Eliza Park CEO
Australasia’s premier thoroughbred breeding publication, Bluebloods, recently ran a profile on Eliza Park CEO, Cameron Croucher, penned by award winning industry journalist, Graeme Kelly.
Cameron Croucher’s destiny seemed set by a job choice as a teenager and even in his wildest dreams he could not have imagined that one day he would be in charge of the running of a major thoroughbred breeding operation. Yet these days he’s relishing his role as CEO of Eliza Park Stud and the joys of producing more horses like Black Caviar from the stud’s high-class roster of stallions.
Cameron’s Croucher’s direction in life was defined on a warm summer’s day in January 1987 at Cambridge Gardens, near Penrith in Sydney’s outer west. After successfully sitting for his High School Certificate he had a choice between two career options, one was with the Fleming family’s Jewel Food Stores, where he had been working as a casual shop assistant, and the other was with the Commonwealth Bank.
He elected to accept a position in Jewel’s head office at Lidcombe, which 17 years on morphed into his current role as chief executive officer of Lee Fleming’s Eliza Park Stud at Kerrie on the outskirts of Melbourne. “I could have started at the Commonwealth Bank after sitting the entry test and been in a totally different place to where I am now,” Cameron said. “If you count the time I worked as a casual I’ve been associated with the Fleming family for nearly 28 years and it has been a wonderful journey.”
That all led him through to his appointment, in July 2004, as chief executive officer of the Eliza Park Stud, which belongs to Jim Fleming’s eldest son Lee. The stud is spread over four properties covering nearly 1000ha, has a staff of 90, and with around 1200 mares being served by its 12 stallions during the current breeding season it has taken a significant share of the Victorian thoroughbred market. As well as being the biggest operation of its type in the state, Eliza Park can be rated in the nation’s second tier of studs below only the likes of Arrowfield, Coolmore, Darley and Widden.
Furthermore, the stud is the home of the dual G1-winning Royal Academy (USA) horse Bel Esprit, who is the sire of the unbeaten superstar Black Caviar. However rather surprisingly Cameron says Black Caviar’s sensational series of performances has not had a significant influence on Eliza Park’s fortunes.
“Black Caviar is a proven world champion and has certainly captured the public’s imagination, so it would be wrong to say she has not had an impact. She has certainly put Bel Esprit’s name up in lights, but at the same time we have kept his fee at $27,500 again this year, even though she has reached enormous heights during the past 12 months. We feel at that level he is at the right price for breeders and we want to keep encouraging them to send their mares to him.”
As Cameron points out it is “quite extraordinary” that Eliza Park is also standing Statue of Liberty (USA) the sire of Australia’s second highest rated sprinter Hay List, while Lee’s brother Dean bred Singapore speedster Rocket Man, a son of Viscount who has recorded 16 wins and four seconds from 20 starts.
“You are talking about the three best sprinters in the world and they all have a connection with Eliza Park and the Fleming family. That in itself is a wonderful achievement, and the Fleming boys should be very proud of those results. Understandably it is something I feel very fortunate to be vitally involved in and something I love being part of.”
It is a connection that had its beginnings when Cameron began in the Jewel stores as a teenager. His destiny had been virtually shaped earlier by the involvement of his father, Eric, in supermarkets and retailing, which led through to him spending the last 20 years of his working life in the Fleming group. “My father’s family owned supermarkets in the United Kingdom,” Cameron said. “He lived in a little village named Robertsbridge in Sussex where his family had the supermarket, the newsagent and the post office.
“He was actually bought out to Australia, from England, in 1965 by Jim Fleming’s father James, so there is a long history there. In those days it was Fleming Food Stores, before becoming Jewel, and the company was looking for people experienced in supermarket retailing. Flemings were expanding and the company’s recruitment needs took them to London in search of experienced retailers. My father was interviewed, was chosen and was brought out to Sydney.”
However, in 1977 Eric became a widower when his Cameron’s mother tragically became the victim of a drunken driver in a car accident. “I was seven years-old at the time and after that my father raised me with the help of my five older brothers and sisters. Then, when I was 15, my sister Jill, who took on most of the ‘Mum’ roles after my mother passed away, was murdered, leaving behind two small children aged one and three. My father took over legal guardianship of them and raised them as a single man in his late 50s.
“As you can imagine the stress eventually took its toll on my father and he had a pretty big heart attack, which forced him to retire. He’s since had another heart attack, but while he’s not in the best shape physically he is still very alert mentally, which is great. Over the years he and I have had a wonderful relationship, we really are great mates and I still regularly seek his advice and guidance.”
Despite the distress and suffering of those years Cameron managed to cope with his studies as well as being active in the pool and on the sports fields, where he excelled in cricket. That led to him being selected to play indoor cricket for NSW under-17 and under-21 teams. An all-rounder, “I was probably a better bowler than batsman,” he went on to play grade cricket for Penrith. “I started playing cricket when I was nine and I played right through until I was 32.”
Along the way he won a cricket scholarship as a 14 year-old which earned him the privilege of receiving batting tuition from the legendary Sir Garfield Sobers and Australia’s brilliant stroke-maker Doug Walters, while the bowling coach was West Indian-born English quick Gladstone Small. “I also had the honour of playing in a charity match on the Sydney Cricket Ground. I made only 16 runs, but I hit a boundary as well as taking a couple of wickets and that was all quite a thrill.”
Cameron remembers that he was fanatical about his cricket and nearing his 15th birthday at the time his formal association with Jewel began, when he started working as a casual at the Werrington outlet in December, 1984. “Then when I’d just finished school I saw a poster on the store’s notice board seeking someone for a position in the accounts department at head office in Lidcombe. I rang up and applied for the job, was selected and started as a junior with Jewel in 1987.”
While he had earned his Higher School Certificate, Cameron decided he needed to further develop himself academically which resulted in him securing an Advance Certificate in Business Commerce at the Western Sydney Institute of TAFE in 1988. Two years later he received an Associate Diploma in Accounting from the institute. By this stage he had come under the notice of Jim Fleming and the company’s finance director, who agreed to pay the way for Cameron to study for a degree in accounting, which he secured at the University of Western Sydney in 1993.
“At that stage I could not have afforded to go to university, so Jim helped me enormously at a vital time in my life. As I progressed through the ranks I had a lot to do with Jim, and that continued right through until he died in 2007. He was a fantastic guy who was loyal to the people who were loyal to him, and I had the utmost respect for him.”
With his degree completed, thanks to Jim, Cameron undertook the Retail Management and Supervision Program at Melbourne’s Monash University and added a Human Resource Certificate IV and a Graduate Diploma in Management (Marketing) to his CV in the mid-1990s. After rising to become a trainee accountant, his duties included handling the payroll for the 5000 Jewel employees spread throughout 130 stores in Queensland, New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory, Victoria and South Australia.
As well as being busy in the area of mergers and acquisitions his work also required him to travel around the stores as the company moved from a manual system to computerised accounting. “I actually met my wife Sonja when I was doing one of my audit inspections. She was appointed as manager of the Jewel store at Colyton at 18 and was the youngest manager the company ever had. Because I was firing so many questions at her she absolutely despised me at first, but a few months later we met up at a social function and things began to change.”
The couple were married in 1996 and now have two daughters, Brianna who is 11, and six year-old Emma. A budding actress, Brianna has performed in musical theatre and a TV mini-series and has been chosen to audition before 200 agents in Florida in April next year, while Emma is already involved in dancing and gymnastics. As the romance with Sonja was evolving Cameron was, in December 1994, appointed the company accountant of Jewel Food Stores and became responsible for the day to day running of the business’s administration and finances.
“This was a pretty big role for someone of my age in a company turning over $1 billion a year on a one per cent profit margin, which meant the administration systems had to be tight,” he said. Cameron was also deeply involved in the capital expenditure program for the introduction of fresh foods into selected supermarkets, which originally were “box stores” with groceries. In 1995 Jim Fleming placed Jewel on to the market and the company was snapped up by David Holdings, which was subsequently taken over by the publicly listed Metcash.
It was in 1997 that Jim, who had remained on with the group in an advisory capacity, and Lee approached Cameron about joining them to manage their private wealth which was invested in shopping centres, commercial properties and shares. Lee’s holdings also included Eliza Park, previously known as Dorrington Park, which he had just purchased from Robert Crabtree.
“My activities with Eliza Park marked my first serious involvement with horses, although I had often gone to the races as the guest of Jim when he was chairman of the Sydney Turf Club. One of those days was in 1993 when Bint Marscay, which Jim bred, won the Golden Slipper Stakes and that was a very exciting.”
Lee’s first season as owner of the property was in 1998 when Ascot Knight (CAN), Bahamian Bounty (GB), Mystery Storm (USA) and Suave Dancer stood under the Eliza Park banner and they served a total of 212 mares. “In the early days there was a lot of development to be done on the place to turn it into a commercial operation. Again I was involved in the setting up of the systems, the reporting, the financial management and things like that. To begin with we had lengthy discussions about whether we’d downsize and simply concentrate on putting together a quality broodmare band or become larger, and that’s what we did.
“I found as the stud grew I was spending more and more time working on Eliza Park related matters and less time on other Fleming family interests. It was a steep learning curve, but we were fortunate to have Denis Roberts as manager. When he left in 2004 I thought Lee would hire a specialist horse person to replace him. To my surprise Lee and Jim took me to lunch in Coogee and offered me the position of chief executive officer of Eliza Park.
“I was a little overwhelmed to start with because I felt there were lots of areas where I didn’t have the necessary technical skills, but at that lunch I said I’d give it a go for 12 months on three conditions which were that I had the autonomy to run the farm, that I could build my own team, and could hire the people with the expertise and technical skills I didn’t have in the practical handling of horses. It was also agreed that if either party was not satisfied after a year I could revert to my previous position, with no animosity.”
Over the ensuing months Cameron employed Sue Ellis to look after the racing division, Irishman Alan Clark as the veterinarian, and David Somers who had previously been at the Irish National Stud was appointed as stud manager; Shane McGrath who was already at Eliza, was chosen to head up sales and marketing. By then the stallion roster had been expanded to Bel Esprit, Black Hawk (GB), Clangalang, Delago Brom, Desert Sun (GB), Grass Wonder (USA), Jetball, Planchet and Val Royal (FR).
At that point Cameron, in consultation with his management team, formed a five-year strategic plan for Eliza Park covering the growth and development of the operation. A feature of the policy was that each division was to be conducted as a separate cost centre so that the individual sections of the business could more easily be monitored. During the preceding years Cameron had “learned something about horses” and was going racing more frequently. His experience was further broadened by visiting Hong Kong for the International Races, and travelling to Kentucky for the sales.
He was also at Royal Ascot in 2008 to watch the Flying Spur horse Magnus, who was being added to the roster later in the year, finish third behind Miss Andretti in the King’s Stand Stakes-Gr.2 (5f). Earlier that year David O’Callaghan who handles Eliza’s bloodstock advisory work, had brokered a deal for Lee Fleming to purchase the Danehill (USA) horse Shinzig, who was quickly syndicated as a racing and stallion proposition. Cameron became a shareholder just 24 hours before Shinzig, in the care of Mick Price, edged out Niconero in the C.F. Orr Stakes-G1 (1400m) at Caulfield.
“That was a fantastic thrill. It was really exciting, particularly given the time frame. These days I am, naturally, following the stallion career of Shinzig very closely.”
It was quite a momentous year for the operation as in 2008 Eliza Park became the first Australian stud to open an office in Singapore and has since been frequently moving horses to the city-state through private sales and leasing arrangements. The stud is also indulging in racing horses in Singapore to take advantage of the attractive prizemoney on offer there. Now, looking back, Cameron says “about an 85% completion rate” has been achieved on the strategic plan.
“That was pretty good but there are still a lot of things left unturned,” he said. “For instance our intention is to race more horses in Singapore in the future, and there are a number of other initiatives we have in the pipeline. Also, we have continued to expand our land holdings even though I’ve been saying for two or three years that we wouldn’t be.
“We have the main farm at Kerrie, which houses the administration, the racing division and the stallions. We have the facilities to stand 17 horses and we are constantly looking for new stallion prospects, but we will probably max-out at 12, which is a nice number. We lease an 1100 acre (445ha) property where the mares and foals are situated, and a 165-acre (66ha) property, which is a specialised sales preparation facility. They are both at in the north-eastern region of Victoria, just north of Nagambie. Then recently we took on another farm, the former Newlands Stud which is situated right next door to Darley’s facility at Seymour. Our plan is to house our expanding wet mare and foaling unit numbers there.”
Added to that, the stud has its head office in Bridge Street in The Rocks in Sydney, where Cameron and Lee, Dean and Paul Fleming are based, as well as offices in the inner Melbourne suburb of Carlton and Singapore. Ironically, given the success being enjoyed, Lee’s decision to buy Eliza Park and invest heavily in the Victorian thoroughbred industry was against his father’s judgement.
“I remember Jim told Lee that he was mad and advised him that ‘he didn’t want to do this’ but he stuck to his guns,” Cameron said. “Here we are 14 years later and Lee’s commitment hasn’t wavered. Lee is a private man who doesn’t seek the limelight. However, he receives enormous pleasure following the progeny of his stallions on the racetrack and attending the various sales around the country. He is also very proud of the fact that his youngest son Reis is working at Eliza Park and is progressing along nicely. So now these days Lee is starting to see the fruits of his hard work and investment in the breeding and racing industry in Victoria, and he deserves whatever success he has … and that’s what we are continually working to achieve.”
Reprinted courtesy of Bluebloods