Silver Fern Farms chairman Rob Hewett at home on his Manuka Gorge farm. Photo by Sally Rae.
Amid challenging times for New Zealand's red meat
industry, there have been changes in the guard at governance
level recently at the country's two largest co-operatives.
Silver Fern Farms' new chairman Rob Hewett speaks to
agribusiness reporter Sally Rae about the challenges and
opportunities that lie ahead.
Rob Hewett is well aware his new role is going to be an
Amid decreasing sheep numbers, calls for industry
restructuring and his own co-operative's unprofitability, the
new chairman of Silver Fern Farms knows the road ahead is not
going to be easy.
But the South Otago farmer is also optimistic about the
future and excited to take on such a pivotal role in the
The opportunity to chair a co-operative such as Silver Fern
Farms - which represents more than 16,000 farmer
shareholders, operates 23 processing facilities throughout
the country, and employs more than 7000 staff in the peak of
the season - did not come along very often, he said.
The red meat industry - particularly sheep meat - had always
been challenging. But he believed there were also many
''When it boils down to it, being a protein producer in the
global environment is a good space to be in,'' he said.
A seventh-generation farmer, Mr Hewett (45) originally hails
from North Canterbury and now farms a 960ha sheep and beef
property in the Manuka Gorge.
After leaving secondary school, he completed a BCom
(agriculture) in economics and an MCom in marketing at
At that stage, he was keen to get into exporting and had an
eye on a job with the Meat Board or the Dairy Board.
After graduating, however, Mr Hewett joined Shell in a
marketing role, first spending three years in Christchurch
before transferring to Wellington.
He had a stint in Shell's HR and then moved into its retail
head office in Wellington, before shifting to Melbourne,
running a supply chain for the company's retail business
across the Asia-Pacific area.
What he learned during his time with Shell had stood him in
good stead in the red meat sector and the retail experience
he had gained with the company was still coming in handy, he
It was all about focusing on the consumer, the timely
delivery of product and developing different supply chain
solutions for different countries, he said.
His next move with Shell was going to be Singapore, Bangkok
or London and, as by that stage he was married with a young
family, it was time to think about doing something else.
The Manuka Gorge farm was bought in 2002 and the family moved
back to New Zealand, Mr Hewett continuing to work for Shell
from the farm for a year.
There was then a three-week hiatus between working for Shell
and starting a consultancy business with a friend, using the
skills learnt at Shell. The farm was of sufficient scale to
employ a labour unit, allowing him to undertake his off-farm
That consultancy work kept him interested in an area in which
he had been so intimately involved, while the revenue was
useful for developing the farm.
In 2008, Mr Hewett was elected a farmer-director of Silver
Fern Farms, having ''always had a hankering'' to do that sort
But he had always thought he would wait until the farm was in
order and the children were older before pursuing the idea.
Also, while he had always been interested in farmer politics,
up until then it had been from a distance.
Then came a phone call from retiring director Robbie
Burnside, who said Mr Hewett had been recommended as a
Mr Hewett was not immediately sure about it - he already had
so much going on and the consultancy business was ''flat
But after much thought, he decided it was too good an
opportunity to pass up. So while his foray into such a role
was not unplanned, it happened much earlier than he had
expected, he said.
He had enjoyed his five-year tenure on the board thus far,
the scope, scale and complexity of the business being
fascinating, he said. It was also a chance to do something
that was meaningful and useful.
His predecessor, Millers Flat farmer Eoin Garden, had led a
great team and his challenge primarily was to replicate that
so the platform was there for the co-operative to develop.
Any of the farmer-elected directors could perform the role of
chairman and he was ''humbled'' his peers around the board
table had seen fit to put him ''in the spot''.
His job was to live up to their expectations as well as those
of the co-operative's shareholders. Running the business so
that it met the farmer shareholders' expectations was always
going to be a challenge ''because farmers want different
Silver Fern Farms was a co-operative and that had special
meaning for farmers but, at the same time, it was a
commercial business and it needed stock, so stock also had to
be sourced from non-shareholder suppliers.
Ideally, every supplier would be a shareholder, but the
reality was that the company had to deal with both, he said.
For a food manufacturing company such as Silver Fern Farms,
there were exciting times ahead and real opportunities.
The business had to focus on affluent markets and provide
what those customers wanted.
''We have to understand the consumer and deliver on their
requirements,'' he said.
And if you delivered what the consumer wanted, then price did
not become a big issue, he said.
Farmers needed to understand that the business they were in
did not stop at the farm gate; it went all the way to the
consumer, and it was the consumer who was the most important.
The farmer could be the best farmer around, but that became
irrelevant if they were producing something that the customer
did not value, he said.
New Zealand needed a strong red meat business and it had to
get the most that it could out of the marketplace for the
products it sold, otherwise it was never going to compete
with other land-use options.
Mr Hewett believed the company's strategy of developing
strong branding was the ''only way to go''.
For example, among the burgeoning Chinese middle class, brand
awareness was ''phenomenal''.
He believed New Zealand's red meat products could fall into
the same space as luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton.
Care also needed to be taken to spread risk and not to
concentrate too much on a single market such as China. The
company's profile needed to be spread across different
New Zealand - known globally as a good test market - was
being used as a test case and the Silver Fern Farms brand
resonated well in the domestic market, Mr Hewett said.
He believed the red meat category had not been well
represented with brands previously and Silver Fern Farms had
spent a lot of time ''getting the story right and getting out
Much was going on in the industry that was good and it needed
to be remembered that, in the year just gone, the third
highest lamb price on record had been achieved.
He spoke of Silver Fern Farms' new eating-quality grading
system, the first of its kind, which used a scientific
to ''absolutely predict'' the taste and texture of a steak.
There have been recent changes on the board of Silver Fern
Farms, including the arrival of Richard Young and Dan
Jex-Blake, both former Meat Industry Excellence executive
Mr Hewett said the interests of Silver Fern Farms and Meat
Industry Excellence were broadly aligned. The board was a
team and needed to work as a team. That did not mean to say
that everyone had to agree, but there had to be a unified
view at the end of the day, he said.
His role was to ensure the board operated as a team and
everybody got an opportunity to contribute, he said.
Getting out and talking to farmers would continue, to explain
the company's strategy and why it was important that everyone
''all pull together''.
Wearing his farmer's hat, Mr Hewett did not believe that
there was a choice in that. It did not matter where you went
around the world - where there were many small producers, the
only way to maximise value was to club together.
''We need, as individual farmers, to own our processing
capacity,'' he said.
A challenge in the industry at the moment was getting farmers
to join the co-operative, which was ''absolutely the right
structure'' for them.
When it came to industry restructuring, there was ''no
question'' that processing capacity needed to be rationalised
and everyone needed to play a part in that, he said.
The challenge was that the red meat industry had 20-odd
export licences and various ownerships, each with competing
requirements and priorities.
It needed an industry solution and working together was the
way to develop one.
Mr Hewett often spoke to Alliance Group chairman Murray
Taggart - ''at this stage, it's probably more about getting
to know each other'' - and a merger between the two
co-operatives was just one of various options.
If the rest of the industry expected the two co-ops to pay
all rationalisation costs, that was unfair as it was an
industry problem, he said.
Mr Hewett was disappointed the idea of tradeable slaughter
rights had not been adopted as he believed it had many
Another issue the industry had not yet addressed was its
recapitalisation. There was no question it was
undercapitalised, he said.
Silver Fern Farms was the farmers' company and it was great
if shareholders were passionate about and interested in what
was happening, he said.
The company made a point of engaging with shareholders in
different forums and he hoped shareholders would ''engage
with us as well''.
Mr Hewett also chairs the Clutha Development Trust and he had
become passionate about the Clutha district, he said.
''It's been good to us and it's a great place. We just need
more people to understand that and want to live here.''
Agriculture was very important to the district and always
would be; there was also a burgeoning tourism business and
plenty of other opportunities. The challenge was to get young
people back in the district to stay.
With his various commitments taking him away from the farm so
often, he had made changes to the business to allow him to
spend more time off-farm.
He has a farm manager and recently employed a Telford
''Essentially now, I'm the special projects guy,'' he said,
Any relaxing time tended to be jumping on the quad bike with
the dogs and going for a look around the farm.
He quipped that ''chasing kids around sports paddocks''
seemed to be his main recreational activity, which he
''We're a mad-keen sports family, rugby in particular.''