Most Canadians don't know Jack Jack Cowin, that is even though he's landed on this year's Rich 100 at No. 84 with an estimated net worth of $446 million. Cowin, 63, has become one of the richest people in Australia by building an empire on hamburgers, pizza and fried chicken. Yet, it's unlikely most Australians know the Canuck origins of the man who is second only to the Golden Arches when it comes to fast-food outlets in their country, or that he keeps his Canadian citizenship making him one of our richest, as well.
Cowin, born in Windsor, Ont., but now based in Sydney, says it's as if he was “predestined” to build a life and fortune Down Under. His father, employed by Ford Motor Co., had been sent there for a work stint. When he returned, he told his son that if he were a young man again, that's where he'd start over. Cowin travelled down to Australia in 1968, when he was 26, and fell in love with the country. “It was February and it was warm,” he says. Meanwhile, back home in Toronto, where he had been selling insurance for four years with London Life, he knew it was freezing.
Looking for a business venture to establish roots in his adoptive country, Cowin settled on fast food after waiting in line for Chinese takeout in Sydney. There wasn't much else in the way of quick-service food in Australia back then, so “you didn't have to be an Albert Einstein to see opportunity,” he says. Cowin's first venture was opening Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets starting in 1969, financing the venture by convincing 30 Canadians to lend him $10,000 each.
In 1971, he brought the Burger King franchise to Australia though the rights to the famous moniker weren't available. He used his own name as a stand-in because it “just seemed to fit.” The Hungry Jack's business grew, morphing into Competitive Foods Australia and expanding into areas such as food processing. Until recently, Cowin even owned a stake in Stanbroke Pastoral Co., Australia's biggest cattle operation. He also controlled the Domino's Pizza franchise in the country, taking that company public last May. As well, he has been savvy when it comes to investing. Cowin cashed out handsomely a few years back on an investment in Channel 10, an Australian TV station majority-owned by Canada's CanWest Global. In 2003, he bought Torbreck, one of Australia's premier boutique wineries, out of bankruptcy and turned it around.
Cowin has an ownership stake in the Lonestar restaurant chain in Canada, a way to keep connected with his native country. And he's quick to add he's grateful to the Canadian investors who gave him his Australian start back in the '60s. “If those 30 people had not backed me, I'd probably still be shovelling snow somewhere.”