It is 10 years since the Whakatu freezing works closed. Some of the key players reflect on the decision and their roles in it.
It gives him the shivers
By Geoff Taylor
Staff reporter, Hastings
Ten years after Whakatu’s closure Athol Hutton can’t walk down the main streets of Hastings or Napier without people scowling at him. To walk past Whakatu itself gives him the shivers.
As soon as I left a message, Mr Hutton, the former managing director of Waitaki International, said he knew what I wanted. He had been thinking about the anniversary himself.
“It was so dramatic because Whakatu was like the palace of the Hawke’s Bay. But there were very good reasons why Whakatu was the selected one. It’s been proved since that it was the right decision to make.
“People don’t appreciate that at the same time we also closed a small plant in Gisborne, leaving it with no plant at all.
“There’s nothing else that has had such an effect on me as the closures.
“Whakatu affected so many people – its closure was predicted, but people never thought it would happen.
“A lot of analysis went into the decision before it was made.
“Ian Cameron and Peter Wilson (the chairman and managing director of HBFMC) put up a huge fight – that has to be said.
“Whakatu had such a large catchment, therefore it was taking so much capacity from other more efficient plants.
“I’ve never forgotten (Selwyn) Cushing for what he did. He let us down, he made the bid with Eastern Deer and he was the shareholder who went out and did it. His move basically split Hawke’s Bay into two camps.
“I spent most of my working life in Hawke’s Bay and in the end had to make some tough industry decisions.
“Over a space of 18 months I had to make about 5000 people redundant and I have to go to my grave with this hanging over my head.
“I’m sorry we had to do it, but time has proven it was the right thing to do.
“It’s okay in the South Island where sheep numbers are higher, but in the North island, with the reduction in sheep numbers, the smaller, more versatile plants will always do better.”
Mr Hutton is now semi-retired at Couttes Island near Christchurch. He owns a small sheep farm and is chairman of Company Rebuilders which offers advice to small businesses with problems.
The wrong works closed?
Peter Wilson, who was chairman of HBFMC at the time of Whakatu’s closure, believes meat industry rationalisation was necessary “but I’m still not quite sure the right works was closed”.
However, he says, in comparing the manner of Tomoana’s closure two years ago, “everybody including the farmers, were paid what they were due. The shareholders were paid a good price for their shares, most workers were able to be re-employed in the district and many assets are still in use and contributing to the Hawke’s Bay economy.
“The industry’s capacity has not matched the reduction in livestock numbers, and it still has a long way to go to be sustainable. We are seeing the industry paying interest at the top end of the market and these and other costs will ultimately have to be borne by farmers who have not made money for years.
“The industry will have a few winners and many more losers over the next 10 years.
“These things happen and life must go on. Whatever one might feel about these things, there are processes that are often beyond one person’s control.
“Those of us who were close to HBFMC can look with considerable satisfaction at what we achieved – especially after what happened at Tomoana. While people still feel aggrieved about what happened, the fact is these things do happen and I think the achievement was that we generally got a reasonable positive outcome”.
Mr Wilson is now the chairman of the Hawke’s Bay Crown Health Enterprise.
Fears old wounds will be re-opened
Hamilton Logan, the former chairman of W. Richmond Ltd, is reluctant to talk about the Whakatu closure because as someone in “the thick of it” 10 years ago he did not want to reopen old wounds.
“It was a very difficult time in the history of Hawke’s Bay – it did affect a huge number of people.
“It did have an enormous impact on Hawke’s Bay, certainly greater than the closure of Tomoana. It probably had greater impact than any other single event I can think of.
“It’s not for me to say 10 years on what are the pluses and minuses except to say the processing industry was grossly overburdened at that time. It still was when Tomoana closed and it probably still is now. In a free-market world it issurvival [is survival] of the fittest.
“However, I personally feel very much for those who found themselves out of work and the hardship that it brought.”
Mr Logan is now retired and living in Taupo.
A wrong decision was made
Ian Cameron, managing director of the Hawke’s Bay Farmers Meat Co. when it close [closed], is still adamant that the wrong decision was made. He retired when Whakatu closed and now lives in Havelock North.
Mr Cameron says control of HBFMC was taken over by Watties through its subsidiary Waitaki International, over a period in 1985/86. Watties appeared to get into some difficulties with meat interests they had accumulated and engaged consultants who defined Whakatu as the trump card to play and they played it.
Watties and other meat companies put together a proposal which forced closure of Whakatu and the sale of Takapau plant to Richmonds.
Was it the right decision in hindsight?
“No, it was very positively the wrong decision to take. It was very involved, but Whakatu should not have been closed. There were other options for Watties, they decided not to take them. I sincerely believe then and I sincerely believe now it was the wrong decision.
“It was a profitable, successful company operating the most modern plant at Takapau and the largest plant in the country at Whakatu.
“I sincerely believe Whakatu should not have been allowed to close or sold to Richmonds. It’s been extremely damaging to Hawke’s Bay, especially now with the loss of Tomoana.
“However, there’s no going back”.
Mr Cameron lives in retirement in Havelock North.
Photo caption – Athol Hutton arriving at Whakatu 10-years ago.
Photo caption – Former Whakatu general manager Ian Cameron in the disused slaughterhouse.
Photo caption – Peter Wilson