Monday, April 22, 2024

Meaty Matters: An inspired choice

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When Rod Slater accepted a plea to salvage the Beef + Lamb Marketing Bureau in 1993, he had just sold his share of the Mad Butcher, which he started with Peter Leitch. He imagined he might be there for two weeks and stayed for 27 years.
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When Rod Slater accepted a plea to salvage the Beef + Lamb Marketing Bureau in 1993, he had just sold his share of the Mad Butcher, which he started with Peter Leitch. He imagined he might be there for two weeks and stayed for 27 years. What began in the 1980s as the Red Meat Promotion Council as a partnership between meat retailers and processors, had hit a large obstacle when Foodstuffs and Progressive Enterprises withdrew their financial support, because of a loss of confidence in the bureau’s direction and competence.

Beef + Lamb NZ eventually emerged from the ruins, because of Slater’s unique blend of skills as an entrepreneur, implementer and marketer, with an unparalleled ability to communicate with butchers, retailers and farmers. He combined these characteristics with a talent for finding good people to work for him, delegating and creating teams intent on achieving clear goals – all of this on a tight budget. He has also led the way in appointing women to senior roles from the beginning and it is no coincidence that his successor as chief executive, Antoinette Bisset, has already spent 10 years with the organisation.

Unlike B+LNZ which is 100% funded by farmer levies, Beef + Lamb Inc has relied on voluntary support from retailers (supermarkets and butchers), processors (MIA and Abattoirs Association) and farmers (B+LNZ), originally on the basis of dollar for dollar from each group. The three way funding model, unique to NZ, was established in 2001 and is still running without contracts 20 years later, although B+LNZ has reduced its contribution level.

In the mid-1990s Slater succeeded in regaining the support of all the retailers for the Quality Mark, with Meat Board member Bruce Jans able to convince the board to provide matching funds to introduce it on the domestic market. The Quality Mark was launched with great fanfare in September 1997 and, almost overnight, new quality specifications solved the problems of product inconsistency and toughness, which research had identified as the major obstacle to encouraging favourable consumer attitudes to beef and lamb.

During his career, Slater has turned his hand to many occupations and hobbies, including sailor, skier, motelier, music shop owner and butcher, but the past third of his life has been largely devoted to relentlessly enthusiastic and imaginative promotion of NZ beef and lamb. He succeeded in gaining access for a rock-bottom price to Meat & Livestock Australia’s advertising campaigns, which then led to the Iron Maidens campaign featuring the Evers-Swindell twins, Sarah Ulmer, Lisa Carrington and Sarah Walker as Red Meat Ambassadors.

Part of their reward was to receive liberal supplies of red meat, emphasising the benefits of iron and protein to their performance, but Beef + Lamb was also notably the first organisation to sponsor these high profile women athletes. Today it appears strange that women had to struggle so hard to attract sponsorship at that time, especially considering the excellence of their sporting achievements on the biggest world stage of all. But it took a visionary leader like Slater to realise earlier than most the importance of bringing women into the team, both as ambassadors for the product and as essential members of his management group.

In researching his career, I contacted two of Slater’s past business managers, both women who worked with him for more than 10 years. They praised his leadership and mentoring as first class, but reiterated his innate understanding of the whole supply chain and his ability to engender trust and confidence from all those he worked with. His ability to choose team members and inspire them to perform beyond their beliefs is one of his greatest talents.

Other important initiatives under his leadership have been Steak of Origin, Glammies and the World Butchers Challenge. With the latter he has created a global butchery competition that has changed the lives of so many across the world. His idea to create a Trans-Tasman’ butchery competition has grown into what is now termed The Olympics of Meat, with over 16 nations set to compete (including Iceland, Brazil and Mexico) in an NBA arena in Sacramento, California, next September. According to Ashley Gray, previously with Beef + Lamb who is now based in Australia as chief executive of the World Butchers Challenge, “it’s through his networking, hard work and again complete dedication that the World Butchers’ Challenge has grown to incredible heights. Not to mention, Rod now gives his time freely to keep the momentum building and the competition successful”.

It isn’t often, particularly in a highly-competitive industry riddled with strong personalities, that a leader of any sort gets to retire, universally praised for his contribution to the whole industry for more than a quarter of a century. I had the pleasure of working with Slater in the late 90s on the advisory board for the introduction of Quality Mark during the period leading up to the launch and he has remained a vital sounding board for me ever since. He is a genuinely good guy who has done more for the meat industry than anybody else during his time involved. Dennis Denton, Woolworth’s meat manager and chair of Beef + Lamb 27 years ago, certainly made an inspired choice of chief executive, even if he only intended to stay for two weeks.

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