 1975 he created a stir in the Moree saleyards.

In a yarding of 7000 head Les bought 1998 cattle for 15 different clients.

He came to the rescue of CMG Rockhampton back in 1998 and bought 860 of the 1500 odd cows yarded at Gunnedah.

Also read: Tamworth store sale cow prices reach a record

"If I'd bought the 1000 they wanted I think I would have forced the market another 8c/kg which would have cost them about $40,000...so I bought the 860 cows on the Tuesday and they were killed at Rockhampton on the Friday," he said.

"I bought 860 fat cows out of this sale here and it's never been done here before, it'll be a long time before it'll happen again."

Despite all his successes, Les wasn't unscathed from the cattle market crash later that year and his mob of 1400 cattle that were purchased for $120 sold for $12.

His solicitor and accountant feared his only option was bankruptcy. Unsatisfied with that option he wrote to creditors asking for time to pay and spent the next two years "working and working" to rebound.

"In 1977 I had sufficient funds to pay everybody," he said.

Some of Les' buyer's books.

Some of Les' buyer's books.

The Sydney 2000 Olympics was an even bigger disaster, according to Les.

The Homebush complex, known for its saleyards, abattoirs, meat halls and boning rooms, was dismantled and while replacement options were offered, wholesalers were without a critical marketplace.

"I was buying for five different operators that killed at Gunnedah abattoirs and overnight they stopped; there was no good buying meat because they had nowhere to sell it," he said.

"Our abattoirs here at Gunnedah closed...and there was Moree, Forbes, Orange, Guyra, Dubbo and Mudgee among other small abattoir closures.

"It changed the way retail butchers run their business in this respect. When they couldn't buy carcases, they bought boxed meat. That was the change of the whole meat industry in NSW in my opinion."

Les has been to a handful of sales since packing away his two pencils, buying book and calculator (which only came in the 80s). A storage box full of every 10th buyer's book that he completed over the years are a reminder of his hard work.

At home there's a photo from 1957 on a shelf in his dining room featuring the then 21-year-old alongside a host of commissioner buyers. The industry was different back then.

Les (three in from left) pictured at Chinchilla in 1957 with other livestock buyers. Photo: Queensland Country Life

Les (three in from left) pictured at Chinchilla in 1957 with other livestock buyers. Photo: Queensland Country Life

Like a "boy's club" the silent achievers of the sale were mates outside of the yards, went for beers afterwards and if anything ever happened to a family member, "they all stuck together".

Les had just as much respect for the men on the catwalk too; Sam Crump from Chinchilla was "one of the tops", Dick Marshall at Moree sold 120 pens of cattle in 46 minutes back in 1975, Mike Wilson was a king in Gunnedah and currently Patrick Purtle at Tamworth and Gunnedah sales "is as good" in his opinion.

Not only did Les have plenty of practice buying, he had an impressive eye for livestock and even knew a few tricks around the psychology of an auction.

If he was more than a pound out on his pig weights, he thought he was off the mark.

"One of the biggest changes in the industry was when we went from open auction to live weight selling; it's very hard to adapt to," he said.

"Part of my ability was to put weights to livestock...if I told someone they were going to weigh such and such and cost this much, that's what they cost."

That was until he visited the Dunedoo sale. He can't remember the cheapest pen of cattle he ever bought, but he does know which ones were the dearest.

"I'm sure that the cattle were not curfewed and they were fed with material to stop the gut from emptying," he said.

"I bought them for CMG Rockhampton and they had been lot fed and they had a bit of gut about them. If they hadn't had the gut I probably would have put them at 56 or 57 per cent yield but because they were gutty I put 53 per cent on them.

"They yielded 46 per cent. I never bought another beast out of Dunedoo," he laughed.

Despite the growth of online selling options, Les is a loyal believer in the power of a saleyard.

A livestock buyer holds a lot of that power but a good one can purchase cattle and earn a quid for the processor and still ensure enough money is given back to the producer.

"He has got to satisfy both ends," Les said.

"There is no good buying cattle that cheap that the producer is going to go broke and you have got nobody to supply your cattle.

"It's the type of business you are either in it or you are out of it, there is no halfway with livestock buying."

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