Darren Thomas

Darren Thomas


With an annual turnover of $2.5 billion, Thomas Foods International (TFI) is Australia’s largest family-owned meat processing company, exporting 80 per cent of their product. Taking the reins from his father Chris, Darren Thomas has turned a small South Australian company with three staff into a global food producer employing more than 2000 people, with offices in Europe, Asia and the United States. The Thomas family has far-reaching philanthropic interests across Australia.

Information correct at the time of receiving the award

When TFI’s Murray Bridge plant burnt to the ground in 2018, the Thomas family swung into action. Their first concerns were for the safety of their people and the first responders. Later, thoughts turned to the well-being of staff who were promptly redeployed and supported through a trying time. Today, there is much anticipation among the team for the return to a new site at Murray Bridge where a state-of-the-art, $300 million plant will begin operation later this year. It will process a variety of animals and be a global showcase of advanced food manufacturing, setting the standard for technology, efficiency, environmental sustainability, animal welfare and workplace safety.

With integrated feedlot and farming operations across southern Australia, TFI has also expanded into Canada and the United States, where they supply more than 45 million kilograms of meat products annually. The company processes lamb, Angus beef, mutton and goat for the wholesale market but also pre-packaged product for sale direct to the consumer.

The collaboration with another iconic South Australian brand saw the launch of Thomas Cappo Seafood in 2019 and responding to customer demand for convenience and growing interest in plant-based alternatives has led to partnering with a Netherlands-based company producing meat alternatives. Earlier this year TFI joined a $378 million consortium which plans to produce plant-based protein across three manufacturing facilities here in South Australia.

With a customer base spread over 85 countries, TFI is hardened to the impacts of market forces, wars, political intervention and biosecurity issues. While Darren acknowledges these are real threats, he believes Australia is well positioned to handle them. “As the world shrinks due to globalisation, Australia has the benefit of being an island,” he says. The recent concern over a Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak in Indonesia saw a “blip” in the market for a couple of weeks but Darren has faith in our quarantine system.

While Australians take food for granted, food security in many countries is a number one priority and, according to Darren, this country has a competitive advantage, but we should not rest on our laurels.

Climate change, urban encroachment into agricultural land, labour shortages and the cost of doing business are just some of the limitations.

By embracing advancing technology TFI can remain competitive on a global scale. Robotics mean that, after packaging, there is no need for the product to be touched by a human hand. “There’s still manual labour required for processing,” says Darren, “but the skill set we now require is very different from even five or 10 years ago … today we need PLC programmers, robotics experts.”

The goal is that nothing from an animal is wasted – even the blood and plasma is processed for use in pharmaceuticals and for the benefit of research institutions. TFI’s skins and hides division is EU-accredited for export to garment manufacturers across Europe. “The optimisation to ensure we extract every bit of revenue requires machine learning, artificial intelligence. It’s not what you’d expect in the food processing sector.”

Having learned the business from the ground up, Darren cemented his knowledge with a Bachelor of Business (Accounting) from the University of South Australia. Darren was inaugural chair and a board member of Brand South Australia, a former member of the Economic Development Board, has been a board member for a number of charitable organisations and is a member of the South Australian chapter of the Young Presidents Organisation. “I believe if you’re going to have a comment, you should have a solution as well,” says Darren. “The greatest thing you can do is give time. It’s not always about money but listening and getting involved.”

Darren is passionate about what he does, and admits to being a hard taskmaster, but expects no more of others than he does of himself. Face-to-face relationships are seen as essential to good business, so just as his father spent weeks on the road visiting farms, Darren now spends hours on airplanes cementing existing partnerships, seeking new opportunities and keeping abreast of international trends. He may spend a great deal of time away from his wife Michelle and the family, and travel more than he would like, but he recognises that success doesn’t come without sacrifices. Opportunities to go surfing with his three children or have a flutter at the races may be rare but that makes them all the more memorable.

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