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Canterbury’s Harriet Watson was floored when a man came up to her at a big food show in Milan and asked what the big deal was about New Zealand lamb.
Barely gathering her wits, all the 23-year-old could do was point to the pastoral scene behind her — an iconic image of sheep contentedly grazing on rolling hill country.
New to Anzco Food’s Europe team, she was helping host a stand at TuttoFood, a biennial trade fair and Italy's largest food and beverage event attended by major international companies.
Quickly, she found herself bombarded with questions, amazed that people didn’t know where New Zealand was on a world map.
"Then someone asked me ‘why would I buy New Zealand lamb?’ I was like, no-one’s ever questioned me about that before. It’s just the best product — why would you not? They asked about Australian lamb and it kind of caught me off guard because we just take it for granted and we are so lucky.
"There was this big picture behind our stand of the hills with sheep on it and I said that’s where it comes from. So I had to go away and think about how I would answer that better because I did a terrible job of it. It was pretty funny and a good learning curve."
Anzco’s first sales and marketing intern left this month for a two year stint at its Belgium-based Europe office.
In her new role she will be immersed in sales and marketing as well as coming to terms with the logistics of distributing meat across Europe for the meat processor founded by Kiwi Sir Graeme Harrison and now Japanese owned.
Weekends will be reserved for seeing as much of the continent as she can fit in between the working week.
"It’s a cool opportunity and it’s not home and I miss home, but it’s two years of my life I have to explore Europe and it’s not very often that happens and a chance to build my career."
Ms Watson was raised on a small farmlet sliced off from the family’s original sheep and beef farm between Aylesbury and Rolleston.
Initially leased by her parents, Tony and Sarah, today they run a small finishing beef enterprise as well as professional advisory roles in the farming industry.
"I think from early on I was keen to be farming. I was always out there with Mum and Dad drenching cattle or in the yards weighing them and I would record as I was interested in animals and always knew which calf belonged to which cow. Mum and Dad encouraged me to see it as a productive sector and good for the country and good for the economy, so probably from there I gravitated towards it."
This rural connection deepened when she went to Lincoln University to study for an agribusiness and food marketing degree.
Marketing was a relatively new course and the promise of a job from an industry-driven degree attracted her.
"I’d grown up here and the beef that I eat for dinner was from the farm and the eggs I’d collected this morning and I was having them for lunch with vegetables from the garden, so I’d always grown up knowing where my food came from. Then probably when I did a school exchange to France I sort of figured out that not many people have the same appreciation where food comes from ... that encouraged me to look down the path of storytelling and marketing."
Entering university, she wondered why there wasn’t more "fancy branding" to attach more value to agricultural products.
In time, she came to realise it was more complicated than that. There are only so many expensive meat cuts on an animal and processors have to work with the rest of the carcass.
While shoppers do reach for pricier branded lamb and beef on supermarket shelves, others go to cheaper cuts, so navigating this was important, she learned, to stay ahead of the game.
Opportunities still, however, exist in marketing to make more from products, she said.
Before her studies she was invited to join the university’s Future Leaders Programme and through this won scholarships with Farmlands and the Meat Industry Association.
"The idea was I would end up doing some work with a meat processor, so I went down to Anzco just before my first holidays pretty fresh in my degree and met up with general manager of sales and marketing Rick Walker, who Dad used to work with at Westland [Milk Products] and I had a bit of a foot in the door there. I literally went there to ask him what he does and how he operates in just a chat for an hour after work. I was thinking this is the job I want, but it’s pretty challenging going into uni when you don’t know what the end result is. So he said ‘why don’t you just follow me for a day’."
A day led to a paid casual intern position for a couple of weeks and then work during university holidays.
At first, she would work with anyone who needed her at the time. Basic duties varied widely — spending time helping with data collection and sourcing post codes for a spreadsheet.
"But I would get to sit in on the meetings and listen and learn and that was the exciting part. People would go ‘oh, I’ve got a meeting’ and I would go, ‘yes, we’ve got a meeting and I can learn something’. So I spent time with New Zealand sales, export sales, data, compliance, logistics and I just got a good view of the business, which I think has set me in good stead for the rest of the career."
This reinforced to her she was in the right industry and gave insights into the roles of the rest of the team.
A dilemma arose when the boss encouraged her to apply for a role midway into her final year in her studies in 2020.
Desperate to graduate with friends, she also knew this was too good an opportunity to miss.
Fortunately, Anzco agreed she could work 30 hours a week and finish off her studies mostly online for the last semester.
Grateful for the company’s flexibility, she’s also thankful for being fast forwarded into a position she’d thought might be another five years down the line.
The sales executive international training role was mostly a sales job based at the Christchurch branch and it’s made her appreciate the customer connection.
That extended to sales work for the markets of South East Asia, Middle East, Polynesia and Korea and now working with the sales and marketing team in Europe.
Rewind back to her first meeting with Mr Walker and he’d asked if she could speak any other languages.
Ms Watson explained to him about her trip to France and she had learned some French and was keen to work overseas at some stage.
Then 18 months ago he asked her if she would be keen to work at the European office in Belgium.
"He asked me if there was an opportunity in Belgium would I go — yep, sign me up. I’ve got friends who are in jobs to go and travel and I get to do the best of both worlds — work and travel."
She considers him her mentor and go-to person for advice.
"I’m so lucky I’ve got that relationship with him. Sometimes I get a bit stuck and ask myself ‘why is he sending me in this direction for?’ and then it all makes sense. I’ve learned now he’s got it and he always challenges me to ask the right questions."
She would encourage any young person to consider the processing industry for a career, as it is so much more than "carcasses in a box".
"I often get asked what I tell young people and it’s just to ask the right questions and be willing to learn. I think what set me in good stead from the get go was I didn’t go in there and say I wanted a job. I just went in there wanting to learn and they just kept piling things in front of me to learn. That’s what really worked well for me."
She has goals to go as far as she can in the business, but not before more learning ahead.