Vision to make it on global scale

The story of Brazilian company JBS becoming the world’s largest meat company is fascinating, and so is the journey of the man whose vision helped make it a global player. He talks to Ray Ryan.
Vision to make it on global  scale

The story of how JBS grew from a small butcher’s shop in Brazil to become the world’s largest meat company is a fascinating one.

And so is the journey of the West Cork man whose vision helped turn it into the powerful global player it is today.

Jerry O’Callaghan, third son of a small dairy farmer from Beakeen, west of Schull, is now director of investor relations with JBS.

It has sales of around €33bn, exports to 155 countries, employs almost 200,000, and has a presence in five continents.

Each day it processes 100,000 cattle, 12 million chickens, 70,000 pigs, 100,000 hides and 26,000 lambs in 150 plants around the world JBS has come a long way from the two head of cattle a day it slaughtered when it was founded in 1953 by Jose Batista Sobrinho — the company’s name comes from his initials.

That same year, Jerry O’Callaghan was born and 43 years later the Batista family put him in charge of taking JBS global. He was given free rein to develop products and packaging, and to train employees on food safety and different regulations.

“I was like a kid in a toy store,” O’Callaghan later recalled. “I found a company that said just ‘go ahead and do it’.”

The Batista family — the founder’s three sons are now at the helm — believe in the simplest approach possible. They frown on bureaucracy and encourage agility, efficiency and decisiveness. They are hands-on.

Jerry O’Callaghan, who recently addressed the Agricultural Science Association conference in Naas, Co Kildare, embodies all those traits. He joined the company almost 19 years ago, basically to start developing its export business.

Today, Jerry O’Callaghan deals with the stock market, investors and the banks. It is a completely different role to what he did previously. He is based in the company headquarters in São Paulo, the financial capital of Brazil with a population of almost 12 million.

Brazilian beef, he said, is as sustainable as the industry anywhere in the world, and the questions raised about it were overplayed by the European Union to create a trade issue.

Jerry O’Callaghan said he likes the culture of JBS. It is big because it has to be competitive, but it is also small in the way it is structured.

Outside of his work, which takes him around the world, his big interests are the 432 head of cattle he has on his 800-acre ranch 1,000 kilometres from São Paulo.

A fit looking 61-year-old, he always uses the stairs rather than a lift in hotels and offices, and speaks several languages with a hint of an accent from West Cork, where his brother Donal still milks 47 cows.

As a 12-year-old coming to the end of his primary education in 1966, a Presentation Brother arrived at Lowertown National School recruiting pupils to go to Greenmount College, Cork. “I spent three years at Greenmount, and then I went to Mount Saint Joseph’s at the top of Blarney Street where I was a TP – a Temporary Professed Brother — for two years.

“But I basically upped one day and said I was concerned I did not have a vocation, and I would be fooling myself if I continued. I left the Brothers and got into Farranferris for my last year and from there I went to UCC to study engineering.”

When he graduated, Jerry and his generation discovered there were not many jobs available in Ireland.

“The day I left UCC, I put a rucksack on my back and worked my way overland to India. I left in May or June and I arrived in Delhi on Christmas Day. I spent a couple of months in Afghanistan... I learned to survive. I really enjoyed it, even in places where people did not speak English.

“After a while I drifted back overland to London where I opened a small antiques business in Portobello Road.

“A couple of years later I shut up shop in London and flew to Rio in 1979. I fell in love with Brazil from day one.

“I started teaching English and soon afterwards — because I spoke English and only because I spoke English — I was offered a job with the meat industry. I had never worked in the industry previously.

“It was the time of the Falkland Islands War. Argentina, which had a big meat industry, was banned from trading and it was a golden opportunity for Brazil – but nobody in the Brazilian meat industry spoke English,” he said.

He joined JBS in 2006.

Today, he is one of the most powerful people in the global meat industry.

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