That explains why, on this sweltering August afternoon, Stronach is plodding through a grassy pasture and dodging cow patties while searching for a spot to be photographed for this article. He’s left the top two buttons of his shirt undone, which does little to combat the heat, and a dark patch spreads across his chest. Stronach removes a wad of $20 bills from his breast pocket and stuffs it into his jeans for safekeeping. A herd of cattle resting in the shade under a tree lumbers in his direction and forms a receiving line before him. He looks upon his subjects and smiles. Stronach was in a crabby mood earlier, when the photographer suggested he pose next to a fence. “No, no, no, I’m not doing that,” he protested. Fences might undercut the pastoral, open-range, cow-friendly image he is crafting for Adena. (“He’s a happy guy when he gets what he wants,” Eric Anderson, the ranch’s assistant manager, quips later that afternoon.)
It’s understandable why image would be on Stronach’s mind. He has spent hundreds of millions in the past few years on his beef production operation, having purchased 95,000 acres of land across four counties in north central Florida. Whether his grass-fed steaks are to gain any traction will depend largely on the strength of the Adena brand, which is little known today. A Stronach steak has to be everything it purports to be: environmentally friendly, humane and tasty.
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But more than that, Stronach isn’t content to be known as just the man behind Magna International. He had an acrimonious break with the auto parts company he founded, and a success with his new venture could help that event fade further from view. Stronach is setting aggressive targets. A typical grass-fed ranch might process 200 cattle in a year. Stronach aims to slaughter roughly that many per week. He also wants to start a dairy farm and grow fruits and vegetables. For now, Stronach beef is only available at the handful of golf courses, racetracks and restaurants he operates in Florida. Soon, however, Stronach will open a supermarket chain, tentatively named Adena Farm Shops, to carry his bounty. Three locations are set to launch in Florida next year, with another planned for Ontario, and each one will feature a built-in restaurant. The end goal, he says, is to prove sustainable farming can be done on a large scale.
It will take time, money and considerable focus—which has not always been Stronach’s strong suit. (While still at Magna, he floated the idea of starting an airline and an amusement park, to the chagrin of shareholders.) And then there’s Stronach’s knack for courting controversy. Adena has already raised the ire of environmentalists in Florida and has become embroiled in a spat with a local high school. But then what’s a Frank Stronach venture without conflict?
In November 2012, Stronach stepped down from his honorary chairmanship position at Magna. It was a heart-wrenching experience for him. “I built up a most powerful company from scratch—from a garage,” he says. “There’s an attachment when you build something from scratch.” His exit was hardly smooth, either. Some shareholders had long decried Magna’s dual-class structure, which they felt gave Stronach undue control. The issue had come to a head two years prior; in a contentious deal, Magna paid Stronach close to $900 million to give up his dual-class shares, effectively ceding control of the company. The terms of the agreement allowed him to stay on as a consultant, netting $38 million in 2011 and $47 million in 2012. (The Ontario Securities Commission found the process that put the proposal before shareholders was “fundamentally flawed,” but did not intervene.)
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Unmoored from Magna but flush with cash, Stronach endured a period of “soul-searching,” as he puts it, about his next move. It didn’t take too long, apparently. Stronach already owned land in Florida (he started a horse-breeding operation there in the 1990s), and he started buying up even more plots in four counties, including Marion and Putnam, to accelerate his farming plans. Still, it’s difficult for Stronach to articulate exactly why he settled on cattle ranching. It boils down to a contention that agriculture, particularly the move toward sustainable practices, is relatively immune from the forces of globalization. “You take Canada and the United States, you take big department stores, you hardly see any products made in America. So the signs are there that unemployment will rise and, most of all, we lose the technology base. So, I had a great concern. I said to myself, I’m not going to be dragged down,” says Stronach. “I said, Look, if governments don’t listen, I’ll just go into agriculture and know the Chinese won’t be able to compete with me. There’s an angle to it.”
And he’s clearly motivated. His plans call for growing his herd from 8,000 cattle to about 15,000 over the next few years. Responsibility for achieving that goal falls to Rick Moyer, Adena’s manager. In a spotless paisley shirt and crisp blue jeans, he doesn’t look like a typical rancher. But he’s worked for one of the largest cattle operations in the United States, Deseret Ranches, also in Florida. On the drive to tour Adena’s abattoir, much of the land we pass is owned by Stronach. By raising his cattle solely on grass, Stronach seems determined to do things the hard way. Only a few breeds can fatten up on this kind of diet, and it has to be specific types of grass—which must be meticulously maintained. Ranchers also have to wait longer before sending cattle to slaughter: up to 24 months, compared with 14 to 16 months in an industrial operation.
The abattoir is located in the rural community of Fort McCoy, whose major intersection hosts a Dollar General and a Subway. There’s nothing remarkable about the white rectangular building from the outside, but Stronach has gone to great lengths to ensure it fits his vision. “I want no pain to the animal, no stress, no hormones, no antibiotics,” he says. “We give the animal the most natural environment.”
The ramp the livestock climb to enter the plant was designed by Temple Grandin, professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University and a renowned proponent of humane agricultural practices. The winding gate supposedly calms cattle by limiting their peripheral vision and only allowing them to see the animal directly ahead. Stronach also commissioned a specially insulated roof for the entrance that keeps the cattle cool and eliminates outside noise. “It can be storming outside, but under the roof, it’s completely silent,” Moyer says.
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Stronach’s plant, which started operating in 2012 under the name FM Meat Products, is equipped to process up to 300 cattle a day, a fraction of the 4,000 head a conventional slaughterhouse handles. “It’s what we’d call boutique-size,” explains Moyer. Right now, though, they’re slaughtering far fewer than capacity, between 50 and 100 per week. (That number will increase once the hybrid grocery-restaurant chain is running.) Inside, workers in white lab coats emblazoned with the Adena logo hack away at carcasses, transforming them into salable cuts of meat. Upon closer inspection, Moyer realizes the carcasses are not from Stronach’s farm but belong to another producer hired by Adena as a subcontractor.
That’s how Stronach is generating revenue until he builds his grocery chain to sell his own beef cuts. There are signs all around the facility that there’s plenty of room to grow. The freezer where finished cuts of meat are stored contains ample shelf space. Most boxes are stamped with the logos of other companies. A few bear the Adena nameplate, and others are branded as Frank’s Meat, a line of steaks Stronach says he sells at three supermarkets in the state. It’s an early effort to introduce the farm’s products to consumers. Stronach declines to share specifics, but insists Frank’s Meat is selling well.
The biggest purchaser of Stronach’s beef today is, in fact, Stronach himself. Adena Farms sells cattle to FM Meats, which in turn sells steaks to Stronach’s golf courses, racetracks and, eventually, his grocery stores. The advantage of operating the entire supply chain is that Stronach gets to exercise strict control over quality, not to mention costs. He’s always looking for ways to squeeze more out of his operations. Since he has to clear cut land to make way for grass pastures, Stronach formed a new company to sell timber, for example. Still, he can only bankroll the insular operation for so long.
Tour completed, Moyer drives out of the plant and zips past a police SUV heading in the opposite direction. The police vehicle flips on its lights and pulls us over for speeding. Moyer mutters that he doesn’t have his licence as a heavy-set officer ambles up to his window. “I know my licence number by heart, and I’m driving my employer’s car today,” Moyer says.
“Who’s your employer?” asks the officer.
“Frank Stronach, sir.”
The deputy issues Moyer a written warning. “Maybe he was being nice,” Moyer says as he pulls away. “Maybe he knows how many jobs Frank has created.”
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Stronach is a well-known figure in the area, and some locals credit his land-buying spree with saving many small farmers from foreclosure. Mickey Acree, who works at the local Caterpillar dealership in Marion County’s Ocala, recalls how hard the town was hit during the recession. The dealership axed more than half its employees, but in 2009, Stronach ordered 20 pieces of equipment to clear-cut land. The grand total came up to well over a million dollars, preventing future job losses. “You just don’t see people who can do that,” Acree says.
Not everyone is happy with the Canadian billionaire. Local environmentalists galvanized after Stronach applied for a permit to pump 13 million gallons of water a day from the Silver Springs basin to serve the slaughterhouse and the surrounding pastures. Stronach whittled down his application and was granted a permit for 1.35 million gallons, but two groups—the Florida Defenders of the Environment and the St. Johns Riverkeeper—filed an appeal to have the permit reduced to 300,000 gallons per day. (Stronach’s lawyers are contesting it.)
Stronach allows the original amount requested was excessive. “I was surprised by that number,” he says. “ asked for too much water, which was not necessary.” Still, he doesn’t think there’s an issue. “There’s no problem with water in Florida. It’s just the management of water that’s hard to handle, right? There’s too much water, right? You can just take a shovel and it doesn’t take you long to hit water. Many times things are so flooded with water.”
The environmentalists say that’s oversimplifying the matter. Jim Gross, the executive director of the Florida Defenders, says decades of unfettered development have depleted freshwater flows by 30%. That’s led to water-quality problems, such as increased nutrients and algae growth, which can harm aquatic life. The immediate concern is whether the springs can still be used for recreation, says Marcy LaHart, a lawyer representing the environmental groups. “You don’t drink that water, but you want to know you can eat fish and swim in it without getting sick,” she says.
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A run-in with environmentalists is not unexpected. But clashing with a local high school is a little more unusual. In 2014, a former employee of the Stronach Group told the school board in Marion County that the company would finance a $15-million athletic complex for North Marion High School, according to the Gainesville Sun. Renderings were even presented to the board, showing a new track, field houses, a concession stand and a video scoreboard. School officials in the cash-strapped district were thrilled. “It is like a dream,” board member Nancy Stacy told the newspaper. “I am getting emotional right now.” At the time, Stronach had yet to receive approval for the water permit.
By August 2015—after the permit was granted—the school board had been told by the company that it never approved or authorized the financing of the project, according to the Ocala Star Banner. By that time, contractors had already started work on the new complex, racking up more than $390,000. The school had torn out all of the bathroom fixtures and the sound system from its existing facility, which had to be reinstalled at its own expense. Given the timing in relation to the permit, some in the community were suspicious. “Obviously he got what he wanted, but we’re sure not getting what we were promised,” a Marion County football coach told the local ABC affiliate. In the end, the Stronach Group cut the school a cheque for $125,000 and issued a press release characterizing the debacle as an “unfortunate misunderstanding.”
Beth, a waitress at a local restaurant who asked her last name not be used, has two sons on the football team. Their training has been impacted, she says, as the school tossed out equipment in preparation for the new facility. “They literally cleared out the weight room,” she says. “It’s kind of like a knife to the back.”
Stronach blames the situation on a “con artist” who no longer works for his company, who tried to “scam” him for money. He declines to identify the alleged perpetrator but says the incident was reported to local police. As to what this person’s motives might have been? “You’d have to ask him. He got rich in criminal charges.” (There’s no indication anyone has been charged.)
Stronach’s employees, however, don’t seem to pay much mind to these issues. They’re familiar with Stronach’s life story through his 2012 autobiography, The Magna Man. (It’s required reading.) Stacey Rollins, director of operations at Stronach’s Adena Golf and Country Club, says, “If there’s anything negative in his past or anything negative written about him, I just tune it out.”
Stronach arrives at the Ocala airport in his private jet, toting a few bags of pumpkin seeds, flour and a box containing copies of his autobiography. The supplies are for a baker he’s flown in from his hometown of Weiz, Austria; Stronach’s considering hiring the Austrian to make a specific kind of rye bread for his restaurants and grocery stores. No detail is too small for Stronach, who flies south to Florida roughly every other week. “I want to have quality, quality, quality and a brand name,” he says.
Stronach is hesitant to talk about how much all of this is costing him, but there are indications that the issue is never far from the surface; in a conference room at Moyer’s office, someone has scribbled “War on Costs!!!” on a whiteboard. Not everything has gone according to plan, either. In 2012, one of Stronach’s companies spent $7.1 million to purchase land in Ocala to build an upscale steak house. It never opened. “We weren’t sure if the economics of the deal, of opening a steak house given the state of Ocala, made a lot of sense,” said a person close to the sale. Indeed, the demographic that buys grass-fed and organic meat is, primarily, well-heeled urbanites—not necessarily small-town Floridians. (In Marion County, the unemployment rate stands at 6.1%, higher than Florida’s average.)
While Stronach’s goals are ambitious, they’re not unrealistic. Processing 300 grass-fed cattle per week, which exceeds that of a typical grass-fed farm, is likely achievable, according to Mick Price, a professor of agriculture at the University of Alberta. Stronach has ample access to two things most smaller farms do not: land and financing. “The challenge is getting grass of a sufficient quality,” Price says. “You need higher levels of protein than you’ll find in typical grass.”
Whether the steaks are a hit with consumers is another matter. Certainly grass-fed meat is gaining popularity, even if beef consumption as a whole is dipping. “For grass-fed beef, the share of total beef consumption is growing fairly consistently over the years, and that’s coming from a perception that it’s more natural,” says Ellen Goddard, a professor of agricultural marketing at the U of A. But the market is competitive. A report from private equity firm Wellspring Capital Management found that the number of grass-fed brands in the U.S. jumped by more than 50% over the past two years. That’s why a strong brand is necessary. If Stronach doesn’t project the right image, it could be the downfall of his venture, Goddard says. And if the environmental groups keep challenging Stronach on the water issue, he’ll have a harder time convincing consumers about the benefits of Adena. He’s not worried, however. “I will have quite a brand name that’s associated with being very conscientious about the land, the animals and what we sell,” he says.
On my last night in Ocala, I have the chance to try a Stronach steak at the Adena Golf and Country Club, which opened last year. Stronach is dining with a few of his senior managers, and his nutritionist, Cynthia Mitchell. She’s consulting on the nutritional value of the food to be served in Stronach’s stores, having previously worked on Magna’s employee wellness program. Stronach orders for the table. When the steak arrives, he focuses on me but seems less interested in my reaction than in delivering a monologue about the health benefits of Stronach beef, namely that it’s lower in fat and higher in omega-3 fatty acids. Mitchell nods along in agreement. The meat itself is a little leaner and slightly chewier than the usual cut, placing it a few notches above The Keg.
Later, Stronach holds court and reveals that in addition to being mostly vegetarian, he hopes the world stops eating meat one day because of its environmental impact. He is thinking very, very long-term, however—500 years, to be more specific. “My philosophy was, I’m going to produce food, and I think people will eat meat for quite a few generations to come,” he says. So he’s not building a cattle ranch to cement his legacy; he has faith that the Stronach family will continue to be powerful and influential for generations, with or without grass-fed beef. It’s the rest of us he’s worried about.
“Meat should be something you eat once or twice a week. You’ve got to look down the road. The world is a relatively small piece of real estate, so you have to be very careful to create a environment or else we all disappear. Not overnight, but over thousands of years,” he says. “Thousands of years is not that long in man’s history.”
This article first appeared on CanadianBusiness.com