Craig Hickson started working in the meat industry in 1970 when he was still a student. Today, he’s able to boast a long list of career achievements including founder and MD of innovative Hawkes Bay meat processor Progressive Meats and a slew of directorships, including a seat on the board of Beef+Lamb NZ.
But he’s no boaster. Thankfully, Federated Farmers recently decided to publicise his many feats by showering him with accolades at a gala awards evening held in Rotorua.
What kinds of attributes does a person need to succeed in agri-business these days?
Similar to those required in other fields; - the ability to think clearly, focus, solve problems , make sound decisions, work hard, have tenacity, get on with people and specific industry knowledge. The NZ meat industry does have a combination of peculiar aspects which take considerable time and experience to understand. This is why it’s very rare for people to come into the industry from outside and do well at senior management level. The main but not exclusive peculiarities are things like competing to buy and sell, requirement to sell all parts of the carcass in natural fall, a disassembly process with multiple products, weather influence, seasonal fluctuations, lags of a biological production system, perishable product, long distance (and time) to market, and variable foreign exchange overlay on returns.
What has been Progressive Meats’ greatest contribution to the industry?
We were at the forefront of building and operating small scale plants, achieving throughput via shift work, and delivering competitive labour costs. While being ‘small’ in itself was not a panacea – three of the six plants built in the late 1980’s went broke - when well-managed, they debunked the myth that plants had to be big and in the country. We demonstrated that economies of scale could be outweighed by other factors.
Innovation in farmer supplier commitments /contracts was a pioneering initiative in 1987. Farmers were incentivised/encouraged to supply lambs to specific criteria in nominated numbers and period of delivery – all novel at the time.
How does a processing company like Progressive flourish despite the fluctuations of the marketplace?
We operate philosophically as part of an ‘association of specialists’ – our part is the contract slaughtering and boning of Lamb and Venison for Export on behalf of specialist marketers. That means we don’t deal in fellmongery, tannery, rendering, trucking, fitting, electrical or refrigeration – we contract those specialist services in. So, we neither benefit nor suffer directly the fluctuations of the market place.
What is the biggest barrier to growth in the meat industry overall?
Achieving net returns on-farm that make producing beef and lamb more attractive than other land-use options. Change will involve a combination of improved net sale returns and productivity gains and cost reductions in both producing and getting product to the consumer.
Is there a case for more cohesion in the meat industry?
There are existing examples of collaboration within the industry such as The Lamb Company in North America for marketing, and Ovine Automation Ltd for automation development in processing.
Other opportunities exist, and I expect we will see some of them evolving out of the work which is continuing following the publication of the Red Meat Sector Strategy. Particularly within the Primary Growth Partnership initiative currently being formulating by the major meat companies and chaired and facilitated by Beef+Lamb.
Is there still plenty of scope for a vibrant wool sector – or has its time come and gone?
It’s never too late. Net wool returns can be improved, but we need a significant contribution to assist making sheep farming a competitive land-use option at the margin, if the continuing downwards trend in sheep production is to be arrested. Multiple initiatives by many parties are required, including more efficient product routes to the consumer, variations to existing and new uses, and sales mechanisms which clearly inform producers of desired wool attributes and rewards them for producing wool to these attributes.
Where to next for Progressive Meats?
Our mission is ‘continuous improvement’ in our chosen area of specialisation. That is slaughter and boning of lamb and venison for export, with beef to be added later this year.
This story originally appeared in Primary magazine. Click here to subscribe.