From Zespri to red meat and enjoying the challenge

Simon Limmer
Simon Limmer
Nine months into his role as Silver Fern Farms chief executive, Simon Limmer remains upbeat.

Mr Limmer joined the company in March, taking over from Dean Hamilton, who had steered it through the joint venture with Chinese-owned Shanghai Maling.

Reflecting on his tenure so far, the former Zespri chief operating officer said he had "really enjoyed it" — "a hell of a lot more than I think I was told I’d enjoy it."

While a newcomer to the red meat industry, he brought significant commercial experience in the food, manufacturing and service sectors both in New Zealand and abroad.

After graduating from the University of Waikato with a bachelor of management studies degree , Mr Limmer completed a Ford Motor Company sales and marketing graduate programme.

Then came a 14-year international career with environmental services company Veolia Environment, based in Paris, Auckland and the United Kingdom. He returned  from France with his family to become general manager of global supply with Zespri in 2008.

He held other roles, including general manager grower, and government relations and general manager China and became chief operating officer in 2014. After a decade with the organisation, and latterly consecutive years of consistent good growth and value, it was time to do something different. That coincided with the SFF role becoming available.

While the red meat industry was different from kiwifruit in terms of structure and the challenges it faced, he liked that the sector was one of New Zealand’s cornerstones — and it was very meaningful for so many families working within it. Kiwifruit felt that way, too.

Silver Fern Farms had a very strong reputation with its brand, which was similar to the Zespri model.

When he started at  the business, the balance sheet was much stronger than it was previously,  there was a clear strategy and also opportunities,  particularly in China, where he had already spent a lot of time. So with a combination of different things, it felt poised for change and there was an opportunity to do something to take it to the next stage.

Since joining the company, Mr Limmer felt very lucky to have seen so much of the industry, whether it  was meeting farmers throughout the country, visiting plants or meeting  markets.

From a business perspective, Silver Fern Farms was having a "pretty good" year.  Farmers were happy and the balance sheet gave a platform to build on and he was excited about the opportunities the product afforded.

The financial year ended on December 31 and it looked likely to   come through with a relatively positive outcome, he said.

The industry was still maintaining some positive momentum and he hoped global volatility would not impact too radically. Much was going on in the world, including Brexit, the FTA and the US-China trade war, but he was optimistic heading into 2019.

China afforded the company a lot of opportunities. He was there every two to three months and its shareholders had been very supportive of what the company was doing.

The Chinese   market  had already been growing very strongly — it was more than 20% of SFF’s current sales — and from a shareholder and market opportunity, the company was well poised to take advantage of those opportunities.

There were other important markets, including the US and also the domestic market. A strong connection had been built with New Zealand consumers.

Silver Fern Farms previously deliberately decided to become a food company to focus on quality of its product.

It was crucial to get closer to the market and customers to extract more value from the product. There was a very strong culture at Silver Fern Farms; employees and farmers were proud of the product and brand, and there was an opportunity to close the gap between consumers and farmers. There had to be integrity concerning production systems, animal welfare, the environment and sustainability.

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