World beats path to Kiwi's door

EYES HAVE IT: Angela Payne holds a sheep's eye up for inspection. Behind her, Agri-lab staff are dissecting eyes to remove optic nerves, retinas, lenses and corneas for medical use.
EYES HAVE IT: Angela Payne holds a sheep's eye up for inspection. Behind her, Agri-lab staff are dissecting eyes to remove optic nerves, retinas, lenses and corneas for medical use.

Sheep's placentas look like boiled cabbage and smell like a hearty meat soup, but the world's cosmetic industry has gone gaga over them. Well, maybe not gaga. Make that Posh.

Victoria "Posh" Beckham's reported use of a face cream made from Kiwi sheep's placentas sent a stir through the world media a year ago and gave Waipukurau businesswoman Angela Payne a brief taste of fame.

She contracts farmers to collect placentas and send them to her factory in the small Central Hawke's Bay town to be frozen or freeze-dried before being shipped to cosmetic and health food manufacturers in Japan, United States, Canada, Malaysia, Germany and other countries.

Does it work? She offers a porcelain- smooth pink cheek for inspection. "I'm using it and I'm 47. Do I look all right?" she asks.

Since starting Agri-lab Co-Products in 1999 she has been riding an ever-growing wave of demand for placentas from sheep, horses and pigs and glands incised from the animals' brain, eyes, pancreas, liver, spleen, ovaries, thyroid and pituitary gland.

The placental amnion membrane is used as a beauty face mask and the placenta's amino acid concentrates are in dietary supplements. The glands, depending where they come from, go into drugs to treat degenerative disorders such as multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer's disease, to medical devices such as heart valves or corneal patches, or to dietary aids.

Her business' growth has been meteoric - from turning over $50,000 in her first full year to now bringing in $1.3 million - but she remains firmly grounded in the rural community, putting aside two or three days a week to her great love of horse trekking and riding cross- country with the local hunt club in pursuit of hares.

The solo mother of three sons, Payne is a former vet nurse who settled in Waipukurau after a divorce. She contracted to vets and farmers and took on short- term work for companies involved with embryo transfer and parasitology.

When one company was taken over by another that was not interested in "co-products" - the then-minor business of finding uses for unwanted animal parts - she inherited two clients.

She began by renting spaces in meat works and dissecting glands from carcasses, but when demand quickly escalated she knew she had to build her own factory.

The sudden growth in business coincided with an upsurge in property values. The 3ha block of land she had bought with her divorce settlement's half share of a cow herd two years earlier was now worth three times its original value.

Using this new-found equity, she built her own packhouse and installed equipment. "And then, the contracts started to flow," she says. There's still wonder in her voice, 10 years later, at the unexpected swiftness of it all. "I didn't have to go looking for the work, it came to me."

It came from pharmaceutical and nutraceutical companies responding to a surge in demand for natural, chemical- free cosmetics and dietary products. Clean and green New Zealand, with its vast store of healthy farm animals was an obvious source.

The flow of work turned into a torrent. The first seven years went by in a blur. When she paused for breath in 2010 and went to a trade fair in Hong Kong, worried that the income to pay for new equipment might not be out there, she was swamped with orders.

Fuelling that demand was her move into placentas. The afterbirth from humans and other animals is a rich source of protein and hormones, mainly estrogen and progesterone.

Most manufacturers are careful not to make inflated claims about their products but interest continues to climb, helped along by such revelations as Beckham's face cream.

Demand for placentas has grown so much they are now 80 per cent of Agri- lab's business.

She collects placentas from pig farms, horse studs and sheep farmers in the North Island and a company in the South Island collects sheep placentas there for her. The ewes give birth behind an electrified wire, the wire is moved, revealing fresh pasture and the ewes and their lambs move on, leaving the placentas behind.

She supplies each farmer with a storage freezer and a management programme to ensure the sheep are healthy and drug-free.

The placentas are sent to her factory where they are thawed, washed and trimmed and frozen or fermented and boiled to go into a freeze-dried powder or a serum. The boiling produces a strong meat-soup smell.

Drying is becoming more popular and the placenta is commonly exported as bulk powder or in capsules for diet supplements of amino acids to relieve stressful lives.

Payne admits to taking these, too. "It works for me," she says simply.

Her biggest recent expense has been two dryers. The first, in 2010, cost $200,000 and was 10 times bigger than she needed. But it quickly became too small and a second was bought for $230,000 last year. Already, that is also proving insufficient and she is contemplating buying a third, $500,000 dryer.

It has not all been smooth sailing. She lost $200,000 of product in a Hamilton coolstore fire in 2009 and her profits took a two-year hit. But demand did not lessen and the company has bounced back.

However, while export volume has grown the high US dollar exchange rate has stalled income. She says she has learned to live with the high rate and bases her income projections on a New Zealand dollar value of US85c.

One of the unexpected benefits of running her own business is a latent affinity for accounting. "I didn't know I had it," she says. "I think I would have enjoyed being an accountant - you need a combination of attention to detail and awareness of the bigger picture."

She enjoys sitting down during the day to go through her accounts. This "number-crunching" keeps her finger on her business' pulse, she says. At night, she is busy emailing her clients as their business days begin.

Her advice to budding small business owners is to understand the numbers.

"If you're going to get it wrong, get it wrong in a good way - underestimate the income and overestimate the costs."

Although working out of sight on a back section in a small New Zealand town, she is the world's biggest supplier of animal placentas. National recognition is slowly coming - she won a regional business innovation award in 2010 and last month won the Fly Buys Making it in Rural Award for businesses run by members of Rural Women New Zealand.

In her acceptance speech, she spoke of following the "Goddess principle". "That means every woman in business should treat herself as a goddess. I come first - my health, my sleep, my family come first. It's about saying no to people who demand too much of your time. It means I've been able to devote time to myself and my business and made sure I haven't got tired, run down and stressed - the things that pull businesses down."

One of her mottos is, "It doesn't all have to be done today."

Profits from the business have gone into local property. She owns 14 houses and three commercial properties and as their values have increased she has used the equity to buy more or to put into her business.

Being single has turned out to be a business asset, she says. It has meant no- one else has been involved in making decisions. "It's like walking across the Grand Canyon on a beam. I have my eyes fixed ahead and there's no-one saying, 'It's a bit far down there, watch out you'll fall, there's a wind coming up'."

The future is mapped out. She has a succession plan in place, with oldest son Michael, 20, ready to step in once he has completed a Massey University business studies degree. Thomas, 16, and Conner, 12, are also keen to follow him.

"There's room for all three boys," she says. "There's heaps of untapped opportunities that I haven't had the time to explore. They can go to trade fairs and find them. If I did that now I'd be swamped with orders I couldn't handle."

The Dominion Post