Friday, December 1, 2023

New Alliance CEO braced for headwinds

Neal Wallace
The Alliance Group’s new chief executive feels his entire career has been coaching him for the role.
South African-born Alliance CEO Willie Wiese loves his adoptive country – just don’t ask him to switch sides in a Rugby World Cup.
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Willie Wiese is yet to experience anything resembling a normal year in the nearly six years he has worked in the meat industry.

The new Alliance Group chief executive was the co-operative’s manufacturing manager before this month’s appointment as David Surveyor’s successor.

“I’ve learnt to plan for every possible disruptive event,”  he says.

Raised and educated in South Africa, Wiese worked there and in Australia, and fell in love with New Zealand  during winter holidays skiing in Queenstown.

When the opportunity came, he joined Alliance in late 2017.

The son of a vegetable grower in South Africa’s Western Cape, on leaving high school Wiese initially studied engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

He subsequently returned to university on several further occasions to complete management papers, which led to senior corporate roles in gas, packaging and paper manufacturing in South Africa and Australia.

He has now stepped up to the top role at Alliance, replacing Surveyor, who led the co-operative for eight years. 

Surveyor has returned to Australia and is now chief executive of  Australian Stock Exchange-listed Select Harvests.

Wiese says Surveyor’s tenure involved plenty of what he calls “heavy lifting”.

He was appointed at a time when Alliance was losing shareholders, the business and brands weren’t performing well and the industry had endured a savage market correction, Wiese says.

Surveyor left having addressed those issues – and after having lead the co-operative to record profits before provisions, distribution and tax of $117.2 million for the year ending September 30 2022.

Turnover was a record $2.2 billion.

But challenges remain, and it seems likely Wiese’s hopes for a “normal year” will remain elusive.

Those challenges include continuing to balance processing capacity and profile with livestock numbers.

Wiese says 70% of Alliance’s processing capacity is weighted towards ovine, and, with falling sheep numbers, this profile needs constant balancing.

Part of that challenge comes from the scale and pace at which farmland is being converted to forestry, an issue Wiese does not see ending for the next five years at least.

“The scale, pace and incentives supporting the way it is being done, we need to work with government and industry bodies to see how best it can be managed.

“It’s not either-or, we can do both.”

A workforce shortage remains a major challenge and Wiese says unlike Australia, where meat industry staffing has recovered to between 104% to 110% of pre-covid levels, a comparable measurement for NZ is just 50% to 60%.

“Alliance has always taken the view that we will recruit and develop locally as fast as we can, but if once we have explored that avenue and we can’t get sufficient staff, we need to firstly look to Pacific Islands and then further afield.”

He would like to see Immigration NZ look at its rules and regulations to accelerate the processing of visas so international staff can be recruited faster.

Leading one of the country’s largest red meat exporters was once unthinkable for the son of a vegetable grower.

“We did have some home kill, but we were a vegetable farm with some livestock,” he says.

Study has been a big part of his life. 

Having graduated with a Master’s degree in electrical engineering and engineering science, he followed that up with degrees in business administration and supply chain and business.

As an engineer he worked for several companies but describes his time at BOC Gas as career-defining.

The company had a labour issue with the division handling bulk gas and cylinder distribution, which Wiese was  asked to fix. He did so successfully, and that made him realise that he enjoyed that extended management role and had skills beyond engineering.

But suddenly his life was turned upside down with the passing of his first wife, leaving Wiese with two young children to care for alongside a developing career.

He was a single parent for 16 years, during which he worked and variously studied part time, with his children often coming to lectures and sitting with him in the back row.

Meanwhile his career blossomed, with promotion to a national role negotiating and dealing with the BOC Gas’s 20 largest customers before leaving to join Nampak, a specialist multinational packaging designer and manufacturer.

It was a senior corporate role for Wiese,, who was sent to Australia to oversee the troubled construction of a new paper manufacturing plant and, later, the restructuring of the business.

The plant finally opened in 2010.

Four years later he was recruited by Pacific Equity Partners, a private Australian equity investment firm that had bought Cart Holt Harvey’s NZ paper and hygiene business, now known as Asaleo Care.

But it was winter skiing excursions to Queenstown that would see Wiese not only shift industries, but countries too.

In December 2017 he was appointed Alliance’s manufacturing manager.

He says the shift from paper and packaging to meat processing was not as daunting as it may appear.

Technically the processes are similar with the biggest difference being meat is a deconstructing process rather than one involving construction.

But the principle is the same: the need to introduce efficient processes to increase competitiveness and improve service delivery.

Wiese used his manufacturing knowledge to introduce lean manufacturing processes to Alliance; these had tangible benefits, reducing costs and improving efficiency.

His introduction to the meat industry was helped by twice being acting manager of the Lorneville plant.

“Working there was really good for connecting with people in places like the slaughter board and boning rooms.

“It really grounds you.”

Given the variety and how his career has tracked, Wiese feels that joining Alliance was meant to be.

“It is almost like I have been coached and my career developed to where I am right now at Alliance.”

Wiese says his goals include working with staff to help them grow and to look at opportunities and markets to grow sales and returns.

There are several initiatives underway including decarbonisation of plants, and next year emissions will be 37% lower than they were in 2018, with the co-op on track to achieve an 80% reduction by 2029.

Other initiatives include the continued rollout of automation and robotics, and developing technology and communication with farmers to enhance and grow its hand-picked beef, lamb and venison product range.

Wiese says he brings energy, a willingness to collaborate and inclusiveness to the role, while also being decisive.

These are attributes he says are timely, given that the meat industry faces labour shortages, global inflation and fluctuating markets.

“Anyone can sail a ship in calm waters. You are up against it while on deck in high winds and a storm.”

Remarried, Wiese lives in Christchurch where two of his children attend local schools. His two adult children from his first marriage live in Australia.

Wiese’s love for his adopted country is obvious, but his passion for South Africa remains.

Asked who will win this year’s Rugby World Cup, he unapologetically says South Africa – but qualifies that by saying he hopes the final is against the All Blacks, his second favourite team.

Watch our latest On Farm Story on time-saving agritech to help farmers manage biosecurity on-farm below

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