From humble start to flying first class
John Brader had no clue he was sitting alongside royalty in a flight to Hong Kong many years ago.
A convivial chat revealed the distinguished passenger was no less than Sir Angus Ogilvy, a British businessman better known as the husband of Princess Alexandra of Kent, a first cousin of Queen Elizabeth II.
Brader was sipping champagne at the time and Sir Angus, his interest piqued, inquired about his choice of refreshment.
Two bottles later and the pair were better acquainted, says the Wanaka man who is due to retire on May 4 after 21 years of service as the general manager of processing at the Alliance Group.
"I sat next to him in the aeroplane.
"It was a big DC10 in the bubble which was the first-class lounge.
"I was drinking champagne and he asked what I was drink- ing.
"There were two bottles on board and we drank both of them.
"He was a character and I was just a commoner."
This close contact with royalty made up for the airline temporarily losing his baggage.
Flying first class was Borthwick International policy, but Brader's start in the meat industry came from more humble beginnings.
Born and raised in Masterton, he suspected his builder-father pulled a few strings in the neighbourhood where managers of meat company Thomas Borthwick & Sons lived, given that he struggled to recall much of an interview process.
He was signed up with the firm on January 5, 1965, in a management cadetship seldom seen nowadays.
"In those days companies put a lot of investment in training. It's still done, but the people don't stay, whereas in my era people were more inclined to work through," recalls Brader.
As a 17-year-old cadet, he worked his way through nearly every position at the head office in Wellington.
For two years he helped with the recording by hand of paperwork in the various departments including accounts, shipping and products. It's hard to believe in this computer era, but each morning all stock passing through a plant was written up on a large card.
As part of his practical training he returned to Masterton to work in the now defunct Waingawa plant.
As a meat worker with a union ticket he became close to the inner workings of life at the freezing works and progressed through the butcher, fellmongering, rendering, offal and boning departments at the sheep and beef site.
"At times it got heated because I wanted to be a management person and I was a meat worker, but in return it was invaluable because I learned how the plant worked and understood the culture of the meat plant. That is important because a lot of senior people don't understand the culture of the meat plant when they make major decisions."
Senior management must have seen something they liked in the young man because he was promoted to assistant plant manager at 22.
Fortunately there was no age barrier as he had worked with the senior staff and there was a mutual respect. He was not one for strutting around as the boss, which worked in his favour.
When the plant manager became ill he was thrust into the position a year later, and in hindsight realises he was too young.
"That was a bit silly because I was young and I had to deal with strikes and industrial issues. The plants were forever having to deal with stoppages in New Zealand and that was stressful. There was no legislation for wildcat strikes."
Returning to the corporate office in Wellington much wiser of the intricacies of the meat game, he was transferred to Feilding in the mid-1970s as the North Island manager for the Tiki Bacon Company, a subsidiary of Thomas Borthwick & Sons.
This was another invaluable chapter in Brader's working career because he learned about adding value to meat through processing bacon and smallgoods.
Part of the cadetship training involved work overseas, and this was the precursor to a jetsetting lifestyle.
In 1979 he shifted with wife Rosemary to the London office, marking a "fabulous and most exciting part" of his life.
For the international division he was the by-products manager, dealing with sales of Australasian- sourced skin hides, lamb pelts, casing and meat and bone among other products.
"That was a fabulous experience because I was constantly travelling around the world, and more particularly Europe, and frequently went over the Iron Curtain. As a young fella I didn't fully realise the excitement of travelling to Yugoslavia, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Eastern Europe."
His diplomacy skills were developed dealing with government officials. In his late- 20s, he revelled in this lifestyle for several years until New Zealand beckoned again.
An opportunity arose to manage the since-closed Longburn freezing works in Palmerston North and the experience in a "hotspot" plant embroiled in industrial issues in the early 1980s didn't appeal. So he applied for a job advertised with sketchy details, seeking someone with meat plant experience. The vacancy turned out to be for a job in the value-add business by a German company.
The bad news was he didn't get the position, but the good news was that he was referred to Waitaki International who were looking for a group meat manager. Brader's international experience and understanding of meat plants was recognised and, moving to Christchurch, he became the marketing manager of beef.
Later the company took over his old firm, Thomas Borthwick & Sons, and he became marketing manager for general products with overseas travel again part of the role.
Waitaki was taken over by his current employer, the Alliance Group, in the early 1990s and he was given the opportunity of taking redundancy or transferring from Christchurch to Invercargill.
He was not overly enthused by the idea of shifting, but he and Rosemary agreed to take a look and bumped into the general manager of the Southland Times. The newspaper man recognised Rosemary, a journalist, and a job was offered on the spot, leading them to life in the far south and he developing a soft spot for the southern city.
For most people in the meat industry the media remains a complete mystery, but Rosemary's work at the Wairarapa Times, Evening Post and The Press gave him an insider's perspective and he remained friends with journos such as the late Mike Robson.
Brader took up the position of marketing manager for beef offal and casings until he was approached by Owen Poole, now chairman of the group, and offered the position of general manager of processing in March 1992.
"I didn't really want the job because I preferred the marketing side and [Poole] told me to think about it and on Monday I took the job. That was 21 years ago."
Over a varied career in the meat industry, Brader has seen many changes, perhaps no more so than in the sheep and lamb chain.
There was a time when 56 butchers would process about 3000 animals a day "if lucky" and today about 30 butchers performing the same job get through 4000 animals.
"The guys hit 100 per cent of that tally most days, whereas when I started they would do about 80 per cent. The technology has been the big thing and by putting in mechanical aids to remove the skin, that took out a lot of the hard work out. [The industry] inverted the chain and tipped them over to remove the skin and that did away with the intensive labour."
Food safety and hygiene had always been up to international standards, but has become extremely sophisticated today.
More cuts have been developed to maximise returns from the meat carcass although Brader says a common misconception can be that further processing automatically extracts more value.
"There is no point in further processing something if we are not adding value. Once a upon a time there [was more leather making] but now there are only two to three firms because there's more money selling green skins to China because their labour is cheaper."
Casings were once put in tubes and are now sold as "green runners" for sausage skins to be made in China because it's more profitable to do it that way. Similarly, lamb pelts which once went to North America transferred to Turkey and then China.
Brader struggles to recall anyone working for 21 years in the same senior position in the meat industry.
"I don't know if that's something to be proud about or embarrassed, but I have seen many changes."
Restructuring, he admits, has not always been pleasant, but there has been pleasure and pride in rebuilding the Dannevirke site into an export plant and buying and remodelling the Levin plant. In his time he has seen a venison plant added in Sockburn and Makarewa and the Sockburn plant close with venison processing added to Smithfield.
"If we can close a plant and put the same product in another plant we are reducing huge overheads. As stock declines we can't have plants running 40 to 60 per cent of full capacity and we have to have them at full capacity as much as we can."
While he has views on the future of meat processing, these will remain his own into retirement.
Brader is approaching 66 and has found it hard to leave an industry he has has been so deeply involved with for 40-plus years.
He's not putting any pressure on himself to map out a retirement plan and will enjoy his last month at work before spending more time in Wanaka, having commuted to Invercargill from there over the last 3 1/2 years.