The fast food war that created an Aussie empire

IT was the bitter war between a global fast food giant and a lowly franchisee that established one of Australia's most iconic brands.

The David and Goliath battle between Hungry Jack's and Burger King raged for a decade, culminating in a $45 million court victory for the little guy.

That guy was Jack Cowin, a former life insurance salesman who moved to Australia from Canada with a $1000 deposit and huge ambitions.

His father, a Ford Canada executive, gave him the idea after returning from a posting Down Under, he revealed to the Vancouver Sun in 2010. "If I was starting out now I would head down to Australia," his dad told him. "The opportunities are fantastic."

In early 1968, Mr Cowin headed out to make his fortune.

In a fast food fairytale, little guy Jack Cowin beat corporate giant Burger King.
In a fast food fairytale, little guy Jack Cowin beat corporate giant Burger King. News Corp Australia

WHERE THE BURGERS ARE BETTER

At the time, the fast food industry was still in its fledging stages in Australia, and on spotting a queue of 50 people outside a Chinese takeaway in Sydney's Mosman, the now-billionaire saw the gap in the market, he told Fairfax Media three years after joining the board of directors in 2012.

He put down a $1000 deposit on Western Australia's first KFC outlet and within a few years, had several outlets to his name. It came down to drive and single-mindedness, he said later.

Investors were convinced that if he would travel halfway round the world for this, there must be something in it.

But now he had the secret recipe, Mr Cowin was dreaming of big things. In 1971, when US brand Burger King was eyeing the Aussie market, he saw dollar signs.

There was just one problem. The company couldn't use the BK name because it was already trademarked. Mr Cowin chose Hungry Jack, a pancake-mix brand name owned by then-parent company Pillsbury, adding the apostrophe and the 's' to make it sound cosier.

Mr Cowin bought the franchise and opened his first store in Innaloo, a suburb of Perth, on the 18 April 1971.

The business is now worth almost $1.3 billion.
The business is now worth almost $1.3 billion. Supplied

WHOPPER OF A BUSINESS

The entrepreneur's ensuing success has echoes of the tale of McDonald's franchisee Ray Kroc, a former milkshake salesman whose dizzying rise to riches 30 years earlier was chronicled in recent Weinstein Brothers twisted epic The Founder.

The first South Australian store opened in Adelaide's Everard Park November 1972 and Queensland got its first in Kedron, Brisbane, in 1974.

Ten years after it started, with 26 Hungry Jack's restaurants in three states, the first NSW branch opened on the corner of Liverpool and George Street in Sydney. In 1986, it entered Victoria by buying up and converting 11 struggling Wendy's restaurants.

Mr Cowin was now a big fish, and Burger King was starting to get uncomfortable. By the time the nineties began, the cracks in the relationship had begun to show.

When the franchise agreement was renewed in 1990, it was "not without acrimony." Hungry Jack's was the company's largest franchisee outside the States and was expanding amid ongoing disputes.

Jack Cowin, 74, is now the 24th richest person in Australia.
Jack Cowin, 74, is now the 24th richest person in Australia. Supplied

CRUNCH(Y LETTUCE) TIME

In 1993, BK purchased four Hungry Jack's outlets from an existing franchisee and rebranded them under the BK brand, which it had by now acquired.

A few years later, Burger King tried to terminate the deal, and then set out to kill Mr Cowin's brand by opening its own restaurants across Australia.

It devised a $50 million plan to open 40 Burger Kings in 1998, announcing the plan as "its best weapon in the war against McDonald's".

Mr Cowin sued, and Burger King spent years in litigation, culminating in the $45 million court judgment in his favour.

By 2003, the fast food behemoth threw in the towel, announcing that it was ceding the Australian market to the Hungry Jack's brand and dissolving the relationship. It was an extraordinary victory.

All Burger King outlets in the country were to be converted into Hungry Jack's, and the chains would combine their power to go after market leader McDonald's.

The fast food billionaire is now also a chairman at Domino’s.
The fast food billionaire is now also a chairman at Domino’s. Supplied

FRESHLY GRILLED AND INTO THE OVEN

By this point, there was no stopping Jack Cowin. He is now chairman of Domino's, which has 700 outlets in Australia, looking at ways to use the pizza chain's innovation at his burger restaurants.

The 74-year-old is worth $1.81 billion, putting him 24th on the BRW rich list this year.

His company, Competitive Foods Australia, operates more than 400 Hungry Jack's in every state in the country as master franchisor for Burger King Corporation in Australia, as well as a number of KFCs.

While profits were down 29.5 per cent this year to $26.65 million, according to Fairfax Media, the chain still employs more than 15,000 people and Aussie spend more than $1.2 billion every year at fast food restaurants owned by Mr Cowin.

The Australian-Canadian is not likely to stop looking for the next opportunity. "Make a buck and invest a buck," he told the Vancouver Sun almost a decade ago.

He knows his market and he knows how to grow in the of toughest times, beating his American owners who just didn't know what Australia wanted.

emma.reynolds@news.com.au

News Corp Australia


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