I HALF expect Jan Cameron not to turn up to our planned interview at Hobart’s Blue Eye restaurant, given her tendency not to return calls or respond to messages. But there she is, a glass of wine in hand and an enormous, lethargic boxer-cross sprawled on a dog bed beside the table. Tszyu (named after Australian boxer Kostya Tszyu) and her owner are welcome regulars, judging by the friendly familiarity of the waitress at the waterside seafood restaurant near Cameron’s apartment.
I shake off my preconception, based on Cameron’s reputation for reclusiveness, of someone prickly and unapproachable as she greets me jovially and pours me a glass of the Native Point pinot gris she is drinking.
“I find wine sort of lubricates my brain,” she says, which is music to the ears of a journalist hoping to get an insight into the mind of one of Tasmania’s most polarising business figures.
To further break the ice, I ask Cameron how she came to be Tszyu’s “human companion”, as she calls herself. She was changing a flat tyre on the Tasman Highway near the Lake Leake turn-off when Tszyu, a scrawny neglected pup, wandered out of the bush.
“She’s coming on 14 and she’s a grumpy old bag like I am,” Cameron says.
At the time of our interview, the Kathmandu adventure-wear founder is in the midst of a bid for Australia’s largest dairy enterprise, Tasmania’s Van Diemen’s Land Company. The farm sale has been bogged down in legal wrangling for months and has just turned political ( HERE ). A number of independent federal MPs have jumped on board, arguing the company should be sold to locals, rather than the leading Chinese bidder, despite it having always been foreign-owned.
Cameron, 63, is unfazed by the way she is perceived and has little desire to defend herself, although she does object to suggestions she “shut down” the Triabunna mill.
“Something that is really misconstrued is that I shut down the Triabunna woodchip operation. It is just not true,” she says. “Gunns closed that down. Gunns failed. Why? Because they were trying to sell a commodity product into the world market with dropping prices.”
Cameron and Wood bought the mill for $10 million in 2011, after Gunns had ceased operations at the site because of a collapsing woodchip market ...
“My approach is to sit on something, wait for the right timing and then, when you feel the planets align, you do something.”
Cameron says the planets have finally aligned for action on the dilapidated Silver Sands at Bicheno, which occupies a prime waterfront site but has been closed since last year. She has engaged Hobart architects Poppy Taylor and Mat Hinds to design the refurbishment in collaboration with a European architect, whom she refuses to name.
Later I leave a message on Wood’s mobile, seeking his response to some of Cameron’s comments about Triabunna. When he phones back he is fired up, not so much by what Cameron has said but by what he calls the political interference with his Triabunna plans.
“Jan and I get on just fine,” he says. “We had a bit of a falling out but we get on. We’re both realistic, we both have a history of making commercial ventures work. The Government of Tasmania has a history of f—-ing things up.”
His fury is over the parliamentary inquiry into the sale of the Triabunna mill, which was the State Government’s indignant response to the once-key forestry asset falling into the hands of environmentalists. After summoning witnesses, including Wood, the inquiry committee concluded the Government should get on and support his plans.
Last year, Tasmanian baby food manufacturer Bellamy’s became a billion-dollar company on the back of soaring demand from Asia. Cameron invested $5 million in the company and walked away with $36 million when it listed on the ASX in the middle of 2014.
“Bellamy’s is now worth $1.3 billion,” Cameron says. “I’m not saying VDL can rise to such stratospheric heights but Tasmanians have to look at something like that. They’ve got to look at the strengths of what a brand can do.”