Success: Protein nourishes export ambitions

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Kiwi food-processing expertise is making inroads in a growing range of overseas markets.

Milmeq's Matthew Wall sees plenty of scope to lift turnover. Photo / Northern Advocate
Milmeq's Matthew Wall sees plenty of scope to lift turnover. Photo / Northern Advocate

As a farmer, Matthew Wall is passionate about animal welfare. As the chief executive of Milmeq, a company heavily involved in the processing and freezing of export beef and lamb, he is also an expert in the humane treatment of animals.

So he was appalled at recent revelations about the treatment of live cattle exported to Indonesia for slaughter, which resulted in the suspension of Australian exports to 11 abattoirs.

"It was absolutely disgraceful," Wall fumes. "It has to be done absolutely humanely. I also have a farm and if you don't look after animals, you don't bloody deserve to be around them.

"For me, where I'm sending my cattle, I do not and will not accept that kind of behaviour. It does not go on in our freezing works in this country, I can assure you."

Wall knows quite a bit about the process as the head of Milmeq, a company he describes as being "in the protein business".

It designs, manufactures and engineers systems for primary food processing - mainly dairy, beef, lamb and seafood.

Milmeq may be a new name on the scene but the company, which began life as Refrigeration Engineering, will celebrate its 60th birthday next year. It employs 130 people at sites in Brisbane, Auckland and Dunedin and is expected to record turnover of $30 million this year.

Wall says the business is rapidly expanding, establishing a British office from which it has already completed projects in Ireland and the Netherlands.

"We are also looking further afield in India and Russia," he says.

Plans are advanced for operations in Mexico and the company is also eyeing Brazil, where it is building a "whole slaughter floor" as a hub.

"I'd like to see us in the $50 million to $70 million bracket," Wall says of future performance.

The company's modus operandi is to identify strategic partners and establish joint ventures with overseas-based companies in each territory.

China remains enticing but concerns about the protection of intellectual property (IP) mean the company will tread cautiously, Wall says. Brazil, he concedes, poses similar risks to Milmeq's IP but is an easier and smaller territory in which to manage that threat.

The IP relates to its patent-protected processing and freezing machinery, such as its Milmeq plate freezing technology, which solved a persistent frozen cream conundrum.

Liquid cream is traditionally frozen in plastic pails but expansion resulted in rounded edges, which were impractical when the cream was later packed on to pallets.

Plate technology allowed the cream to be frozen in bags settled within stainless steel moulds, producing regularly shaped blocks that met export pallet requirements.

"New Zealand is a world leader in a lot of this stuff," comments Wall. "We're certainly world leaders in animal husbandry and processing. In Europe we see them doing things that are old-fashioned in comparison to the things we do here - the United States as well, in terms of automation."

Robotics is an increasingly dominant feature of Milmeq's system operations and a result of its heavy investment in research and development.

This emphasis on innovation was given extra impetus in 2009 with the creation of Ovine Automation Ltd (OAL), a levy-funded industry body, with government contributions, tasked with transforming meat processing in this country.

OAL chose two entities with a proven track record in automation solutions: crown research Institute Industrial Research and Miller's Mechanical to conduct the research. The latter is a Milmeq company, one of 10 separate business units that were spread across four different companies before their merger, starting in 2009.

Wall admits OAL provided the impetus to get the house of Milmeq (then known by several different names under the umbrella title, Realcold Milmech group) in order.

"To me change was inevitable," Wall says. The amount of duplication was costing the company, as was, he implies, the lack of strategic direction.

The merger was conducted at lightning speed: "If you want more than 12 months to do what you want to do, then it's taking too long," says Wall.

Many of the old management, people who did not embrace change, are gone, he notes.

To help the change, Milteq enrolled in the New Zealand Trade and Enterprise Better By Design programme, and engaged brand identity specialists Dow Design to refine its public image.

"The Realcold Milmech group had lost brand consistency," notes Dow Design strategic development director Andy Jaquet. "We needed to distil down its various business operations and understand the company as a whole so that we could tell its brand story in a clear and compelling way and release the handbrake for change."

The handbrake is well and truly off, Wall assures, and the company is working through the gears to attain optimum speed.

- NZ Herald

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