The Vestey Group (Vestey Group Ltd) (formerly Vestey Brothers) is a privately owned UK group of companies, comprising an international food product business (that includes meats, dairy products, frozen vegetables, bakery products, food services and trading) and significant cattle ranching and sugar cane farming interests in Brazil and elsewhere. Union International, the former core of the Vestey family business, went into receivership in 1995.
William Vestey (later Lord Vestey) and his younger brother Edmund (later Sir Edmund) established the Vestey empire in 1897 from a family butchery business in Liverpool. They were a pioneer of refrigeration, opening a cold store in London in 1895.
The Vestey brothers were initially sent to South America in an attempt to make their fortune because the economy there was booming. They started by buying game birds and storing them in the cold stores of American companies before shipping them to Liverpool.
These early activities soon developed into importing beef and beef products into the UK, which in turn led to them owning cattle ranches in Brazil, Venezuela and Australia and their own meat processing factories in Argentina, Uruguay (Frigorífico Anglo del Uruguay), New Zealand and Australia (in 1914 Vestey Brothers built a meat processing works at Bullocky Point, Darwin, Australia, but closed its operations in 1920 after the Darwin Rebellion).
In 1915 the brothers, after being refused a request for income tax exemption made to David Lloyd George, moved to Buenos Aires to avoid paying income tax in the UK. The family later administered the business through a Paris trust that enabled it to legally avoid an estimated total of £88m in UK tax until the loophole was closed in 1991.
It is said that by 1930 Vesteys had 30,000 employees worldwide and a net value of £300,000.
To ship the meat back to the UK the Vesteys created their own shipping company, the Blue Star Line. Their first two ships (Pakeha renamed Broderick, and Rangatira renamed Brodmore) were bought in 1909, and the company registered on 28 July 1911 in London and Liverpool with a capital of £100,000.
The line owned a number of refrigerated ships (Reefers), and business later expanded to countries as far apart as Egypt and China, carrying passengers in addition to various foodstuffs. Blue Star was finally sold to P&O Nedlloyd for £60,000,000 in 1998, although most of the refrigerated ships were retained by Vestey's Albion Reefers subsidiary, which later merged with Hamburg Sud to form Star Reefers, finally sold off in July 2001.
In the middle of the 20th century, Vestey companies dominated the UK wholesale and retail meat trade, selling refrigerated and canned meats, as well as leather and other by-products. Having saved cash reserves for the purpose, they entered into a price war with the US-owned importers to largely drive them from the UK market. Vestey developed the country-wide Dewhurst the Butchers chain, which was eventually disbanded in 1995 in the face of increasing competition from the supermarket chains. Dewhurst were the one of the first to introduce the innovation of glass windows in its butcher's shops – previously meat had been exposed to the elements and pollution. The business also owned the Downsway supermarket group, which was based in East Anglia and had 80 stores at the time of its sale to rival Fine Fare in 1978.
By the middle of the twentieth century, the Vestey Group had acquired a large amount of grazing land in Australia, and used many Australian Aboriginal people as cheap labour - the Aborigines were paid less than a quarter of the minimum wage of non-Indigenous workers and sometimes only received salt-beef, bread, tobacco, flour, sugar and tea instead of a salary. In 1966, this sparked the Gurindji strike at the Vestey-owned Wave Hill Station, as a consequence of which Gough Whitlam's Labor government forced the Group to return part of its land to the indigenous owners in 1973.
In Venezuela in 2005, state troops occupied a cattle ranch owned by the Vestey Group, under a 2001 land use reform programme instituted by the Hugo Chávez government. In March 2006, the Group reached an agreement with the Venezuelan government, ceding two ranches to the state while retaining ownership of eight.
Sam, Lord Vestey, born 19 March 1941, is the great grandson of the 1st Lord Vestey, and the current head of the family and Chairman of the Group. He owns the 6,000 acre (24 km²) Stowell Park Estate at Stowell Park, Gloucestershire, valued at £15,000,000 as well as a villa in Nice and a Townhouse in Belgravia.
The Vesteys endowed the Vestey Professorship of Food Safety and Veterinary Public Health at the Royal Veterinary College, University of London.
- The Blue Star Line was sold to P&O Nedlloyd for 60,000,000 GBP in 1998.
- Blue Star Ship Management Ltd
- Dewhurst butchers - sold to Lloyd Maunder 2005, subsequently put into administration 2006
- Union Cold Storage Company