Hanging on to the old cow’s tail
By Lee Gunderson
Bill Perlich has lived a rich and varied life in the cattle business of western Canada. He was born and raised at Iron Springs, Alberta in 1946, the son of William and Katie Perlich. His father was a farmer at Iron Springs, Alberta and the older brother of Joe and Tony Perlich. Joe and Tony founded Perlich Bros. Auction in 1967.
Looking for work, Bill was drawn to Lethbridge and a job as a “knocker” at Canada Packers. At the time he met Ed Reid and Mac MacLean, among many others. His roots go back quite a ways in Alberta’s livestock history. He never left the livestock industry for other types of work. He loved cattle and cattle people, he adds, “This is a people business, you have to be truthful and be able to make and keep deals and look people in the eye at the end of the day. I have dealt with many of my customers for decades. And I don’t second guess what people are thinking or what the market is going to do.” Bill’s friends and customers number in the thousands after a career spanning five decades. Bill is very direct when he speaks. He just looks you right in the eye and says what comes to mind. His candor is refreshing.
So after a year on the processing floor at Canada Packers, Bill went to his uncles’ just purchased land and helped build the original Perlich Bros Auction facility. That work lasted from 1966-67. The next three years (until 1970) saw Bill stay with the firm sorting livestock. Looking for change, Bill ventured to Calgary. He put in one year as a brand inspector operating out of the Calgary Stockyards office. Then when Bryan Page left J.C. Wheatcroft (Calgary order buying firm) for a job running XL Beef/Packers for Neil McKinnon, Bill took over his position as field rep for Wheatcroft.
Bill has known change and rapid change all his life. He adds in passing, “I see our range is getting smaller. We’re limited in the livestock industry to the fact recreational land and small acreages are reducing the big operations, especially around Calgary, and into the foothills. My opinion is that we are not in a herd building phase in western Canada, yet. Low oil prices offer hurt for some in Alberta, but I think livestock and agriculture in general will benefit. Young people will not see as rosy a long-term future in petroleum resources anymore and will probably go home and reinvest their time and money into the family farm. While we are sure to face ups and downs, the future for livestock in this province continues to look positive.” And Bill should know.
Like Jim Wilfley, Bill Perlich is not the first one at a meeting or sale to have his photo taken. Indeed he does not even have a photo portfolio from the past decades. “I have just lived my life and done my work. I never thought once that what I did had any significance beyond the deals I had in hand and the customers whose trust I meant to keep. Most of what I do is off the radar if you know what I mean and I have never sought publicity.” Indeed, Bill thought long and hard before he agreed to talk with ABM. Bill mirrors the cattlemen and industry he serves; not high key at all. Just a steady performer out to do a job.
But things change and then they change after that. It was this past summer that he noticed some shortness of breath and after some remarkable events he evaded by-pass surgery and wound up with two stents in his heart. A doctor, shortly after the stents went in, certified he is fit and good to go for the foreseeable future. More than ever Bill watches his diet. But, let’s get back to his job at J.C. Wheatcroft.
Bill stayed with that firm for eight years until he joined Fort MacLeod-Highwood Auction in 1982. “At the time FMH had the Pincher Creek Auction Market, Highwood Auction and Fort Macleod Auction. Brant and Ken Hurlburt, Bob Dyck and Harvey Bourassa were the operating partners. In retrospect the years from 1982 to 2000 were among the best years of my life. Our cattle industry was big, the livestock trade flourished and times were good. They were the best years to be in this industry and I enjoyed my role at FMH as it was come to be known. We worked on principles of honesty and integrity.” Bill reminisces about cattle people, famous deals, names and herds by the dozen. His mind is keen and his recall vivid as he tells the other side of the livestock order buying business, the side most people never hear about. Some stories are funny, some brutally painful.
Time marches on, as Graham Ellis once said. And in the year 2000 Fort MacLeod-Highwood Auction was sold to Allan Lively. Southern Alberta Livestock Exchange ensued and a new commission structure was instituted. Bill, being true to his principals, continued his livestock fieldwork as usual. And it was in 2010 that he decided to move back to Perlich Bros. Auction in Lethbridge. He adds, “There are two people I have great respect for in this business, they are Bob Perlich and Bob Dyck, they are the best of the best and have the freedom and stature to be brutally honest. I like that in the people I do business with. But my point is this: I believe in live cattle sales, at public auction, with live buyers at ringside. No other method of price discovery is as effective for both buyer and seller. I know all the touted advantages of other methods but I have thrown my hat in the ring at Perlich Bros. because of the historical validity of the live auction method. Ken Hurlburt had the same opinion.”
Bill recounts the years selling the OH Ranch cattle for Bud Maynard and Doc Seaman, as well as the fall feeder sales held at Fort St. John. And, he talks of some of the big names that became wrecks in the business. His eyes get intense and he laughs at some of the outlandish things that happen in the cattle trade.
One thing Bill is certain of is uncertainty. Through our luncheon the cell phone in Bill’s pocket kept ringing. Business for today and tomorrow. He’s got a lot of miles behind him, but still, thankfully, a long, long way to go.