Profile Building

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Meaty matters

Meet the master of change  

A pioneer in meaty matters has left an indelible mark on New Zealand’s agribusiness landscape.  Most people talk about two certainties in life—death and taxes. In Craig Hickson’s estimation add one more to that list; change. In the world of meat those who can’t, or won’t, manage it are long gone.  

“The key in our industry is innovating and adapting to change. Things will always evolve and you must have the flexibility to adapt. You have to be an optimist to be in the meat industry. Those that aren’t certainly aren’t involved anymore. They may have had a try but they’re now gone.”

There have been more than a number of times in his life when Craig made the necessary adjustments to capture opportunities as they presented themselves. At high school he had the hankering that he would, one day, work for himself as his father had. Doing exactly what wasn’t initially on the agenda.  

At Massey University he originally signed up for a science degree. A grant from Hawkes Bay Farmers Meat Company changed his focus to food technology as did summer employment at their plant.    

After graduation he worked for the Hawkes Bay Farmers Meat Company for 18 months before joining the New Zealand Meat Producers Board. Thus expanding his knowledge and giving him a fuller perspective of the industry. To complement his food engineering qualification Craig achieved a BA in Marketing and Economics.  

His whole fascination with the world of business ‘cut and thrust’, in contrast, came from another source.  

“There was a television programme called The Power Game starring English actor called Patrick Wymark. It was about the world of big business. I was intrigued by the board room machinations and use of superior intellect. As in chess Wymark’s character was planning moves many times in advance. I thought ‘wow’ I wonder if I could ever be able to do that?”  

The power of protein

Though the stakes, and sectors, were different from the television show, the New Zealand meat Industry has always been big business at least by New Zealand standards. Albeit it one that was long overdue for a shake up. From the outset Craig set about looking for new ways to improve the age old process of bringing meat to mouths. Colleagues, and even a financial advisor, voiced caution. The roadside, they said, was already littered with the carcasses of people who have gone before you.

Ignoring the doom and naysayers, Craig and his wife launched Progressive Meats. He saw an export opportunity packing frozen lamb chops and using what was then a new ‘skin pack’ technology. His initial idea was to ‘piggy back’ his production off an already operating, and licensed, facility. He got close to signing deals with two parties only to see them to go to what they perceived were greener pastures.

Undaunted Craig made contact with a Hawkes Bay cold store business that was in the middle of its own building project. After discussions the investment syndicate agreed to build him a premise for lease adjacent to the cold store. This way he could run his operation and achieve synergies with a cold store operation just through the wall.  

This was the first of many times he had to push the boundaries. Smart financing options, technological innovation, and building strategic relationships along the supply chain, has seen his empire expand. Today it is an integrated business involved in venison, lamb and beef farming, procurement, slaughter, processing, value adding and export.  

Starting off with only six employees the company and extended interests now has over 2000 people with 100% of its production bound for markets in France, the United Kingdom, Germany, other EU countries, China, the United States, Canada, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Russia, India and Hong Kong.  

“There’s an old saying that says that necessity is the mother of invention. Our resources were scant so we had to innovate to get going. That gave rise to a model that was not common in our industry. We persevered with it and it has served us well.”  
“The reality at the start was that I couldn't afford to own the product, I couldn't afford to own the land or the premises. I could just scratch enough money together to purchase some equipment. I was offering a service rather than selling a product. Now we’re involved in enterprises which do own the product and do market the meat and co-products. This is my major focus.”  

The critical elements

Success in the meat industry requires three critical elements that need to be sought, managed and planned for. These are having a reliable supply; a mechanism for converting what comes off the farm into a form someone can consume; and customers. You need also to understand how markets might change and how you respond.”  

One of the more significant developments in the industry he helped develop was the move from shipping whole carcasses overseas for processing to ‘adding value’(cutting) at source.  

“The best market, or best price for every individual cut, doesn’t reside with any single person in any one part of the world. Take a lamb for example. The North American market will prefer French racks. We’ll send loins to central parts of Europe, shoulders to Japan, legs to the United Kingdom and flaps and breasts to China. Splitting the carcass up into portions, or cuts, before export has been a major contributor to improving our returns.” The same situation exists for beef export and, to a lesser extent, venison.  

For the industry, says Craig, the next change and breakthrough could come from finding the means of satisfactorily carrying a brand identity right through to the person who eats the product.  

 “First of all you’ve got retailers who don't want you to have a brand but use theirs instead. Meat, by its nature, is generally sold, cooked and consumed ‘naked’. Contrast this with a wine bottle that sits on the table where the country of origin, as well as the actual brand, is clearly visible. The next variable that we have no control over is who actually cooks the meat. The cut may be perfect but then spoiled if the cook isn’t competent.”

 “Overcoming this and having a relationship with people directly will produce all important feedback loops about consistency, service delivery, pricing and positioning.” Ironically for a food product trading off Brand New Zealand has a major disadvantage.  

“I’m quite convinced that when it comes to the eating experience our product will be at least as good as the local product. Yet for a variety of reasons New Zealand’s price positioning is generally below the domestic product”  

“Bear in mind that our supply history started as being a relatively affordable form of protein for a hungry Britain post World War II. That connotation still carries through. Supermarkets use our product to drive foot traffic by heavily discounting it often for less than cost. Over 70% of the lamb we supply to the United Kingdom is still used as discounted ‘bait’ to attract shoppers.”  

Another business pressure is securing enough productive land to ensure supply. In his Hawkes Bay home traditional beef and sheep farmers have been driven further into the hills with horticulture and viticulture—particularly vineyards, orchards, cropping—and dairying vying for the same soil. He takes all of this in stride. “Everything is always evolving and changing. Things are always in a state of flux with the one guarantee that it will never be a dull day.”

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