Traditional Southland values and a commitment to family, in all shapes and forms, have been the key to success for Blue Sky Meats.
This year, the southern-born meat processing company will celebrate its 30th year in business, serving Southland farmers.
It’s an achievement which CEO Todd Grave is especially proud of, and puts the success of the company down to the people who work tirelessly and give their all for the company.
“Several people and their families have made Blue Sky Meats the home of their long careers, many having been with us for most of those 30 years.
“At the AGM on August 21, the company will be honouring their work with the presentation of 25-year watches,” he says.
The people, Grave says, are the heart behind the operation.
Receiving one of those watches will be boning room supervisor Dave Evans.
His, among others, outstanding work ethos warrants recognition, but its Evans’ familial ties with the company that are also impressive.
Evans is one of three generations of his family working at the Morton Mains plant, near Invercargill.
His wife, Charmayne, joined in 1997, his son, Tony in 2004, and his granddaughter, Grace, joined the family last year.
All four work in the boning room and while it was “nice to keep an eye on them”, Evans felt the whole team were a bit of a family.
“It’s the people there, it’s the management – we all look after each other,” he says.
It’s a similar story for Tangi Mitiau, who has also been with Blue Sky Meats for 25 years.
Two of her daughters, her son, her son-in-law and for a while, her husband, all work at the Morton Mains plant, as well as several other relations.
For Mitiau, it all adds to the culture and ethos of the plant.
“I just really like the job and I like being at work.”
As a mother, she wanted her children to learn how to hold their own and after they left high school, heading off the Blue Sky Meats was a good way for them to learn about supporting themselves.
“I would just rock up to the work manager and ask if there were any jobs going. If he said yes, I’d say ‘great, I’ve got some workers for you’,” she says.
For a small business among big players across New Zealand, reaching 30 years is no mean feat.
Grave says Blue Sky Meats plays with the big boys, but isn’t trying to be one of them.
“I think of it like judo, where we use our small size to our advantage against some of the bigger guys in the industry,” he says.
“We’re not big and we’re not trying to get big. What we can do isn’t like what the others can do because of the pressures on them as large-scale companies.”
Recently, Blue Sky Meats has undertaken a review of its operations, and has implemented a strategic plan to see the company through the next three years.
“We’ve built for 30 years, now we’re building for the next 30,” Grave says.
The plan is focused on three major pillars: increasing yield, remediating the company’s Gore business and increasing chilled exports.
“Chilled exports are far more profitable than frozen, so we want to focus our efforts to be in a more profitable position, and an increase in yield will be a direct reflection on more efficient working practices with less wastage and more sales value from our products,” he says.
“We see ourselves as a profitable, high-end and niche meat processor and marketer.”
Despite there being talk in the industry about Chinese company Binxi’s decision to not take over Blue Sky Meats, it was business as usual for Grave.
“Potential takeovers are a fact of life for public companies; takeover or not, our job remains the same,” he says.
“We’re still here, working with our loyal shareholders suppliers and staff to deliver quality products. People and developing good relationships remain the core of our business.”
The people at Blue Sky Meats are, Grave says, the biggest asset the company has.
“In many respects, this is like family-run business. It represents Southland values of honesty, integrity and openness,” he says.
Operations Manager Further Processing Brett Jenkins agrees.
“Over the years a lot of deals have been done on handshakes, rather than a contract,” he says.
It’s those loyal and reliable bonds which have strengthened the company and set its working culture apart from others in the meat processing industry.
Operations Manager Slaughter/Technical Billy Wells says the company has taken on a myriad of different people from different backgrounds over the years.
“There’s been bad boys who we’ve nurtured and who have become good boys,” he says.
“It’s fairly nurturing work, we do look after our people, and that’s not something a lot of freezing workers could say.”
While there have been issues that have plagued the meat processing industry, they don’t seem to have made their way to Blue Sky Meats.
“It’s a hard industry. There’s been lock outs, strikes, plant closures, industrial disputes… we’ve not had any of that here.
“There’s never been a day’s lost production because of a strike at Blue Sky Meats.
Holding just as much of an important role as its workers and managers are the shareholder suppliers who work with Blue Sky Meats.
Supplier David Church has been with Blue Sky Meats from the beginning, supplying his lambs through the company.
Back in “those days” there were only a couple of big players around in terms of processing options, but it was Blue Sky’s small, bespoke size that was attractive.
“They’re open, honest and reliable. If you’re ever having a problem with anything, you can go straight to the top and talk about it with management,” he says.
Church says that kind of transparency was becoming rarer in the industry these days, but his enduring relationship with Blue Sky Meats came down to their reliability.
For many of the same reasons, Richard Dillon has been with Blue Sky Meats since “the first two days after it opened”.
Based in Ardlussa, Dillon is third generation farmer whose family have been farming on the same land for almost 100 years.
With such commitment to the land, Dillon recognises the value in the committed relationship between suppliers and processors.
“I was carting up to 8000 ewes at one point, and I liked the way they set up,” he says.
“Their agents are good, they’re the type of people who will take the time to come inside and have a cup of tea with you.”