Merino man shakes up primary industries

New Zealand Merino CEO John Brakenridge.
New Zealand Merino CEO John Brakenridge.

In 1995, John Brakenridge had an acute case of ‘new guy’. 

He’d been hired by the board of Canterbury-based wool marketer New Zealand Merino to breathe fresh air into a stale sector.

But the high country heartlanders were wary.

‘Which part of the South Island are you from?’ they asked the bloke who grew up in Auckland. ‘You look a bit young, don’t you?’ they said to the 34-year-old. ‘How long have you been in the wool industry?’ It was his first day.

Although he had a track record in the primary sector, serving as marketing manager for produce company Cedenco Foods in the late 1980s and partnering with the New Zealand Dairy Board in the Middle East, he was unmistakably a wool industry outsider. 

“I came in and I was high energy and enthusiastic, but the establishment was so stuck, whether it was the producer boards at the time or the [merino wool] trade. It was all brick walls. They didn’t want to entertain anything new.”

Gradually, however, Brakenridge began tearing down those walls, firing up a collaborative approach that has brought about substantial change in the merino industry.  

He’s since spied opportunities for change through collaboration in other primary industries, and late last year coralled primary sector industry leaders into a boot camp at Stanford University.  

“A lot of the low-hanging fruit in business is gone and markets are a lot more complex, so the need to collaborate is far higher,” says Brakenridge.

“I think [collaboration is] absolutely essential; it’s unlocking the potential in this country. It’s really hard to change, but it’s so much easier if we’re sharing insights. I enjoy the excitement of watching people come together and to see an energy come from that and to see actions and outcomes.”

Brakenridge and New Zealand Merino brought about transformation by blowing open the merino industry’s secretive supply chain — from farmers and wool buyers to processors, manufacturers and retailers.

For growers, the company put solid ground over the rising and falling tide of commodity prices, creating a sexy sales story around Kiwi merino wool. It started replacing auctions with forward contracts with clothing brands like Icebreaker and Designer Textiles, John Smedley in Europe and Smartwool in the US.

New Zealand Merino — which began as the farmer-established organisation Merino New Zealand — was recognised at the 2000 New Zealand Export Awards for, according to award publicity, working with key partners to grow export earnings from $56 million in 1998/1999 to $96 million in 1999/2000.

Today New Zealand Merino transacts about 85% of New Zealand’s merino wool, with turnover of more than US$85 million, according to a 2011 Stanford University Graduate School of Business study that valued the New Zealand merino market at US$100 million. 

So how do you lead the transformation of an industry? It takes energy, vision and determination.

“I think in a leader people want clear vision, which I say is an aspiration. What are we all working towards? When you’re with people, they’re either radiators or drainers. With radiators, it’s your energy, excitement and tenacity,” says Brakenridge. 

“When you’re bringing about paradigm change, it’s your confidence. For all the people around you, it sounds easy to say, ‘let’s do things differently’, but all the messages they’re getting back are, ‘don’t do it differently, don’t change, you’re crazy.’ That’s a big problem for New Zealand’s primary sector, because we’ve got so many incumbent industries, there’s pain in change.”

Canterbury Chamber of Commerce boss Peter Townsend recruited Brakenridge to Cedenco in 1986, looking past his relative youth to see his “hunger, passion, enthusiasm, strategy and principles”. 

“He was always smart. In those days I used to employ people by the twinkle in their eye and John had a twinkle in his eye.”

Townsend went on to join the New Zealand Merino board less than a year after Brakenridge became CEO. Brakenridge was the man to bring about a much-needed revolution, Townsend reckons, but it was a rough ride.

“John was a very lateral thinker and was always testing the status quo. He was determined that there was a completely different model that could be introduced to selling merino wool, and he stuck to it. Against significant odds — including a huge amount of resistance from people who had vested interests and saw the new way of doing things as a threat to their place in the industry — he persevered.”

Brakenridge is also a renowned collaborator. 

He built New Zealand Merino in partnership with merino clothing brand Icebreaker. Brakenridge’s brother and sister-in-law, Brian and Fiona, were farming merino sheep on a remote island in Marlborough’s Pelorus Sounds in the mid-1990s, when Brian developed merino garments that were picked up on by founder Jeremy Moon.

Icebreaker was an early adopter of direct contracts with merino growers — signing its first in 1997 — and last year offered growers a supply contract worth $66 million.

Brakenridge has relentlessly pursued new ideas since the pair’s first whiteboarding session just before New Zealand Merino started, says Moon.

“John’s very good at asking questions and he’s got a very outcome-driven style. He’s constantly searching for, ‘how do you get it to work?’ He then engages people around solutions instead of problems. We often have check-in points where we think we’re going to be talking about something and John’s got a whole new plan.”

The cooperative approach has continued over the years. New Zealand Merino worked with Silver Fern Farms in 2011, applying its slick marketing and forward supply contract tactics to merino meat with the Silere Alpine Origin Merino premium brand joint venture. 

A year later the two CEOs — Brakenridge and Silver Fern’s Keith Cooper — dreamed up a strategy to create a new level of primary industry togetherness.

“I took Keith up to Stanford [University, where Brakenridge completed post-graduate marketing and talent management studies] to listen to [professor] Baba Shiv. Keith and I were walking down the road afterwards and we said to each other, ‘could we get all of New Zealand’s primary sector, or at least the people who are aligned in their thinking, to come together?’ I said, ‘okay, we’ll give it a go’.”

Brakenridge got on the phone to primary sector power players in industry and government, and by last August 25 of them were locked in a boot camp at Stanford, nutting out a strategy to take on the world.

“By the end of the week there, people were bouncing off each other, there were relationships. It was a small industry that might have sat next to each other on planes or something, but we’d never got to know each other. We were looking at collaborative deals, sharing market knowledge and insights.”

Brakenridge reckons leadership is at its best when it’s more about ‘we’ and less about ‘I’.

“You’ve got to have that vision and the justifiable confidence. Then leadership becomes plural rather than singular. In the boot camp there might be an idea and the facilitation, but what’s emerging is the leadership is coming from the whole group, it’s not just from any one individual.”

Whether it’s an international retailer or a government minister, people latch on to Brakenridge’s vision, says Moon. 

“John’s got a really boyish enthusiasm and he’s got an incredible eagerness to learn, so you can’t help but be involved in whatever project. You know he’s commercially sound, but he’s also very passionate.”

Townsend says Brakenridge was a great facilitator for the merino sector, but it wasn’t about being ‘Mr Nice Guy’.

 “He was pretty staunch and he knew the way things had to be done. If you didn’t agree with that, he wasn’t that interested in being involved with you because he knew the direction the industry needed to take. He wouldn’t be regarded as your classic benign facilitator. He was very comfortable with creating relationships with people who were on his page.”

Now 51 and a father to three boys, Brakenridge can’t see his tenure at New Zealand Merino ending any time soon. He grew up around farms when south Auckland was a rural outpost and knew from the age of seven that he wanted to study agriculture and commerce.

He’s deeply immersed in the primary sector — he was on the advisory panel of the government’s Primary Growth Partnership and sits on the board of Landcorp Farming — and you get the sense he won’t quit as long as there are opportunities to make our primary industries smarter and its exports more valuable. 

To do that, he knows he needs a “coalition of the willing”.

“It’s amazing how willing people are to talk to you. Baba Shiv talks about two types of people — type one has a fear of making a mistake, type two has a fear of missing out on an opportunity. People will talk to you if you want to listen and learn and grow and shape and all of those things. That becomes self-selecting — if they don’t want to talk to you, they’re either really busy or they’re not the right people to talk to.”