Hard work, optimism and mateship have helped Viv Oldfield build a big life in the bush.
Story + Photos Nathan Dyer
A grey sky hangs over the red country south of Alice Springs and the crash of metal gates and cattle rings out from the yards at Deep Well Station. Leaning on a brown and yellow Tanami Transport truck, Viv Oldfield chats with old mates, trucking manager Patrick Oldfield and station manager Victor Snelling. He’s known cousin Patrick forever and Victor for nearly 20 years.
Five minutes later, the 59-year-old driller, cattleman, horse trainer and former jockey takes a call from Donny Costello, a mate and business partner whose friendship goes all the way back to the start of what has been a remarkable rise from Alice Springs schoolboy to one of the country’s most successful outback businessmen. Hanging up, Viv recalls how he and Donny first worked together to make a buck backing racehorses Donny trained.
“Donny would pick out a few horses and me and my brother Craig would go in with him to buy them,” Viv says. “Donny would train them and we’d try to line them up for a punt and hopefully make a bit of money out of them.” Fast forward 40 years and he and Donny, along with Donny’s wife Colleen, have a pastoral partnership covering 2.8 million hectares across four stations and about 45,000 head of cattle. It’s a common theme of his success: work with people you trust. “People say partnerships rarely work, but I’ve had the greatest partnerships with people I’ve known,” Viv says. “I think if you’re mindful and considerate of the other person’s position and you’re not greedy, and if you do them a favour, don’t add up the financial cost of that favour, just treat it as a favour, I can’t see how it can’t work.”
Although much of the Oldfield mob is strung out on stations along the Birdsville Track, it was here, in the dry mulga scrub of Deep Well, that Viv’s grandfather Vivian made his start after moving from Longreach, Qld. Viv, himself, spent his early years at nearby Orange Creek Station, owned by his parents Ron and Georgina until the mid 1960s, when drought forced them to sell and move the family of seven into town. “Mum was a teacher and a seamstress,” Viv says. “And between her and Dad they had five jobs to bring up us five kids.”
As the family worked to rebuild, disaster struck again: a house fire destroyed everything they owned. “We ended up living in a shed on a dirt floor for two years. But Mum laid down hessian bags for a carpet and we all stayed in there and it was pretty good,” Viv says, with a humility common to those who’ve made something from nothing. “We were a happy family, and I suppose what we didn’t have we didn’t miss, because we didn’t know much about it.” Through it all, Viv’s father always remained positive. “He was philosophical that you are dealt your cards, whatever they are, and you just have to handle them the best you can.” It’s a lesson Viv has carried through life. The benefits of hard work is another.
Leaving school after year 9, Viv worked as a tyre fitter and apprentice butcher before heading bush to jackaroo, eventually falling into drilling. “I came into town for a couple of weeks off and my brother Craig was working on a drill rig with Gorey and Cole, and he said one of their offsiders had pulled out so I should come out and give them a hand,” he says. Aged 18, Viv started sinking bores for $180 a week across the Top End and the Kimberley, often away for months at a time. He’s remained involved with the rigs ever since.
Over the next 10 years Viv worked his way up from offsider to driller and finally to operations manager of the Alice Springs company. In 1988 he did a deal with owner Malcolm Holt to buy the Gorey and Cole business. “I thought it would be good to try to build something up for yourself.” But the banks were not convinced a 30 year old from Alice Springs could make a go of it. “The ANZ wrote me a letter telling me I wouldn’t have the business acumen or the knowledge and capability to ever run a business successfully,” Viv says.
The only bank to offer a loan was Esanda, at a rate of 21.5 percent. Even then, they wanted more collateral than Viv could offer. Once again, mateship saved the day. “A bloke called Mick Ashton, who I was mates with, said he had a house in Brisbane and if I wanted to I could take a mortgage on that.” Esanda agreed to the loan and Viv promptly signed over half the business to Mick. “Because without him I wouldn’t have been able to buy it.”
This story excerpt is from Issue #117
Outback Magazine: February/March 2018