An award-winning meat company steps into the limelight, Andrea Fox writes.
Even in a region noted for the often irksome modesty of its businesses, Waikato's Greenlea Premier Meats has been standout shy.
It's a pretty safe bet that several hundred guests at the recent Waikato Business Excellence Awards dinner turned to each other when the company bagged the supreme title and said: "Who?"
It was unusual enough to see a meat processing company at a business awards podium - to hear Greenlea is 20 years old next year was even more surprising.
Fact is, it has been growing into one of the region's biggest companies and the New Zealand meat industry's most significant players right under our noses on busy Hamilton city drag Kahikatea Dr and in Morrinsville, where it is the town's biggest employer.
This year, with 400 staff, turnover heading for $300 million and regional competition heating up with industry heavyweight Silver Fern Farms opening a new plant in Te Aroha, Greenlea reckoned it was time to make a bit of noise, and entered the awards.
The family-owned company is the modern face of a multibillion-dollar export industry that has traditionally resisted outside attention and kept to itself.
It's a tough, take-no-prisoners, highly competitive industry and its past leaders were not dubbed "the hard men of the meat industry" for nothing.
Greenlea has always counted itself different from the rest.
It is a younger company than most, a niche market player, nimble, innovative, technology savvy and if its workers strike they must do it in a whisper - so its debut into the mainstream of business awards perhaps isn't entirely surprising.
And while managing director Tony Egan, 46, says "I'm a meat man" in that tone used by generations of committed meat men before him, he's a far cry from the gruff, dour industry leaders of even 10 years ago.
The meat industry is in his blood - he's the nephew of Greenlea founder Peter Egan who set up the company to support the Waikato dairy industry, and his grandfather Jim Egan was a meat baron in Gisborne - but Tony Egan has degrees in English and classical history, three-quarters of a theology degree - he entered a Catholic seminary - and has taught high school English.
He also has an MBA, which he says is "invaluable" but it's the arts studies that taught him "how to think".
He's the only member of the Egan family in Greenlea management. His cousin James is chairman, and cousins New York-based Simon and Auckland-domiciled Caroline are directors. Caroline's youngest son works at the Morrinsville plant.
Hamilton lawyer Phil Harris of McCaw Lewis is an independent director.
Gisborne-born Egan says Greenlea was his "first main job" because its opening coincided with the end of his university studies. He recalls he turned up in a suit and was promptly ordered to the slaughter-room to work.
"I'm not big and muscular like the others so I used my wits and suggested we start a marketing department."
He set that up and worked at Greenlea for another eight years before joining Affco as chief executive. Then it was on to AssureQuality, a state-owned enterprise specialising in agricultural quality testing.
Egan says he's back at Greenlea because he wants to be part of a family business and likes the Waikato.
That family culture is the bedrock of Greenlea's success and growth, he says.
"It's a family business with very strong family values. I'm not being glib when I say we operate on team spirit - even more so at Morrinsville because it's a smaller community.
"Our core values are one team, integrity, innovation and operational excellence."
Farmer loyalty is such that "we joke we are more co-op than a co-op".
Greenlea's territory is the greater Waikato (it also has a couple of buyers in Northland) and its business is beef processing. It does not handle sheep.
The company has about 6000 suppliers who provide it with more than 180,000 animals a year. This year's target is 200,000 head and it's building a $2 million bobby calf processing extension at Morrinsville, after entering that side of the industry this year.
A Halal-licensed operator, Greenlea specialises in prime meat cuts and manufacturing meat, exporting about 90 per cent of its product to more than 40 countries, spanning the United States, Asia and Europe. Customers include restaurant chains and McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy's and Woolworths.
The company has invested close to $40m in upgrades and new technology in the past five years.
Though the meat industry is seasonal, Egan says Greenlea tries to operate year-round except for a month-long annual maintenance shutdown.
The company has three key drivers, he says: animal welfare; worker welfare and religious (halal) compliance.
Cattle heading for bovine heaven at Greenlea travel up a oesophagus-styled raceway without being provoked and stressed, following a natural inclination to follow their noses in search of an opening.
Immediately on finding that opening they are electrically stunned and are oblivious to what comes next.
Egan says a recent multimillion-dollar upgrade at the Morrinsville plant includes a cattle race which incorporates the thinking of the autistic American doctor Temple Grandin, an animal scientist and behaviorist.
Greenlea is now in consolidation mode after a period of major investment and expansion, Egan says.
"We have a number of projects on the go for the year ahead which we believe will shore up our long-term strength in the industry. "We're not interested in growth for growth sake, we're interested in becoming the best we can possibly be in the meat industry."
The company has a strong balance sheet and will continue its focus on staff development, plant investment, and "doing the basics properly", he says.
Egan's also looking forward to devoting more time to the Greenlea Foundation Trust, established a year ago by family shareholders to receive a percentage of the meat company's profits for charity. The trust supports six major charities including St John and Waikato's disabilities support organisation, Gracelands.
The most visual is the busy Greenlea rescue helicopter, serving the rugged Taupo and Central Plateau regions. The trust has committed $600,000 over three years to the service, to which farmer suppliers, its main users, can donate proceeds from their Greenlea returns. The trust, chaired by Greenlea founder Peter Egan, also offers education scholarships.
Tony Egan said the awards entry judging process was "very rigorous" and rewarding.
"We have learned a bit too, we've strengthened some of our processes as a result, and it's been great for networking.
"Our preference has been to keep a low profile. But we are part of the fabric of the Waikato now. We wanted to make the region more aware of what we are."
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