Growing her career organically

00:27, Apr 03 2012
Michelle Glogau
Home grown: Michelle Glogau, chief executive of BioGro, says the organics sector is much broader than people usually think.

It was Dr Michelle Glogau's love of horses that helped kickstart her academic career which lead, in a round-about way, to her current job as chief executive for organics certifier BioGro.

When she grew up in Crofton Downs in the 1970s there was a nearby farm where she could ride her horse and with her general fondness for animals, she thought veterinary science would be a good fit as a university course.

Alas, her Onslow College examination results weren't exactly what Massey University required for vet studies, so plan B was to study agricultural science at its Palmerston North campus.

''I really liked animals and agricultural lifestyles, and I thought agricultural science would be a good fit.''

That was until she spent a couple of summers working on farms in various backblock areas. It was interesting work, she says, but she didn't appreciate the isolation, so it was time for Plan C.

She transferred her studies to Victoria University to study a BSc in botany and zoology and that lead to an honours degree.


''I really enjoyed the botany. That really clicked with me, and I found my grades improving.''

It helped that Peter Stevens, then boyfriend and now husband (and chief executive at GS1 New Zealand) was also a studious person.

''Romance and study went together, fortunately.''

She studied seaweed for her honours project and then she and Mr Stevens got University Grants Commission scholarships to Auckland University for PhDs, his in genetics, hers in plant physiology.

She says while many PhDs are purely academic, her study of a red algae had both academic and commercial perspectives, because it was being grown as a food source for paua farming.

While Dr Glogau says getting a PhD can be a ''long, lonely haul'', on the plus side, it certainly improves problem solving and it opens a number of doors as well.

After finishing her studies she did a variety of jobs, working as manager for the Auckland branch of The Number Works maths coaching school and spending a couple of years as a technical manager for Watkins New Zealand looking after its consumer gardening section. About then she became pregnant with her daughter, Dani.

''That probably sowed the seeds about thinking about chemical use. Until then, I had great fun trying out all the new products, but then I started to reflect on the appropriateness of exposing myself and my baby to pesticides and insecticides.''

Her interest in organics was deepened further when, after a stint working for six ''fantastic'' years at the Consumers Institute, as well as having her second daughter, Juliet, she ended up as a project manager at Standards New Zealand.

One of her major projects there as a standards project manager, was working with stakeholders in the organic sector about what actually was meant by the term ''organic''.

''I put my hand up to work on this and it was a really challenging project. Against the odds, it seemed, we managed to get consensus and the first national standard for organics in New Zealand was published in 2003.''

She says people involved in organics are usually passionate about the subject and have plenty of opinions they aren't afraid to defend. Her way of working out an acceptable standard was to make sure all the key stakeholders were involved, that everyone had an opportunity to be heard and to get a good chairperson that allowed this to happen.

The experience of successfully guiding a controversial standard through to 100 per cent consensus gave her a depth of knowledge of the industry so, a couple of jobs down the track, it was suggested she join BioGro, which is a leading certifier of organic produce in New Zealand.

At the time, the organisation had some issues with its systems and its new chief executive wanted someone to sort things out.

She contacted Standards New Zealand to find out who had managed the organics standard, and Dr Glogau became BioGro's project director, and later operations manager.

She says it was a tough introduction to the industry proper and there was plenty of work to do from day one.

One of BioGro's key jobs, apart from certifying an operator is an organic producer, is to ensure that New Zealand's producers can also claim to be organic in overseas markets.

Dr Glogau says the first six months were spent working on meeting accreditation requirements and requests for certifications before she could even start refining the system.

''We knew what we were doing was robust and thorough, but our systems needed better documentation and we needed to be more efficient.''

BioGro started in 1983 and is owned by the New Zealand Biological Producers and Consumers Society, a not-for-profit, incorporated society and registered charity.

It certifies to a variety of organic standards operators who wants their product or service to be labelled organic.

It now has 10 people at its headquarters in Wellington, a worker in Australia and six auditors based around the country.

BioGro looks after about 700 clients, ranging from small operations only supplying vegetables to farmers market to large organisations running farms, processing plants and exporting to major markets.

Dr Glogau says this shows the breadth of what organics covers.

While people often think it is about not using artificial pesticides or fertilisers, she says organics is more holistic than that. It means working with the environment and that includes ensuring animals are treated humanely and staff have good working conditions. It also covers industries from cosmetics to primary production and processing through to manufacturing and retailing.

She says BioGro is philosophically committed to organics rather than just being a certification provider, but understands if producers just want to be certified organic to get access to various markets or get a premium price for what they produce.

However, she says an interesting thing often happens to them.

''Over time, they've become philosophically aligned with organics. It's quite interesting watching people change over time from a purely commercial perspective to taking on board the benefits of organics.

''For instance, they'll say, 'We're quite pleased our staff are happier because they don't have to deal with toxic sprays'.''

In 2006, the chief executive job came up and Dr Glogau put her hand up again and has been at the helm since then.

She is proud of BioGro and how it operates across a number of international markets and lobbies for the organic sector.

It's also a job where a good chunk of diplomacy helps.

''Often people will ring up and chew your ear about something even though you might not have the ability to change things, such as the requirements of a foreign country's regulation.

''As well, I deal with a lot of people who are passionate about things such as GMOs [genetically modified organisms]. People have high expectations about what BioGro can do because we've been around for years and we've been a leader in the organic sector, so they look to us to take action.''

When not at BioGro, Dr Glogau lives with her family in Silverstream, in a Chapman-Taylor house they fell in love with when they moved down from Auckland.

It's a place where they grow their own vegetables and have a few hens, and Dr Glogau has been perfecting her homemade sourdough bread.

''It's very interesting from a scientific perspective.

''It's all about the different micro-organisms and temperature variances and what you feed the culture. I get to put my science hat on with that."

Fairfax Media