The Canadian businessman has built a fast-food empire, but has grown to love the slower pace of superyacht life, as he tells Charlotte Hogarth-Jones
Jack Cowin clearly has a keen nose for business. Born in Windsor, Ontario, he left Canada for Australia in 1969, aged 26, with profit in mind, having convinced 30 investors to lend him $10,000 each so that he could establish a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise down under. The original investor got his money back within ten years, and the equity at net book value would be around $25 million today. Cowin now owns Hungry Jack’s, the Burger King franchise in Australia, along with Competitive Foods Australia, a business that includes more than 450 stores along with a food-processing division. He’s also an investor in the Lone Star restaurant chain in Canada and the chairman and largest shareholder in Dominos Pizza Enterprises, an A$7.5 billion market cap company operating 2,700 units across Australia, Japan, and Europe. At the time of going to press, Forbes estimated his net worth as $2.5 billion. It should come as no surprise, then, that Cowin’s first yacht was conceived purely as a great business opportunity, rather than a hobbyist’s fantasy.
“It was in the late 1990s, and I’d become friends with Olympic sailor Denis O’Neil,” Cowin explains. “The Australian dollar had fallen to an all-time low of 49 cents at that time, and so he came to me with a business proposition – he would build a boat in Australia, and then sell it elsewhere in either US dollars or euros, and with the currency exchange we’d make a fortune,” he says. “I didn’t have anything to do with it [the build]. I was just the financier.”
Alas, the golden opportunity wasn’t quite as it had seemed. Most of the parts for the yacht had to be imported from the US, including the engine, and as costs mounted the potential profit shrank. Three years later, in 2001, the yacht – a 43.6-metre beauty named Silver Dream – was finished and freighted to Europe. It attracted an offer within the week. “We weren’t going to get rich from it, but it was a relatively attractive offer,” Cowin admits. “I’d had this idea that we’d spend a year or two floating around the Mediterranean before we’d find a buyer, but O’Neil said: ‘No. It’s a decent price. Let’s accept it now.’” Cowin, however, couldn’t bear to part with the yacht so soon, and so had no choice but to buy O’Neil out.
“Suddenly, I owned a boat!” he laughs, “with no experience, no nautical culture that some people grow up with, nothing.” His family lived near Lake Erie when he was a young child, but the water was always just “in the background”, he says, and while his father had once bought a small “20-foot runaround”, Cowin had long since left home by then.
What was it, then, that caused this savvy businessman to allow his heart to get the better of his head? He blames the America’s Cup.
Cowin knew businessman Alan Bond, who owned Australia II, the yacht that won the 1983 cup for the Royal Perth Yacht Club. “We were one of the sponsors and so I got invited to spend a week in the South of France on his boat. That was a whole new experience for me, and I loved it. It was a magnificent boat and I just thought it [the trip] was fantastic. I had that memory until here we are, 15 years later, sitting on a boat in Europe that I’ve just bought and don’t know what to do with.”
Thankfully for Cowin, help was at hand in the form of Phil Stevens, who was working on Kerry Packer’s yacht in Sydney at the time. Today, Stevens captains Cowin’s larger 60-metre yacht Slipstream, while Steve Smith now helms his first boat, but at the time Stevens was the guiding hand that led Silver Dream around the Maldives, the Caribbean and Thailand. “I fell in love with this terrific way of seeing the world and doing it with friends too,” says Cowin.
A sense of freedom obviously appeals to him – in fact, it’s a large part of why business has always appealed. “From aged about 10 I always had little things going… the conventional paper routes, cutting lawns, shovelling snow, that kind of thing. I wanted to have control over my own affairs,” he says.
“My father worked for a big company – Ford – all his life, and what I saw was that when you work for a big corporation, you don’t really have any control. I think that stayed with me.”
Cowin went on to work as a door-to-door salesman selling plants to farms (“the greatest education I ever had”) to go to university, and then did a stint in insurance, before packing up his home and taking his wife and six-month-old baby to Australia to start his new KFC enterprise from scratch.
Today, even in the choppy waters of Covid-19, business is doing well. “We’ve been very fortunate in that the two things that have boomed during this time have been home delivery and drive-through,” he says. It’s a good time to be in fast food, and Cowin has a vision for the future too.
With the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Australia, he’s set up a company that has raised over A$100 million to build a factory to produce a plant-based meat substitute – called V2 – made from grain legumes. “Our view is that the meat industry is not going to go away,” says Cowin. “But the cow is a very inefficient producer of protein – there will be an estimated 10 billion people in the world by 2050, and we just won’t have the space to be able to operate the existing agricultural system and produce the food required. This will be a lower-cost way of feeding people, and it tastes good too.” In a blind test between the v2 product, made by the company v2food, and real meat, Cowin says he wasn’t able to identify which was which.
“There are companies in the US called Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, and their values are eye-watering,” says Cowin. “We’re kind of in the beginner stage, but we’ve got products that we think are quite competitive. The initial results show that this is a strong growth area that we’re backing, and hopefully it will continue.”
Clearly, Cowin is a man who knows how to launch and oversee a successful project – be it a burger or a boat – and his businesses span the globe, too. Was building yacht number two as painless as it seems? His answer is yes – not that he didn’t have his reservations going into it. “Slipstream was built by a French company called CMN, and they were new to the yacht business. Prior to this they’d only built larger, military vessels.” Cowin was understandably wary of the risk. “I was nervous. Very nervous. Particularly when people said: ‘French? You’re not going to be able to communicate.’ But I can tell you, it was a very pleasant experience.”
More involved with the project than he had been with Silver Dream, Cowin had enjoyed “five years of romance” with yacht number one, and took an active interest in his new project, helped by the fact that the yard was also building the 60-metre Cloud 9 (now Ice Angel) for his friend, businessman Brett Blundy, at the same time.
Cowin and his wife Sharon were particularly involved with the interior of Slipstream, incorporating elements such as a 4.5-metre totem pole, a nod to the couple’s Canadian heritage that was carved in British Columbia by a Native American who Sharon had visited. The artist has also designed a totem pole for Buckingham Palace. There’s Aboriginal artwork throughout the yacht too, a nod to Australia, and the design process was “more about fun than practicality”. In the end “it all came together”, says Cowin, “and every time we go on the boat, we’re quite proud of it”.
Not that the couple have spent much time on board alone. “In 20 years, we’ve probably only had the boat to ourselves for a couple of nights,” he says. “Some people probably like the peace and quiet of their own company. But I get off on being around people that I like.” And so, when she’s not being chartered, Slipstream plays host to a whirling carousel of guests, including Cowin’s four children and their 12 grandchildren.
Coronavirus, however, has made them realise that they can’t use the yachts, currently based in Europe, in the same way as if they were based in Australia – it’s too expensive to keep travelling over, and at present, restrictions mean Australians can’t leave the country without special permission anyway. It’s prompted them to bring Silver Dream back to Australia, and Cowin is hopeful that she’ll still host plenty of charter guests too, as the market slowly grows.
Certainly, this once-hesitant owner is now a convert to the yachting lifestyle himself, with two beautiful vessels in his possession and a potential third on the way. “We had a close call at a boat show in the past 12 months,” he says elusively, “but as we progressed closer to getting the contract, coronavirus had just come in, so we just kind of put that on hold. I’m not sure whether I have a new boat left in me, but I may…”
First published in the December 2020 edition of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.SHOP NOW