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On the morning of May 18 last year, when Barry Irvin told his adult autistic son about his shock cancer diagnosis, there was poignant silence in the room.

The youngest of Irvin and his wife Harriet’s three children, Matthew Irvin cannot speak and has a limited capacity to communicate.

The then 27-year-old simply leant forward and gently touched his father’s forehead with his own.

“We don’t know what Matty did and didn’t understand. His needs in life continued to be his needs in life and for him I continued to play that role. Which helps with perspective. Having Matty in my life has meant it is hard to get overwhelmed by anything,’’ Irvin tells The Weekend Australian about the news that rocked the Australian dairy industry, when Bega announced that its executive chairman was taking leave to battle a serious illness.

For many years, the staff at Giant Steps, a charity that runs schools for autistic children in Sydney and Melbourne which Irvin established and now chairs, had wrestled with Matthew’s discomfort with physical contact.

They eventually taught him to show his father affection by bowing before him and allowing him to plant a kiss on his forehead.

Now the six-foot tall Matthew still religiously practises the ritual. But the kiss from his father has been replaced by the touching of their foreheads.

Irvin says that since a young age, his son has also viewed his ­arrival in the household as entertainment, irrespective of his ­father’s demeanour or physical disposition.

Without fail each evening when Irvin set foot in the door, Matthew brought his father his shoes — and then socks if he didn’t get his way — signalling his wish to go for a walk and see the world outside the walls of his home and the Giant Steps school.

“Matty is entirely defenceless,’’ Irvin says.

“He needs me and struggles to understand the most basic of interactions. There is a limited group of people he feels safe with, and I am one of those people.”

That morning last May, as Irvin was bracing himself to undergo life-threatening surgery two days later, his son again trudged away to his bedroom of their home in leafy Lane Cove on Sydney’s North Shore and returned carrying his shoes.

And like many times in his life when it was the last thing he wanted or needed, Irvin still resolved to go walking.

It wasn’t the first time the man known as a legend of the Australian dairy industry, and credited with bringing the iconic Vegemite brand back home after 90 years of American ownership, had gritted his teeth and soldiered on during his eight-month ordeal.

Now he reveals the crucial support of the man who helped him orchestrate the Vegemite deal in early 2017, when Bega paid a whopping $470m to buy most of US food giant Mondelez’s local grocery and cheese businesses.

The brash and ruddy-faced David Williams is founder of corporate advisory firm Kidder Williams, which has carved out a special niche in the food, agriculture and beverage industries.

Barry Irvin and David Williams,speak to Sue Neales at the Global Food Forum in Sydney in 2019. Picture: Hollie Adams for The Australian

Barry Irvin and David Williams,speak to Sue Neales at the Global Food Forum in Sydney in 2019. Picture: Hollie Adams for The Australian

Irvin and Williams have known each other for more than two decades, and for the past 12 years Williams has been Irvin’s most trusted business confidant.

In the dark days of 2019, as Irvin lay gravely ill in a hospital bed in a ward of Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital, Williams became a lifesaver.

“David never let me push him away. He never rang and said ‘So sorry to hear about your condition.’ Rather he would ring and say ‘What are you doing, you malingering bastard? I am coming to Sydney next week, do you want to have lunch or dinner?’ ” Irvin now says, sitting alongside Williams in the latter’s favourite Chinese restaurant, Melbourne’s famed Flower Drum, to talk about his battle for the first time.

“And I would say ‘OK’ because that allowed me to feel normal. It was a means of escape.”

Irvin had been told by Meg Barnett, his oncologist at The Kinghorn Cancer Centre in Darlinghurst, that he could indulge in the odd beer or glass of his favourite pinot or chardonnay during his cancer treatment.

Three months into it, when a swath of anti-cancer drugs had leached into every inch of his system, Williams rang his friend to say he had booked dinner for two at the suave Metisse modern French restaurant in Potts Point. There would be no no-shows.

Irvin admits he felt as sick as a dog, but dragged himself out of bed and caught the train across town to the restaurant. When he sat down at the table, Williams ordered him a ginger-infused cocktail, promising: “They tell me this is good for you.”

A few hours later they had torn through more than just a few cocktails. The next day, Irvin had the worst hangover of his life.

“I thought I was going to die. It lasted for three days,’’ he now says with a cringe.

But Williams stresses his lunch and dinner invites with the odd alcoholic indulgence were not some perverse attempt to see his friend enjoy what could have been his last few months on earth.

“We have had several boozy lunches and dinners in Sydney, including when he wasn’t supposed to be doing booze. My attitude was to continually force him to think he is coming back. I said to him once ‘you are a lazy bastard, put your suit on and get back into the office!’ ” Williams now barks.

“I thought he was going to get through this. I genuinely thought if I could get him back to work sooner, it would be better for him. That is why I went hard.”

 

Difficult conversations

Barry Irvin’s father Alan died of bowel cancer when he was 58 years old. His son had been set on a career in banking until his father’s death compelled him back to the family farm in Bega.

Three decades later, Irvin junior was diagnosed with the same disease only weeks after he celebrated his 58th birthday, and as his 90-year-old mother, Joan, lay ill in hospital fighting her own personal cancer battle.

On the afternoon of May 18 last year, Irvin flew from Sydney to his home town of Bega — where his family still runs the 600ha dairy farm — to visit his mother at the Hillgrove House nursing home.

Amid the drone of the Saab 340 turboprop’s engines in the cabin, he braced himself during the hour-long flight for what would be one of the most difficult conversations of his life.

Irvin and his mother, who he affectionately calls “Joanie”, had enjoyed a robust but special relationship. For decades she cared full-time for Irvin’s only sister, Jan, who passed away in 2015 at the age of 56 after battling Prader-Willi syndrome all her life.

“When Mum was sick, it was hard. But I knew it would break her heart to tell her I was sick. I have always set myself up as the person she didn’t need to worry about,’’ Irvin recalls slowly — with eyes that grow increasingly bloodshot as he speaks.

“She had told me when she was sick that, at 90, she was happy to go. ‘Don’t revive me if something happens to me’ she said. And the hardest thing for me was when I went and told her, she immediately told me ‘I have to be OK until I know you are OK’. I was agonising about the fact that my mother was almost forcing herself to stay alive until she was certain I was OK. That probably upset me more than anything else because I felt I was a burden for her.”

For his return to Sydney, Irvin eschewed a quick plane trip home, preferring to do the six-hour road trip on his own in a brand new bottom-of-the range Subaru Impreza, purchased a day earlier by his long-time personal assistant Faith Behrens to replace his bombed out Subaru WRX.

It was an act that came to characterise his cancer battle.

For every chemotherapy session, Irvin would drive himself from Lane Cove to Darlinghurst.

Upon leaving after three days of treatment, he would often lightly scratch his new car against the pylons in the carpark as he struggled to get his left foot to register his brain’s insistence that it push the brake pedal.

“I lost my fine motor skills and I developed a strategy to wait for someone to come to leave the carpark and I’d ask them to put the ticket in the gate for me,’’ he says.

He was determined to remain active. But isolated.

“The task was reasonably big, given the level of pain after the surgery and the level of chemo that was going to come. I am not someone who wants to be cared for. I am happy to help others,” he says.

“My way of coping with this — even with my family — was to isolate myself and concentrate on the task. I told them ‘I don’t want ­sympathy, the thing that will upset me most will be if you guys get upset!’ I told them: ‘The best way you can help me is to leave me alone’,” he says.

Irvin battled deep feelings of guilt, especially as his now 33-year-old daughter Deborah wanted to stay close and constantly sought his assurance that he was going to be OK.

Her father had always been her rock and was seemingly invincible.

Irvin’s 31-year old son, Andrew, who runs the family’s dairy farm, was more pragmatic.

“When I told him about the cancer he looked at me and said ‘right, I have 1000 questions’. He rang me back the next day and said ‘oh I’m sorry, I hope you are OK, I should have displayed more care rather than focusing on the practicalities’,” Irvin quips.

Harriet Irvin was not surprised by her husband’s stoicism. He asked that she not attend any of his appointments and, through her pain, she respected his wishes.

“She was understanding of it but it was hard on her,’’ Irvin says.

“Once we were in a routine, she was terribly supportive of the routine. She would do what I needed to be done. But one of my learnings is — it is harder on the people around you than it is on you.”

In Irvin’s bubble of doctors, drugs and sleepless nights, David Williams represented normality. As did another of Irvin’s closest friends, former Westpac executive-turned Commonwealth Bank director Rob Whitfield.

Irvin met Whitfield when the latter was running Westpac’s institutional bank. They hiked the Kokoda Trail together, and they were set to walk from Florence to Rome last year before Irvin was struck down.

“Rob would often say, ‘mate, do you want to have lunch? Lots of lovely people wanted to do nice things, but it was David and Rob who knew me well enough to say ‘he needs to separate himself’,” Irvin says.

Another source of solace and inspiration became Giant Steps itself. Irvin was told by his doctors to remain physically active through his treatment, so he started a four-day-a-week weights training program and walked regularly.

Sometimes he would attempt Sydney’s famed Seven Bridges Walk around the harbour, but never made it when he was sick and got told off by his family and doctors for trying.

On many Fridays he would attempt the 12km walk from his home to the Giant Steps school in Gladesville and back.

“I knew I was visiting a caring place, where the staff would always greet me with a smile, sit me down and tell me some lovely stories or ask for some input on our latest fundraising submission and then try and talk me out of walking home,’’ he says of Giant Steps.

“I always left there feeling better than when I arrived, and I always felt like the caring culture we had worked to develop was there, not only for our children and families, but anyone that came through the Giant Steps door.”

Giant Steps director and former Ellerston Capital CEO, Glenn Poswell, says Irvin’s dedication to Giant Steps — which has also included participating in countless charity bike rides — reflects his ­desire for children with autism and those on the spectrum to live as normal lives as they can.

The charity has received $10m in federal funding to develop its Sydney school, and three years ago launched in Melbourne at the Kew Synagogue.

Williams helped write the business plan for that expansion and has raised more than $500,000 to assist the move.

“Giant Steps is world class. They are doing amazing things and changing people’s lives,’’ Poswell says. “Barry has incredible passion, amazing drive. He is incredibly competitive and he is also very ­focused when he needs to be. When he was sick, just being around the environment that Giant Steps offers gave him confidence. It is sanctuary, really. There is a real feel-good factor when you are there.”

The Giant Steps story also carried over into Irvin’s surgical treatments. St Vincent’s renowned colorectal surgeon, Rohan Gett, had attended the annual Giant Steps Ball for more than a decade before he met Irvin for the first time on May 17 last year. He hasn’t left his side since.

The charity had taken the son of one of Gett’s best friends under its wing. He said to Irvin at the end of their initial consultation at St Vincent’s: “You looked after the child of one of my best mates. So I am looking after you.”

 

Back to business

On January 29 this year, Irvin ­attended his first Bega board meeting in nine months, fittingly at Vegemite’s iconic Port Melbourne factory.

Earlier in the week, when he ­arrived in Melbourne, one of the staff at the Windsor Hotel — his favourite resting place for many years before his illness — cried tears of joy when they saw him.

For Irvin, the meeting was straight down to business.

“I said to the board, ‘I was sick and now I am better!’ ” he says proudly.

Williams, who attended the meeting — and most of the others during Irvin’s absence — knew how much he had been missed by everyone at the company.

“Sometimes you don’t realise what leadership people contribute to an organisation until it changes,” he says.

“Even I didn’t realise, and I know him better than anyone. The board just wasn’t the same without him there,’’ he says.

“I have an excellent relationship with all the board, I know them all personally and have a long history with a number of them. Without being disrespectful to anybody, for me it was normality restored.”

Irvin and Williams had first met at a conference for rural co-operatives in 1994 when the former was a full-time dairy farmer, and they stayed in touch over the years that followed.

They got closer after Irvin ­became non-executive chairman of Bega Cheese in 2000, but only signed a formal mandate to ­engage Williams’ firm when Irvin became executive chairman of the company in 2007.

Irvin oversaw a deal to for Bega to buy Vegemite in 2017. Picture: Stuart McEvoy for The Australian.

Irvin oversaw a deal to for Bega to buy Vegemite in 2017. Picture: Stuart McEvoy for The Australian.

Williams was integral to Bega’s float on the Australian Securities Exchange in 2011, as well as a swath of corporate transactions over the years.

“The fundamental difference between our relationship and what normally happens in corporate Australia is that he is executive chairman and has been there for 20 years. I am an adviser who is on a retainer and I have known him for more than 20 years,’’ Williams says. “We have this consistency of view and history about where the business is going strategically, operationally and where the opportunities are.”

Irvin is clear that Williams’s advice is always put through an independent process and structure within Bega before it is accepted.

“We have a relationship that has its foundations in business that folds over into a personal trust,” Irvin says.

“There is also an intellectual dynamic between us, if you like.

“We do understand each other and we do understand each other’s boundaries. So when we are trying to work out what is next, it doesn’t take us weeks of meetings. It takes us hours. He understands all my shareholders, whether they are corporate shareholders or farmer shareholders.”

They have also had their share of vigorous debates. “The last thing he wants to hear from me is ‘Barry, what do you think?’ So if I have a preferred position on something, I am going to put it strongly,” says Williams, who regularly refers to Bega in the terms “Us” and “We”.

“That doesn’t mean I am right all of the time.”

Irvin might have lost the feeling in his hands and feet and lost all the fingerprints from his hands as a result of the chemotherapy treatment, but Williams says his friend has more energy than ever, which is a testament to his resilience.

“Someone said to me the other day ‘how is Barry?’ I told them ‘He is out of control!’ I prefer him when he is just a little bit sick,” he says with a wide smile.

Irvin says he will never forget the words of his oncologist Meg Barnett late last year as she handed him his test results.

After delivering her medical spiel, she closed his file and told him what she really thought.

“I am just so delighted because every time you came to see me you put on your best clothes and pretended all was fine when I knew it wasn’t,” she said.

“I had hit you so hard with everything. And towards the end I was worrying whether it was going to work.”

Her candidness was empowering for her patient.

“I understand doctors have to give you the official line. But the unofficial line from her meant a lot to me,’’ Irvin says.

Barry Irvin admits he’s always been a fatalist. He’s never been religious. So even in his darkest days, he was never afraid of dying.

For a moment he recalls his famed bike training on the winding roads of the 1240m Brown Mountain in the Great Dividing Range between Bega and Canberra over the past decade.

It is legend among locals that after his ascent, Irvin regularly went faster than many cars on his trip back down the mountain.

“I used to say to my children and my wife: ‘I am going to die a tragic and spectacular death, ­potentially off Brown Mountain’,” he says with a wide smile.

“So when I got cancer and I told them and they were all bit sad, I told them: ‘This isn’t going to kill me. Because this is neither spectacular, nor tragic.’ ”