Earlier this week, Owen Poole officially retired as
chairman and as a director of Southland-based Alliance Group.
The straight-talking meat industry veteran talks to
agribusiness reporter Sally Rae about his lengthy tenure in the
Alliance Group's Pukeuri Freezing Works. Photo by Stephen
Owen Poole might have called time on his involvement with the
meat industry but he will continue to observe it with
interest from his Wanaka home.
For after an involvement spanning five decades, beginning as
an office boy and ending as chairman of the world's largest
processor and exporter of sheep meat, it is not easy to
completely log off.
''This industry draws you in. It's hard to get it out of your
system. You lie awake when you should be sleeping, thinking:
'How can I make this better?' Being chairman of a
farmer-owned co-operative like Alliance Group, with its 5000
shareholders, was a big task. For one, it required more
engagement with shareholders than being chairman of a listed
''Farmers felt they had the ability to pick up the phone and
ring me. They own the company, they feel part of it and they
want their voice heard. That's not a bad thing, as most of
their income is generated from transacting with the company.
''I won't miss the phone ringing, I won't miss the emails.
You let it go but you'll never forget the fact you were part
of it,'' he said.
Born in Riverton, in Southland, and from a non-farming
background, Mr Poole (66) had always planned to be a soldier.
But when his dream was dashed when he failed the medical test
due to allergies, he joined ''a different army'' - the meat
Fresh from leaving school, he started work in the office at
Southland Frozen Meat in Invercargill, where he described the
early years as ''tuition by exposure''.
He was back and forward from the company's corporate office
and its Makarewa plant, moving through the different
divisions and rising through the ranks to eventually become
chief executive in 1984.
But when the company was taken over by Challenge Meats, a
division of Fletcher Challenge, a disagreement in principle
over strategy triggered his resignation the following year.
He and his family moved to Wanaka, where they already had a
holiday home, and bought a bookshop - about as far removed
from the meat industry as you could get.
After a five-year hiatus, Mr Poole received a phone call from
Alliance's then chief executive Sandy Murdoch.
Southland Frozen Meat and Challenge Meats had morphed into
Waitaki; Alliance had taken over the South Island assets of
Waitaki and it had also recently taken over local meat
processing company C. S. Stevens Ltd.
Mr Murdoch wanted him to lead weekly meetings to enable the
merger. The position was for three days a week, for three
''I'm a bit slow. It took me 15 years full-time,'' Mr Poole
quipped. It was not an easy time. The company was in
financial strife and needed to be reconfigured, rationalised
and recapitalised, so difficult decisions had to be made.
The high point of his tenure with the company - he spent five
years as chief operating officer and then 10 years as chief
executive - was recovering from a ''pretty precarious''
financial position in the early 1990s.
''We were in reasonably dire straits, unloved by the world
really, banks, shareholders, employees. We had to do tough
stuff,'' he recalled.
The low point was making ''thousands'' of people redundant
and the impact, both financially and in human terms, of that.
In retrospect, the plan was robust and the only way to go.
But the implications were far-reaching.
''You certainly feel it ... it's one of the things you
carry with you. You're mindful of what you've done to people's
lives,'' he said.
More recently, there had been the closure of Alliance's
Sockburn plant in Christchurch and the shifting of sheep
processing from Mataura to Lorneville, with subsequent
effects on employees.
But the flip side of that was expansion of both sheep meat
and beef processing in the North Island, the doubling of beef
capacity at Mataura and a third shift at Pukeuri.
Mr Poole spent a decade as chief executive of Alliance Group
before retiring in 2005.
''It was time. Ten years was enough for me, enough for the
''We had good people coming through, they were ready. We had
a good executive team there - because it isn't about one
person. I felt it was time for me to do other things,'' he
It was ''circumstances'' that unusually brought him back in
2008, this time in a governance position as an independent
director, and subsequently chairman.
Things had got ''reasonably traumatic''. The previous
chairman John Turner and another senior director, Murray
Taggart, had been dumped by shareholders in a backlash
against low lamb prices, and the approach was made for him to
join the board.
Asked whether it was difficult to make the transition from
chief executive to chairman, he acknowledged it was very
different. He was always very aware the role of governance
was very different from that of management.
''It's difficult, once you have had your arms in it, to stand
back in a governance role. I was very conscious of that,'' he
A highlight during his time at Alliance included the
company's large investment into innovation to ''help farmers
lift the game''.
Such projects included the central progeny test, yield
grading, environmental management and environmental energy
projects, commercial DNA test development, research into lamb
performance and meat quality, the continuing development of
Hoofprint (a system for farmers to calculate their carbon
footprint), proof of origin and the deer progeny test.
Challenges in the meat industry were nothing new. They had
existed since its inception 130 years ago, he said.
During his time as chairman, there had been snowstorms and
drought in the company's supplier catchments, changing land
use, a world economic crisis and a higher New Zealand dollar.
Those events had been ''testing'' for the company's directors
Changing land use and shrinking livestock numbers,
particularly sheep, was not unique to New Zealand, but was
rather a worldwide phenomenon. Even the ''massive flocks'' of
Asia were shrinking.
But along with shrinking supply was a growing affluence.
Consumers were spending more money on meat protein as GDP per
Growing affluence and increased consumption should ultimately
lead to less volatility and a higher pricing structure, he
The degree of diversity of markets, in recent history, was
While the focus was now on China, Alliance Group had been
there for 20 years. The company was also now embarking on a
second-year programme exporting lamb to Brazil, tentative
steps had been made in India and there were also
''significant opportunities'' in other regions, including the
Middle East and Eastern Europe.
It was well positioned in traditional markets, like Europe
and North America, but was reducing its high reliance on
In recent times, the state of New Zealand's red meat industry
has been a topic of discussion and debate.
In March this year, 1000 farmers gathered in Gore to
overwhelmingly support a mandate for radical change.
That was followed by meetings throughout the country and the
formation of the Meat Industry Excellence Group, which is
pushing for reform. Last week, chairman Richard Young
acknowledged finding the solutions to implement change was
still the major barrier in reaching the group's goals.
Mr Poole understood the frustrations of farmers but, as
owners of about half the industry, they needed to have some
confidence in the people managing it on their behalf.
''There's good people involved in these companies. It's a
challenging and difficult business,'' Mr Poole said.
There were assumptions that ''nothing's happening'' but there
was a lot happening in the industry, including more market
diversity and processing efficiency.
There was ''no one silver bullet''. Rather, there was a whole
suite of things that needed to happen, including farmers
supporting one company.
For the Meat Industry Excellence group and its predecessor
Meat Industry Action Group ''to find a silver bullet'' when
everyone else, including international consulting firms, had
failed, seemed ''somewhat optimistic''.
''They certainly won't do it in isolation,'' he said.
Since the announcement of his retirement, Mr Poole had
received calls from farmers, many of whom understood it was
''a difficult world''.
Good sheep meat farmers, as long as they had scale, were
doing well, even last year with the lower pricing.
''I've asked farmers: Can you show me a sheep meat farmer in
the world, that's not subsidised, that banks more money than
you do?'' Mr Poole said.
For the past two years, he believed New Zealand farmers, on
average, probably received between 50c and $1 per kg more
than their Australian counterparts, in adjusted currency
The story of New Zealand's sheep industry - from the massive
gains in productivity, technology being applied in the sector
and development of new market destinations - was a
''wonderful story'', but during periods of volatility and
lower pricing, no-one wanted to hear it.
Asked whether there was a sense of unfinished business, Mr
Poole said: ''There's always unfinished business. It doesn't
matter when you go. There was unfinished business when I left
as chief executive, as well. That's the way it's always going
But he did acknowledge he was disappointed ''we couldn't have
come to some arrangement within the industry to support a
Some progress has been made but it was ''not going to happen
any time soon''.
''Is that disappointing? Yes, I'd hoped for a better
result,'' he said.
Mr Poole's intention to retire had been well signalled. He
indicated to directors in June 2011 his intention to retire
in December 2012, but then the company ''hadn't had a great
year'' - reporting its first operating loss in 20 years in
2012 - and it was in the midst of major restructuring and
alignment of its operations, so he agreed to extend his
tenure for a further year.
His successor, North Canterbury farmer Murray Taggart, has
''sat around the board table for a number of years''.
''He knows exactly where the company's at and where it's
Mr Taggart, who farms a 457ha irrigated sheep and cropping
property at Oxford, was a farmer-elected director from 2002
to 2007, and was re-elected to the board in 2010. While there
would be a difference in style with Mr Taggart's leadership,
there should not be much of a difference in direction, Mr
His plans are, first, to take his wife Ingrid on a delayed
Then he intended spending more time with family, doing some
more travel and digging out his fishing rods that had been
''I can be as busy as I want to be. Or not,'' he said.