Thursday, November 30, 2023

Guiding force behind fine wool leaves an industry transformed

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With John Brakenridge at the helm, the fine wool industry has completely transformed over the past three decades.
The outgoing chief executive of the New Zealand Merino Company says, ‘We can produce the wool but it’s what you wrap around the wool that brings returns to growers.’
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The man who has been the driving force behind transforming the New Zealand fine wool industry says his passion is such that while he is stepping down, he is not stepping out. 

After 27 years as chief executive with the New Zealand Merino Company (NZM), John Brakenridge is calling it a day at the helm.

He said his time in the industry has felt like a 27-year sprint, but he has no regrets and is confident the time is right to take a step back.    

In his last few weeks transitioning out and preparing to hand over the reins he has a lot to reflect on, but as much, he said, also to look ahead to for the NZ wool industry in general.    

“It’s been a career of passion for me,” Brakenridge said. 

The fine wool industry has completely transformed over the past three decades.

The story, he said, is how can that be relevant to others leading the industry over the next five years.

“Go back to the beginning of NZM and applaud the growers,” he said.

“It takes a phoenix approach; a coat of paint would have been failure.”

The biggest change has been the move to contracts versus auction.

“How we shifted from commodity into longer-term transactions that, for the likes of Icebreaker, go out for 10 years.

“It’s been a game-changer for growers who had the confidence in the model to take it on.”

Contracts helped lift prices and keep them stable so farmers had certainty around the returns they were going to get.

For growers, NZM put solid ground over the rising and falling tide of commodity prices, creating a sexy sales story around Kiwi Merino wool as forward contracts replaced auctions with clothing brands like Icebreaker and designer textiles Smartwool in the United Sates and John Smedley in Europe. 

As he reflects on what has been achieved, Brakenridge said it’s been nothing short of “fantastic”.

Moving into active and outdoor wear helped.

When the farmer-established organisation Merino NZ was set up there was no market for merino active and outdoor wear. 

“Look at it now, it’s worth millions. Not only that, but it’s also still growing.”

NZM brought about transformation by blowing open the merino industry’s secretive supply chain from farmers and wool buyers to processors, manufacturers and retailers.

It takes vision, energy and determination to lead transformation, but most importantly it’s about people, he said.

“Success and sustainability are about the people. The lessons we have learnt could be very relevant for different pockets of growers not only for strong wool but also wider industry in NZ very much in need of transformational change.”

Having been involved with the establishment of Te Hono – a partnership between the leaders of NZ’s food and fibre sector companies, iwi and government agencies – Brakenridge said this was the melting pot of discussion that brought strategic leadership from outside New Zealand.

“It is the intersection of natural capital, the ability to grow wool, grow animals, and grow horticulture.

“We have set ourselves a mission to capture more value for NZ from our primary sector products, leading the charge to transform the way the sector operates from being predominantly focused on export volume under a commodity-based trading model, to a value-based model producing and exporting products of higher consumer value. 

“Looking to the future technology, and the investment around that, is going to be the driver.”

Key to that, Brakenridge, said is the importance of people.

“Often missed in this country is the behavioural science. 

“Our primary sector missed the understanding of the importance of people, the important third leg of the stool. Where NZM has stood out is on the human side, one that I see as very important in the future.

“The gap will be about human connection and the story we wrap around that.”

Wool has an incredible origin story but there is a need to recognise the value of connecting consumers, he said.

“The more we can build an understanding on how to connect with people, whether fine wool or strong wool, it needs a sophisticated approach to connect with the right global consumers, marketers and the right brands.

“And we must champion our growers; there are incredible men and often unsung women producing these incredible fibres.”

There needs to be empathy coming right through the value chain from growers to consumers.

“At NZM we have always had a constant sense of urgency to be at the front of the curve to be the best, protecting growers and capturing opportunity.”

As he hands over the business, Brakenridge acknowledged a significant change in more recent years in the quality of talent in the industry.

“We’ve had three record years, we’ve got an incredible platform and an amazing team, so from my perspective it’s time to step aside and allow new talent to come in and take the industry forward.

“There is a bright future.”

Where does he go from here? 

“I have been given the advice, like you see on the train platforms: mind the gap.

“My passion is such I will continue to sit in the intersection of natural capital and technology.

“I am not chasing anything down, there’s phenomenal opportunity and capacity to do better, to wrap around stories of branding and people connection because that’s what proves to be the multiplier for what we can achieve for our product.

“We can produce the wool but it’s what you wrap around the wool that brings returns to growers.

“It’s all about people and we are losing sight of that. If we can turn that around and embrace and understand that we can really stand out.”

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