Kiwi entrepreneur Max Bryant has been heard to say "chickens aren't sexy", but he turned them into a most attractive $60 million payout to loyal investors in the small Manawatū town of Feilding.

That was the return to Feilding investors alone from the recent sale of ProTen, the chicken farm design, construction and operating company Bryant founded 18 years ago, and which grew to be Australia's largest independent contract grower of meat chickens.

ProTen was sold for $400m to Australian superannuation fund First State Super and most of that money came back to New Zealand, says Bryant.

At the time of the sale ProTen had about 300 Kiwi shareholders - half of them from
Feilding.

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"Generally, most people in New Zealand paid about 50c for a share. They got back $1.80 plus they received a dividend every month," says Bryant.

"It's like exporting in reverse. Most of the money came back here."

Raising chickens may not be as sexy as grape growing, but ProTen's monthly dividend - 10c a share divided over 12 months - was a steady little earner for the dozens of Feilding mum-and-dad investors who have backed ProTen and Bryant's earlier chicken businesses for more than two decades.

ProTen's chairman, Feilding businessman John Signal, says local people believed in Max Bryant and ProTen, and it's hard to overstate the sense of family as brothers, sisters, parents, their children, grandparents, friends, and friends of friends of the original shareholders also bought into his venture.

"It's remarkable. It was all word of mouth," says Signal. "I feel a real sense of pride walking down the street and seeing the people who supported the company for two decades. They enjoyed the yield and the experience. A lot of people had their retirement savings with ProTen and had a nice income."

When it was sold, Sydney-headquartered ProTen had 320 large shed operations in New South Wales, Western Australia and South Australia, and employed about 150 staff. Of those sheds, 96 were built between 2015 and last year, at an average cost of $1m each.

Revenue for the latest financial year was A$56m and operating profit A$28m.

ProTen supplied 68 million birds a year to Baiada Poultry, Australia's biggest chicken processor, meeting more than 30 per cent of Baiada's needs. Bryant's son Daniel was managing director and chief executive at sale time and remains in the job.

The decision to sell came about for a mix of reasons. The shareholders were ageing and when First State Super knocked on the door last year, it was offering a price "about 50 per cent more than if we'd sold all the chicken farms on the market individually," says Bryant.

Liquidity was an issue for ProTen, he says. The tightly-held shares were registered on the Unlisted securities market.

"It was very hard trading, you couldn't sell a lot of shares at once. If you wanted out it was hard and we couldn't get the value by listing. Then the sale offer came along."

Kiwi entrepreneur Max Bryant. Photo / File
Kiwi entrepreneur Max Bryant. Photo / File

Signal says the company was initially backed by smaller shareholders, but as it grew across the Tasman those backers couldn't meet the demand for new equity.

"We did two capital raisings so there was more of a corporate flavour in the last three or four years - but it was a nice mix," he says.

"The corporates would have wanted to realise their share values at some stage and that would have been difficult on Unlisted. A sale with a known price outcome was considered the best exit strategy and everyone had the same opportunity [to realise their investment]."

At the time of sale, ProTen's biggest shareholder was ARA Superannuation, with 15.5 per cent. A Hong Kong entity had 12 per cent and a Sydney investor 6.3 per cent. Next were three individuals, including Signal, who owned about 6 per cent each. Bryant, who was a director, owned 2 per cent.

"Apart from the top three, all the rest of the shareholders were New Zealanders," he says.

Bryant, 70, and his wife Patricia returned from Sydney to Feilding in 2017. He's been commuting to Australia since.

He says the company's biggest achievement was buying more than 2000 hectares of land at Karuah, NSW, from AMP for A$3m.

"We were going to build chicken sheds but didn't in the end and we sold it two years later for A$11 million. That really got us cracking.

"The low point was the pressure you seemed to get when you tried to buy land. It was very frustrating."

He says locals demanded money to drop their opposition - and not just in Australia. "It happened once in Auckland and we overpaid for land at times."

Australia didn't take kindly to ProTen's arrival in 2002, he recalls.

The company had wanted to scale up and there was potential to make a lot more money across the Tasman. The exchange rate would also work for the New Zealand investors.

Bryant, who began rearing chickens at Halcombe near Feilding in the late 1980s, recalls being "horrified" at how backward Australian chicken farming methods were compared to New Zealand's.

Here was a golden opportunity to send in ProTen's know-how and modern, airy and computerised sheds and get the tick from the RSPCA on the way. (ProTen chickens are not caged.)

"The state of the Australian industry was very decrepit. There were a lot of old sheds and processors wanted to modernise but the Australians refused to do it. We came along and set the scene.

"We got a lot of flak, we got abused and threatened. But we just carried on and got through."

The vehicle for the Australian debut was created by consolidating several Auckland and Taranaki ProTen chicken farms in which Bryant was a shareholder into a single ProTen company. ProTen is a word play on "10 out of 10 professional". At the time, the New Zealand businesses were supplying 4.5 million chickens a year to the local market.

In 2002 ProTen left New Zealand for Australia, its first customer was a large chicken processor which wanted it to build 32 45,000-bird sheds.

Signal, who had been approached by Bryant in 1999 to be an investor and then a director in the New Zealand business, has been ProTen's chairman from the start.

He invested in the company because he liked the monthly dividend and ProTen's prospects.

"I did like the company a lot and I continued to reinvest when it needed funds. As with all investments, you look for potential and growth prospects. The poultry industry had a certainty of cashflow that I've never experienced.

"It has long-term contracts which means banking and financial arrangements are long-term and you're able to lock in a profit performance year after year. There's some security in that. And it had a family feel to it and was Feilding-based."

The decision to appoint the founder's son as ProTen's chief executive was "a tough one for the board", Signal says.

"But Daniel Bryant showed a lot of potential. He was very smart and very ambitious. He's grown into an outstanding chief executive."

Bryant senior says the chicken market has been growing since 1965 and there is still strong demand for more sheds.

But he doesn't believe the money-making potential of ProTen's early days is there any longer.

"We started off making a lot of money but it's getting harder. We would make 15 per cent on cost but now you can't make anywhere near that. You're screwed down by supermarkets and processors and we were getting competition as well trying to undercut us."

Bryant says he's still getting calls from shareholders thanking him for the ProTen adventure.

"They're all saying 'what's next?'. Yes, I'm definitely thinking of other ventures but not on the same scale. I've got a few things still to do."