Michael John Sanders Interview
Today is the 15th October, 2014. I’m going to interview Michael Sanders on his work on Hawke’s Bay history.
Michael, we probably need just to start this off a few statistics and information about your family and those things.
I’m a Londoner. I was born in crisis week before the 2nd World War. Had a normal London suburban schooling. My father went to war of course. A younger brother about two years younger than I and we lived in an ordinary suburban house with my grandparents. Later on we got a house of our own and I went from the State junior schooling and won I guess the equivalent of a scholarship to one of London’s private schools and I was there for 8 years finishing up with good A levels but not going on to University.
Did you play any sport?
Yes, I was 1st XV rugby for two or three years. House captain of sport – that sort of thing. Sport was quite important. The other thing that was important from I guess when I was seven, I joined the Cubs at seven. Went through the Cubs bit, then joined the Scouts, became a Patrol Leader and later on I guess after I’d left school in my early 20s I was the leader of the Scout troupe locally. So that was interesting. If you can get on with a load of boys you can get along with anybody else I guess. It’s good training.
Things happen. With another scout we put a load of boys on the river Thames to go canoeing and they brought out a different shape canoe for us. It was the Red Indian style and we said “this looks a bit odd. Will we be alright in this?”. “Oh you’ll be alright. It’s the boys’ canoes that occasionally tip over”. So those sort of things you just learn to get on with.
When I left school, or as I was leaving school, there was a puzzle for the school to know what to do with me I think. I didn’t come from their typical background. Today I would definitely have gone on to University and the school would have made me go on to University sort of thing. In those days they weren’t sure and I had recently been on an employment course in the building industry so the building industry sounded interesting. My objective would have been to be the man who built the big buildings. Not an engineer or anything – the man who managed it. And that’s what I’d done on this course.
But in order to start I had to start as a Quantity Surveyor and after about a year they sent me out on site. Adding up and drawing were not my game so I packed that up. I’d had several short term experiences at work and I set out to find a full time job. There was something called the Public School Employment Bureau or something and I went to them and they sent me to a couple of people, one I think was the big paper people, Bowater’s, and the guy said “I don’t think you’re going to settle down, you haven’t settled down yet”. Another one that came out of the thing was something called Union International Company which sounded interesting and it was in Central London and they interviewed me and decided to give me a job and I was then 22. I started as a sort of clerk for six months to learn the area and then we were actually a selling and trading group in this part of the country and I got put into the hides department and we took the hides that were produced in New Zealand, Australia, South America and sold them into Europe.
So was this your first association with New Zealand through the hides of our animals?
Yes. It was the same company that owned Tomoana I found out much later on. So that’s how I got into the company.
I joined the Company on Independence Day July 4th of all things. I got married that October and we had our first child early the next year, or not too early, and the system that they worked was that you became the boy in the selling team, did all the office records and that sort of thing. Occasionally you got let loose to talk to somebody in Prague, Austria or Germany and you moved from one area to another, so I did a spell in hides, a spell in meat and bone meal, a spell selling things like canned fruit and goodness knows what else to places like Hong Kong and Singapore.
And then the boss who’d been the boss of that department since the mid ’30s retired, I guess about 62 or 63 or something like that and I was made No 2 in the department so I became a real salesman in the department. And the boss who had been a real name in the international hide industry, well respected member of the panel that settled arguments. So he was a member of the group that set these things up and we actually worked with a proper contract. His No 2 became No 1 and I became No 2 and at the same time I thought that I’ve got to be able to do more than this and I started going to night school to do the early equivalent of an MBA. It was at the local technical college rather than university but it was the start of what became MBAs. As that went along I did about 2 years of that and I got into the third year and I went to the boss of the whole of the trading organisation which was a small company of the big company as you can imagine and said “Look I can’t go on working behind my No 1. I’ve got to do more than that”. And the reason for saying that and I’m not sure this should be part of my recorded history was that by this time we had to report to a director and we now reached the stage where the director rang me up to ask what was going on, then hung up and rang my boss up to quiz him about… an uncomfortable position you don’t want to be in. So I said “Find us another job”, and the boss who was a Welshman and the leader of the sales team said “Oh you seem to be able to get on with almost anybody so perhaps we could send you to Australia”. So I said “Okay”. Eventually I was taken up for an interview to the boss of Australia and New Zealand. By this time I had a daughter as well. And he said “Probably you would have been all right but now you’re married, we’d never send anybody out with 2 children at your sort of state so I think it’s not going to happen.” A couple of months later his predecessor who was a senior member of the company came to our department, talked to the heads of each of the departments and then he talked to me. Just a chat like we’re having. Nothing more than that.
Another month went by and I got a call to say you’ve got to come up and work in the Australia/New Zealand department – we are going to send you to Australia. So in 1963/64 we were given the choice of coming by boat or flying and we decided to fly. We came out to Australia. The Angliss group of meat works are in the Vestey group – same as the New Zealand companies here – and the way I explain it is by way of metaphor. I was given a knife and a broom and told go and learn about a freezing works. And then I went from department to department and I had to write a report on each department and I think that took about 8 months to go round one freezing works. Lamb kill, sheep kill, beef kill, pig kill, small goods, by-products departments.
I was lucky at Christmas time, I was in the small goods department and they go mad at Christmas. Very busy. We used to bring in people from the local RAF base who wanted to earn extra money and they were a sort of flying gang who did all the packing jobs. I was given the job of running them so I started to learn how to do these things.
After nine months or thereabouts over the next Autumn I guess I was transferred up to Townsville with my family and the job there was to be in the production department with people who estimated the amount of stock we would get after somebody else had worked out the numbers we worked it out in tonnages of meat, got the orders planned them in the works planned the shipments. That was the training job moving you from physical work and foremanship to a wider understanding. I think I did more or less two years of that.
We had a change of General Managers and I got on well with the new General Manager and he had to go back to a different works to be head for the holidays. In Townsville we worked from Easter to October. It was too damned hot from October to Easter to work. He left me in charge of communication on the plant which was a bit odd but that’s what happened. And as a result of that I got transferred out to go to another works just down the road as Assistant Works Manager which was a bit surprising to the Works Manager. He didn’t think I had anywhere near enough experience and we had a fairly uneasy relationship for a year. He went on holiday as he was due to do that summer and he came back at the end fully convinced that things would have gone wrong, the place would be untidy and it wasn’t. The only thing that was untidy was the volume of spiders but he’d been down in Melbourne where there aren’t many spiders and we were in Central Queensland where there are a lot of spiders.
Then I guess my career was pretty lucky. There was reason in the company somewhere or other to move the … we had 13 butchers shops in Rockhampton and a smallgoods factory and that was a General Manager’s job of a very small piece. The guy that had been running it, they wanted to take him down to New South Wales but the man they had in mind to come and run it wasn’t available until September so there were six or eight months of no General Manager, so they said “go and be General Manager of the butchers’ shops”. And the butchers’ shops … it was just at the time when supermarkets were beginning to take on butchery so these little butchers’ shops all round the town had been absolutely necessary but now were becoming… and so I put together a plan to change it but didn’t get any chance to put that into operation because they decided that it would be a good idea to take me back to London to help out in the meat marketing department which looked after all the Australia and New Zealand market and USA.
So they sent me to New Zealand. I came to New Zealand and the boss said we want you to go round all the New Zealand works and see the way they kill lamb and beef and I said “Surely that’s a waste of time. I’ve just spent three years in Australia doing that”. “Oh” he said “I never thought of it like that. I tell you what, you stay here in Wellington and work for me. I will give you projects and jobs to do” and so I became a guy who took problems to works or took solutions to works and liaised with the various management teams. Because I was in Wellington working for the boss of New Zealand I went to the industry meetings of what was North Island Freezing Company Association and its South Island equivalent SIFCA. In fact I remember voting once in one of those things because the boss was ill and he didn’t come. Fortunately I knew somebody on there who gave me the lead which was the right vote.
And so the idea was that we would do this. We’d go back to London and we work in the Australian and New Zealand department for a year or two probably with an idea of coming back later. And we came up to Auckland for our last couple of weeks and then we got a message from London that “We’ve changed our mind. There’s a new boss in London. He wants somebody much more experienced than you in that job so we’re going to send you back to Australia”. So with a container full of goods on its way to England, my wife and two children on their way to England, we went home for two to three months leave which we were entitled to. We broke into the container and put the bikes for the kids the grandparents bought, and we went back to Australia.
In Australia I was to be in Sydney and in Sydney I was given the job of doing the Long Service leave for the man who ran all the wholesale departments in Sydney and then I was given the job of looking after the Long Service leave of the No 2 in Sydney. So now I’ve done 3 ½ years and another year, 4 ½ years in Australia, and I got called to Head Office and they said “We’d like to send you to Townsville as General Manager” so it was back to Townsville. The No 2 in Australia said “What do you think of what we’ve just done to you?” I said “it’s a bit of a big jump but very complimentary.” He said “Do you think we ‘peter principled’ you?” All I could say was “I hope not”.
And we went to Townsville. Townsville is an interesting place to be, it’s very hot, very seasonal, the Works killed the best part of 50,000 head a year. Cattle, no sheep. And you could buy them at markets just like you could here in New Zealand. But you could also go out to a property and buy 500 or 1000 at a time. So that was that. I did 2 years of that. That was really very good. It was a small enough Works to get round. It had its problems. The first meat inspection I had by their USDA. They came in, they had been out there about 15 or 20 minutes, storming back. “Your Works is off the list. You’re not packing the meat properly. The meat that you are putting in the box for trimmings and that sort of thing is too small. It’s not allowed”. ‘Course I have to ring up the boss and ring up the MAF and get the MAF to ring up the MAF in Canberra. It was nothing to do with our plant. It was an argument that Australia was having with the USA about what the smallest identifiable size the meat could be.
So we did 2 years at Townsville and then they decided that the man who was No. 2 in Melbourne, I guess you would say he wasn’t fitting as well as they wanted, so they decided to swap us and he came up to take over Townsville which was a much more… Melbourne was a lamb, beef, pig killing plant, made smallgoods, had 30 butchers’ shops around the town. An offshoot in Wodonga did something or other so it was a much more complicated business. And I went down to do that and we hadn’t been going too long and the boss wasn’t all that easy to get on with which was why the other guy was pushed out.
And one day we went out to Wodonga to visit some supermarkets. We got a chance to have a look at the brewery there and they were canning pet food they claimed at the speed that Carlton Breweries were canning beer in Melbourne. A fantastic machine, absolutely fantastic. And on the way back he began to feel unwell and we got back and he had about a fortnight off during which time the Americans did slap a ban on all meat going out of Australia and it was in the middle of the Queensland season and so the bosses in Sydney rang up and said “Look we’ve put 10 containers of meat on the road to Melbourne ’cause we don’t know what else to do with it – sell it”. And somebody had had the bright idea that you could sort of have a … pop-up shop I suppose you’d say today. We took the meat in boxes in there and whole cuts and we were prepared to sell whole cuts or boxes straight off. And it worked. We actually did the job they wanted.
So we had been 2 years in Townsville, we were moved to Melbourne early in the year. Before the end of that year we were told that we were coming to Wellington because the boss in Wellington needed somebody to help carry the load so we were going to be assistant to the boss.
So we came, found and bought a house in Silverstream and we’d been in Wellington about nine months when they said “We’re having a shift of General Managers and so and so is going to Melbourne and so and so is going to there, the boss at Tomoana is going to Westfield in Auckland and you’re going to Tomoana. So probably 1975 I ended up here.
So that’s your apprenticeship coming to Tomoana. Okay well now the real story starts doesn’t it?
I think, I had I suppose you could say a lot of luck but on the other hand I made use of it.
There’s no such thing as luck. It’s having an idea of actioning it.
And because I’d been in those various places I’d really learnt to deal with people. As you can imagine, a guy out of Townsville has got lots of different ideas about way of life and relaxation than a guy out of Melbourne.
So we came here. By then our son was probably a couple of years or three years at high school, our daughter was in intermediate school so we got a house in Havelock North. She went to Havelock North, moving across to Karamu High School. Despite all the moving we never thought of sending the kids to private school. We preferred to have them at home and coped with the things that came along our way.
The meat industry was sort of in a fairly interesting situation I think in those days. The threat of the loss of the European access was just around the corner. Hygiene was getting harder and harder pressure to get it right. Unions were not terribly happy with these sort of changes of the job. “But we’ve always done it this way”, “You can’t do it that way and you’ve got to wash your hands as well”. It was not terribly well received. And so those are the sort of problems that were there and I started here and started grappling with the job. That was 1975 say.
A couple of years later – this is where it gets hard to put your history together. So one theme goes like this. The pressure on the hygiene and that sort of stuff meant that the old works at Tomoana was just not good enough, and the opportunity for volume of stock increasing was there and we decided to build a new mutton and lamb plant and that was built and finished in May 1979 and that was part of the first things I had to deal with. I had the works and although the engineers had planned it all somebody has to co-operate what the engineers are doing in real life and with the ongoing plant that’s there.
The other thing was that at Tomoana they hadn’t quite reached the full appreciation of modern industrial problems. The local union was a local union and although it had friends in the Auckland Meatworkers Union it was still the Tomoana Freezing Workers union. Muldoon wanted to change the industrial laws in ways that I can’t explain at the moment and the nub of that change would have made it very very difficult for small unions to be able to live so the Tomoana union joined up with the Auckland union and although they sort of maintained a certain amount of independence it wasn’t outright independence any more, and so we had the pressure to some extent of the big city people coming down here, not too badly, but it was there.
Some time around that same date I think the pressure on wages, how to get more money as a union member, meant that somebody I think at Hellaby’s hit upon the plan of running incentive schemes and they put incentive schemes into Hellaby’s – they used a Dutch Industrial Engineering consultant to do it. He was a New Zealander but a Dutchman, and it was quite successful in some ways except that the stories that got back to us suggested that if you were over 50 you couldn’t be fit enough to work in the Hellaby’s boning room and we didn’t think that made sense. And we got some work done by this Dutchman for a while and on one or two schemes, and there was two reasons we didn’t like it. One was the relentless pressure for speed and the other was when something went wrong we discovered what he’d taught us as the management wasn’t enough to sort it out. It was still official in there that we had to call him in for and we didn’t like that, and we therefore went to one of the international consulting firms and talked to them and discovered that they were prepared to do it and they were prepared to teach us how to do it. This we decided was a pattern to go through.
I guess the other thing that is important in this. After I had been at Tomoana perhaps one year or maybe nearly two we decided we really did need an up to date industrial manager and we just did the usual process. One young fellow came who had experience in the building industry which I knew from my history and recognised that in many ways it is similar. We’re breaking down, they are building up but similar, and he was a smart young fellow and we decided to put him on and he and I together sorted out the sort of climate we wanted on the Works. The way we were prepared to treat people. Two things were that if we had rules that were absolute rules, they were an absolute, nobody could change them and if you broke an absolute rule you got the sack and you could argue all you like, that’s it. And we tried to set up the system that did this but also at the same time we wanted to find ways of encouraging our people to do good work and we found … there were several schemes going around in various industries at that time, which were aimed at making workers more understand that they were part of the system. The workers didn’t need teaching that. They knew they were part of the system. But management needed to teach to be taught that is the way you should handle people. If you tell somebody why they’ve got to wash their hands they don’t see it as such a bloomin’ nuisance as if you don’t tell them why. And if you build up peoples’ interest. And we set out to do that in quite a big way. So those two things went together. The industrial incentive plans, the change in the attitude, why people worked and how they worked and I thing we were very successful at that.
This is in the time in these early years this was beginning to build. We were building the new plant and in May 1979, because of fitting in with international calendars and all sorts of things we opened the new Works. Unfortunately it wasn’t finished. We had a grand day and there are pictures around here but the Works went on slowly being finished until early September and round about the 10th September I would say we put 4 or 5 man butchers into the new Works and said “Look ,we are just going to run stock slowly through, is this platform really at the right height, can you reach the steriliser?” – all that sort of stuff. That was about the 10th of September.
On Monday the 17th September 1979 the plant went up in flames and we lost all the productive capacity of the plant as a slaughtering plant, and so we said on that Monday late in the evening to the television “Oh yes we’ll have two chains going in the new works next Monday” and we did. Of course it was pretty hectic.
Again I think the way we handled the incentives, the way we handled attitudes to work and the other thing about the incentives which I didn’t mention and should have done. I said we wanted to know how to do it but at the same time we trained the Union and the Union leaders how to do it. The Industrial Manager and I had this sort of argument/discussion and we decided that if you are going to have a discussion with somebody have a discussion with somebody who knows what they’re talking about. If you have a discussion about something that affects people and they don’t know what’s happening and you do you’ll never get anywhere because the walls up. So this was an ongoing part of our industrial plan and of course it helped us enormously in changing the way things worked.
We got the mutton going, our livestock management team and some people from Wellington and so on had the job of going around and getting other meat industry people to help us cope with the beef kill and actually other companies were enormously generous at that time. Whakatu killed for us. Terry Goldstone our livestock manager was only telling me at lunch this week that there was a little plant down somewhere in the bottom of the Manawatu who gave us one day a week. I think they only killed 50 head in one day. But they gave us one day a week so we had this organisation going to cope with that and we set about building a new beef plant and I think that took about another two years or something like that.
We managed to get Tomoana to work. We kept very good industrial relations. We had by far the best industrial relationships in any big plant in North or South Island to the extent that at some time or other we got the whole back page in the Dominion as a report on our industrial relations.
The heading on that was ‘Plant Sets Standard of Excellence’.
By then we had a different industrial manager than had started but somebody we trained in house and he was very good.
As these things go along there was the hassles of tightening American hygiene relationships and tightening European relationships and the attitude of our MAF how this should be done and what you could do and what you couldn’t and in a way that was the reason for the fire. We had old cold stores, the 1890 block was still going and we had to line everything with plastic hygienic covering and you couldn’t just go and build a new cold store on your corridors, that would take too long and too much money so we did what I suppose nearly everybody else in the industry was doing; we found this plastic and we were lining various places. Some of it had been done and was successful and hygiene was easier in those areas and then early in September 1979 we were lining the passages from the 1890 block up on to the slaughter floor. And something happened and set it afire. I don’t think we ever found out whether it was faulty machinery, whether it was faulty plugs in the wall or whether the guys had been careless in the way the put the heat to dry something out, and I don’t think we ever really had a witch hunt to try and prove that because it was clearly not a repeatable accident and so we got on with the job.
But the big hassle was by lining corridors and lining the ramps from one level to another you didn’t line at the level of the roof you lined underneath so you had a full ceiling. Start a fire you’ve got a full ceiling you start draughts. And this beautiful plastic was very hygienic, very good.
Unfortunately, if you wanted to measure the fire rating of anything you rated by its heat, its speed of travel and its smoke. Two of those ratings were out of 10 and one was out of 20 and this plastic was something like 8 or 9 and 14, so it didn’t have a chance. And we were enormously lucky that the fire started round about 12.10-12.15 that sort of time. In a place like Hastings and a Works like ours lots of people went home for lunch so the first people off the chains and this sort of thing and the boning room closing down they’d all gone, they’d gone to lunch. That means to get out of the building there was only half the number of people that had to get out of the building and totally remarkably there were no accidents in the fire except two. One of the firemen was going home for lunch as we talked about on his scooter. He heard the bell so he tried to turn round, fell off and broke his shoulder or something. And one of the fire safety officers later in the afternoon suffered a minor heart attack but those are really the only two accidents so we were very lucky.
My wife was told during the afternoon, “there’s a fire at Tomoana.” She said “Michael will ring me up and tell me”. So round about 10 o’clock that night I rang her up. The film you have now got of it is interesting to me because it’s got flames coming out of the top and smoke and that sort of thing. I didn’t see all that much of it because I was underneath. Asbestos was dropping down on my head, you were trying to decide what to do with people and we talked about this good industrial relations and it was all in the paper. The morning after the fire when I got to work probably about half past eight or something like that the place was clean. All the roadways had been swept and everything that could be made tidy had been made tidy. Nobody had organised it, nobody had said it’s got to be done – it just got done. That was my introduction to the freezing industry now I was a freezing industry manager.
The company ran and the whole New Zealand company had meetings between managers and we tried to sort things and I was involved in that. Not very much involved in industry work. That was Head Office’s job so we weren’t very much involved in it. We were expected as General Managers of the local plant to play a part in the local civil society so to speak. I became a member of the Chamber of Commerce so that was important. To-mo-ana, I was brought up to say Tomoana.
We all say Tomoana.
The opening of the plant in 1979 Tomoana was beginning to be mentioned around the place and we had about 3000 people came to the opening and a lot were invited to come and listen to the official opening. The Governor General, Lord Vestey and of course the introducer, me, and right down the middle of the front row was Tirikatene-Sullivan. So I get up and I say I’m very pleased to welcome you all to Tomoana and I would like to introduce the Governor General and Lord Vestey by which time I noticed that Tirikatene-Sullivan was slowly waving her head from side to side. I thought “Oh, I’ve done it wrong”. So Keith Holyoake gets up and he says “I am delighted to be at To-mo-ana” so I became about that big. But actually the afternoon went off very well.
Historically you were correct because none of us would have known where To-mo-ana was.
I guess the other thing – we are now 1979 and going to the early ’80s – it’s a matter of trying to run the plant efficiently, gain more efficiency and improve the status of foremen so they become more foremen/managers. When I first came to New Zealand the stories of foreman said “I don’t think we did it here but in some plants the foreman was the toughest guy on the chain”. If he could beat everybody else out the back he was the foreman. I don’t think Tomoana was as bad as that when I came here but the legend was still in the meat industry and we certainly wanted to put all that behind us.
At about this time the pressure came on for new freezing works. By this time Richmond and Grahame Lowe had joined up and we were very successful with the small works here. They wanted to build a Works at Oringi and Whakatu and ourselves didn’t want that to happen and the law at that time had all sorts of rules and regulations about the ability to build Works and I can’t pull out those sort of regulations any more. But we were against it. Eventually it was decided it should go to a tribunal hearing. The General Manager of the Railways was made the chairman of that and there were two assistants to him and it was just like a court case and I led the company’s case and that was quite entertaining and interesting. Lots of late nights in Wellington as well as late nights up here and it wasn’t all that long after the fire. It may have been as the beef works was coming back on I don’t know, but those things are all mixed up together. It was fairly hectic. They involved lots of reading, lots of preparation, argument in front of the tribunal which is an interesting business being a witness in it. Serious case. Somehow you’ve got to stand up for yourself without being argumentative and pernickety you’ve somehow got to set off what you want to say in a way that makes the people who you want to listen, listen to it.
You’ve got to make your point clear so they can’t misunderstand what you said.
I know Mr Thomas said to me one day that he thought I might be quite difficult to negotiate with and I don’t think that was true but I was quite good at putting a point across. That was interesting.
We went along here until about 1982 and then they needed another change. They needed to rebuild Westfield and the General Manager was feeling – his basic history was an accountant – that he really didn’t want to go on as the boss at such a difficult plant and it was decided that by now I had the experience to go to Westfield, so I was shoved off to Westfield.
So that was your exit …
That was my exit from Tomoana.
Well, that’s fascinating isn’t it, because it’s amazing really and that was 198..?
It must have been about 1985 I think. I was here about 12 years.
It’s interesting. My son served his time as an engineer at Tomoana and as a result he has always said they received the best training in the world. He said nobody realised the multiple skills they were taught there and he said over the years, I’ve heard him telling people, he said he could always hold his head high because there was nothing he couldn’t do. And so you went to Westfield and from Westfield ..?
I went to Westfield because the New Zealand flock/herd were growing. They were growing because the market was good, prices were not bad but we had this idea of supplementary minimum prices and that had been part of the argument that eventually allowed places like Oringi and Takapau to be built and we’d argued all the way through that case that it was unrealistic, that you couldn’t actually farm that many. And as soon as the new Government decided SMPs weren’t going to last there was no point in investing 50 or 60 million dollars in Westfield. We tried to keep it running and it became obvious I think that it had to shut and I was there for some of the negotiations of the closure but not all of them. It was a much more difficult industrial situation because it was part of the big city. They rubbed shoulders with the satisfied engineers and mechanics and all sorts of other Unions so you had a much tougher Union attitude. Some of the old Unions up there were really still old fashioned.
Did you finish at Westfield ..?
No, I think when we were at Westfield or it may have been just before we left Tomoana we were invited to go to Brazil and run a meat works in the middle of Brazil for the Vesteys but by then we were 50 and we’d been down here for 12 or 15 years and we just didn’t feel that we could change our life that much. We’d have had a big house with gardeners, servants, a social set up that went with the Works but it was just too big a change. It was too late in life for that. So we said no and came back here and finished off either what was happening at Westfield and then they decided that they would like to keep me after all and so they had some changes in Europe and I was taken back to Europe to become the European manager – the same as the Welsh guy I told you about.
So I went back to that job and that was a bit of a stretch because I learnt Spanish at school and hadn’t spoken a word of it in Australia or New Zealand. The nature of the job there was that if the phone rang you listened to whoever was calling you and if it was somebody from the German office you were a German and you talked the things about the way it affected Germany. If it was the people from Italy who rang you were an Italian. At other times you had to withdraw and be a Vestey manager, but you had to understand.
There had just been hassles for New Zealand about some EEC regulation that we’d been paying tax. Then it was discovered that they had been taking tax off us that they shouldn’t and therefore we should get it back. Well the Dutch and the Germans sent the money back. The Greeks and the Italians didn’t and they decided – and I guess, I’m not sure where I was, but I wasn’t involved with the New Zealand end at all. They decided to send two or three of New Zealand’s General Managers over there or whatever on a mission to get it back and one of them was one of these fiery new managers they found in the South Island. And they went to Greece and Italy and in Italy they went to see the biggest importer and while they were talking to him they said “You’ve got to pay us back”.
When I saw this guy a few months later, my Italian manager didn’t want me to go and see him. She said “You can’t, this is still too raw. You mustn’t mention it”. I said “Look I’ve just come from New Zealand. I’m the boss in Europe virtually. He knows that. I’m not going to talk to him about that but I bet he talks to me”. And he said “You come up here and you bang my desk and you expect to get something out of me. No way”. In any case he said “the Italian tax system took most of that money off me at any rate”.
But we didn’t know how to deal with Europeans and you need to. Go to Greece, go to Italy to do business, you say “Hi, it’s great to see you. How was your kid at the football on Saturday?”. When you’ve done all that … the guy in Athens said “Never mention that we’ve got any meat to sell”. I said Why?”. He said “If you mention we’ve got meat to sell they’ll drop their price. Wait until they say have you got any meat that we can get here in December?” then you can deal. On the other hand if you go to Holland or Germany you go in the office and say “Good day, how are you today? Let’s talk about the latest shipment coming up from New Zealand” and you start the business and at the end of the business you can talk about other things.
My son was a global sales director for a company called Mexiam that used to work out of Holland. They were all the distillers – the major ones in the world and he had about 29 companies he used to operate to and he had a person in his office who used to liven them up on how to deal with all nationalities. And he said the Germans and the Dutch – he said you couldn’t believe that you had to handle them all quite differently, and he said while he worked out of Australia and New Zealand before, he said he didn’t realise, but this girl that worked for him was just so brilliant. And he said you go into China or Japan – it was quite different. You know some you [?] and some you wait. But anyway Michael coming back to Tomoana as we knew it. When it closed you were obviously in the company at the time. Was it a surprise when Tomoana closed?
Well I think by then the way the industry was changing and also the pressures on global finance I think it was a surprise to us and to the industry that the Vestey’s interest in New Zealand closed.
Because it had a modern beef kill and modern lamb … and it was a Works that was performing.
The other thing though was that there was a lot of debt in the industry and one of the stories which I can’t vouch for was that the bankers felt far safer in getting their debt paid out of the Vestey’s closure than out of some other closure they might have done. And as there always is in New Zealand a sort of feeling the way we do it our way is obviously better than having somebody from overseas do it and I think my opinion is there was part of that. The Vesteys before that time had got into trouble in the UK because they had set out to diversify, to have money in different areas and I think they got into building property and they lost a lot of money and that closed down one heck of a lot, but they stayed open until later.
Yes, when you look around New Zealand there’s a history of closed freezing works that just couldn’t make it. They were buying meat at levels they couldn’t on sell it for. But that’s fascinating. So when you finished in Europe how much longer did you stay with ..?
I guess I was about 60 when I finished in Europe and I finished because of the closures that occurred out of that financial problem and they offered me to retire in London or to come back here and we’d only been in London 18 months and I thought I didn’t know if I could get a job in London. We still had a house in Auckland. The best bet was to come back where I’m known. I’m not sure it was a good choice in some ways for the particular problem at that particular time rather than looking at the whole event since.
When we got back here I needed a job … go to the consultants – ‘freezing works managers. They’re always on strike, they don’t know anything’. I once had a job with a printing operation down in Wairarapa and the interviewer in the Auckland consultancy said ‘you don’t know anything about shift work, you don’t know anything about fast moving machinery’. And I said ‘freezing works work on shift work. We used to kill lambs at 60 a minute’. But it wasn’t enough to convince people. The industry had such a bad name that it was very difficult to come to an answer.
Eventually AFFCO gave me a job and that was very nice of them. But they were going through so many… so they made me redundant after about a year and then they said ‘we can’t get on without you – we don’t want to employ you, but could you come and do some work for us’, and so for about three years I was a consultant and they said – very fairly – I don’t know whether it was official company policy or the guy I knew, but don’t forget the salary you had, the car you had, the holidays you had – put all that in the price. So I actually got very well paid for about three years.
I did some work for the first time (when I wasn’t made redundant) until I was made redundant – I was in their marketing operation in North America. Then when they took me back as a consultant I had some other consultants from America looking at the whole of their shipping and they didn’t have people who could cope with this, and every so many years there’s a meat industry conference around the world. I don’t know how often they occur.
Anyway just before I got back to AFFCO there was one at Buenos Aires and the new people who had come from the dairy industry and so going to conferences was the thing to do so they went there and came back utterly surprised that there was a big meat industry in South America that was very important and they probably should know more about it so they said to me “Can you keep in touch with South America for us. Just ring them up and get some news”. I said “Well I’ll do my best”. My Spanish is school boy Spanish that I haven’t used for 50 years. They hadn’t bothered about languages – hadn’t thought about that. And I went to the University to do night classes to try and improve my position.
So I was doing this liaison thing. At the same time I think people were doing their big shipping project and wanted to know how all the meat flowed through the Works so I did a computer programme. I made a model of all the Works, the volume of stock that went through. It was really interesting. I didn’t know that I could make it work, lots of formulas to go on spread sheets.
But one of the things we discovered was that Chile was the second biggest importer of chilled meat in the world. Because Chile is a long narrow country. It’s got some cattle but not enough to feed itself so they bring meat over the mountains from Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay and southern Brazil and that’s the main meat that goes to the supermarkets and all that sort of thing and it’s not far that it’s got to come so the answer is chilled meat. I think you could ring up and order your meat and three weeks later it would be delivered so that was sort of the lead time.
But we said that we’ve got very good chilled meat which we did. Our hygiene standards were high so we ought to be able to get into this and then we sat down and we discovered that the return on Chilean chilled meat was going to be very good indeed because if you sell chilled meat from New Zealand to Japan, the USA they want the best 3,4,5,6 cuts. When you sell it to Chile they want all the other cuts so you were selling 9 or 10 cuts not 5 or 6 because that makes a huge difference to the return.
And I was given the task of trying to make this work and we looked at it and found out what the specifications were then we had to find out about Chilean regulations and Chile had required that meat inspectors had been through a Chilean University so we had to send a couple of meat inspectors from New Zealand to get this. We then discovered that all packaging had to have the label inside the packet and then we sat down and thought about what we were doing and we probably sent some samples, but we realised that if their meat was getting to them in 30 days say, – maximum 30 days, probably less – how many couldn’t get there in less than 60 or 65 days? And meat after 65 days in a vacuum packed bag looks a bit different. It’s got a lot more juice in it.
So we said the solution to that is easy just send it in a totally colour package. The label had to be inside so we go in whole. Well I designed this. I don’t know if I designed the packaging but I designed that we had to do that. We got down the plan and suddenly the AFFCO managers said ‘you can’t do that, our butchers are too dumb, they’ll never get the right label in the right packet, they’ll never get it straight so they looked any good’. I said ‘don’t be so ridiculous. If we tell them what we’re doing and why we’ll get there’. ‘Anyway it’s your project. You’ll have to go and get it fixed up in Feilding’.
So I go down to Feilding and tell the manager that I want a meeting with all the boners and packers and I tell them about all this, that its all going to be in coloured packing. Everybody is ready and geared up. We do it. I go down there the first day and people are doing the job alright. Suddenly the guys who pull the vacuum came in and said ‘we are in trouble boss. Now that you’ve got a completely covered pack we can’t see the bubbles any more’. I said ‘I’ll go and ring the boffins at Mirren’s and see what they can help us. You just keep packing because it’s only every now and then’. I came back and they said ‘it’s alright. We discovered if you feel the pack you know whether there’s a bubble or not. We’ll solve it’. So that was the end of that. And everything went well. It got there.
About three months later the orders were going up and they said ‘we’ll have to go through another Works. That will have to be Moerewa. Bloody Maoris up there won’t be able to do it’. So I said ‘look we’ll do the same again’. So I got to Moerewa, called a meeting and said ‘I’ve come to talk about the Chilean meat’. And they said ‘that’s good. We’ve heard it’s much more interesting than the ordinary packaging. We’ve been looking forward to you coming to do that’.
Isn’t it interesting that it’s the wrong people who were making the decisions.
Probably the decisions should be recorded. But the AFFCO management at that time, quite a lot of them had come out of the dairy industry, they dressed down to go on the Freezing Works. So they didn’t go down in their suit, they dressed like this or in a t-shirt so they fitted in and one of the guys said to me one day ‘why do they do that, it’s bloody insulting that they do that’. I said ‘I don’t know’ because there I was with a tie and a jacket as usual.
And so you retired in New Zealand obviously.
We retired to New Zealand and we did 5 or 6 years at AFFCO. I suppose round about 63/64 it was time to get out of AFFCO. I tried some consulting but it just didn’t fit my style. I want to work with a group of people and be involved with the work not sit there and teach them what to do.
I was saved because my son found in a newspaper advertisement that said the University of Auckland wants a lay member for its Ethics Committee. And he said ‘you’ll enjoy that. The Committee will cover the whole works. There’ll be lots of interesting stuff come up’. I said ‘alright, I’ll try’ and they put me on and I joined the Committee. Eighteen months later the deputy vice chancellor came to see me and said ‘I know that some of them are saying that you might be able to be the chair but it would be totally unfair. You’ve never done any research, you haven’t got a degree and the Committee often says that some professor or other or senior academic, if you can’t do it that way it’s not on’. ‘I don’t think it’s going to worry me. I’ve dealt with Union leaders and politicians’ but nothing I could do about it. Anyway 4 months later he came back and said ‘we’ve changed our minds’ so I was chair of the Committee for six years. So that was great. And at the end of it they made me a Fellow of the University.
So you didn’t have to go to University after all. The reward was coming. You took the hard road to get it. Well that’s interesting. Thank you Michael for that interview.
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Interviewer : Frank Cooper
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