After an impressive and dedicated career building and working for Mountain River, Ian Stewart has chosen to retire from his role as General Manager of Mountain River Processors.
Ian is well respected in the deer industry and has contributed a lot over his long career. Many of those who know, and/or who have worked with Ian over the years, describe him as down to earth, calm under pressure, solutions-focused, hugely supportive, insightful, honest, and not afraid to tell you what he thinks. He is what you would call a ‘steady hand on the tiller’ type of manager.
Looking back at Ian’s long career
In 1966, at 16 years old, Ian started part-time at the Mossburn venison works as a labourer. He was also working on the family farm at the same time. The Mossburn factory had been set up to pack wild venison for export to Germany and the USA. Some days there would be hundreds of deer arriving from helicopter operators. They were the ‘hay days’ of the wild deer recovery industry. Ian remembers the products were all packed in 27.2kg boxes, which required a lot of juggling to get the weight right for bone in shoulders, legs and saddles. Each box contained a mix of large and small pieces. Getting the carcass branding right was also a common challenge. The USA required stamping using Indigo Violet ink and Europe required Brown ink. A mistake or change of market involved the hassle of removing and replacing the brands.
Ian worked up the chain to become the general manager at Mossburn in 1987.
Ian's involvement with Mountain River goes back to 1994. The Mossburn plant had been taken over by PPCS after the collapse of Venison New Zealand, but Ian made the decision not to accept a job with the new owner – what he sees as one of the most significant decisions in his career.
The Doug Hood Group had purchased Northbank Station which had a licensed slaughter plant on it, and they were keen to do something with it. Fortex was one of the major venison companies at the time, and happened to be just down the road at Seafield in Ashburton. The Doug Hood Group had started building the processing facility before Fortex went into receivership. In those days Fortex was at least 40% of the NZ Venison industry. At this time farmers were finding it hard to get space at Fortex, and that was huge driver for the Doug Hood Group to do something.
Mt Hutt Station was part of the Doug Hood Group, who themselves ran a few thousand deer. It was subsequently sold to Keith and Denise Hood who continue to supply deer to Mountain River.
“It was always our intention to slaughter one day and process the next. Word spread quickly that we were opening so we started receiving a huge number of job applications, mainly from people who had worked at Fortex and had been made redundant. So from day one we started with a very experienced crew. That made the decision to slaughter and process every day a lot easier”, Ian recalls.
Ian remembers Kerry and Shane during the period when they had decided to replace the original slaughter floor with a new one after 8 years. They, along with Hamish, designed the new slaughter floor by laying out cardboard cut outs of the equipment in the car park to see how the design would work.
Paneltech, who built Mountain River, pulled down the old slaughterhouse and built the new one over a Christmas break - which was a huge effort under the circumstances, and very much appreciated by Ian and the whole team.
“The day before we resumed the first kill, the yards were full of deer and we could hear them moving around in the yards while we were still doing the last minute things to finish off the new slaughterhouse. It all worked like clockwork thanks to a huge effort all round”.
In Ian’s early days at Mossburn they only processed wild deer. Once live capture started, the numbers of wild deer for processing declined dramatically. Farmers who were starting to develop deer farms were paying much more than meat value for live deer, spending up to $2,000 to $3,000 per hind. It was the start-up phase of the deer industry and farms were investing in it heavily.
By 2003, they started more specialised cutting to meet the needs of overseas clients. Ian’s
company saw the need to expand the processing room as they wanted to fit a multi-vac packaging machine into the room. The addition went very smoothly and still works well! Since then, they have added a Desinewed Mince Meat machine and a new auto vacuum packaging machine with a shrink tunnel.
Outside the factory Ian has been involved in many areas of development for Mountain River Venison due to his other interests, one of these being China. Ian has always loved visiting the country and is fascinated by the culture. Because of this, Mountain River was the first venison plant to have a China listing.
Ian, along with John Sadler, and sometimes Graham Brown (the NZ Deer Industry Chef), has visited customers in Europe, China, and the USA. It certainly helped to get more hands on with trends and customers' needs and perceptions, Ian says. Ian has also travelled with Kerry and Shane and other Mountain River Processors’ staff members, which speaks to the team and people culture that Ian has facilitated among the business.
“For the team, trips like these are just so valuable. As an example, Shane visited Sweden and the USA over the past two years, and that has given him a lot more appreciation of what we are all trying to achieve together”.
Ian also understands Mountain River's value as a specialist venison producer, and especially, Mountain River Processors role in that. He says that, “Because the bigger venison players slaughtered a lot more deer than us they needed to sell in the commodity markets. John Sadler quickly convinced us that our way forward was by doing more specialty cuts, which we are still doing today. Shane Webster has been instrumental for leading the way on this at the plant”.
Ian reflects on some difficult times along the way
“I only got to know Doug Hood for 2 years before he passed away. Doug I found was very knowledgeable and supportive. Doug's wife Mary stepped into the role of Group Manager after Doug's death and she still holds that position today. Mary is a real trooper and very supportive. ‘Keep going’ is her motto, and it’s good to have a leading person like that.”
“The saddest part of my time during the early helicopter days was attending 13 funerals over an 18 month period. Most helicopter pilots will tell you that it's the pilot that lets the helicopter down and not the helicopter letting them down.”
“Our early days at Mountain River were often ‘seat of your pants kind of days’, anything could go wrong. For example, one farmer had sent a TB animal in and, unbeknown to us at the time, he had cut the TB reactor tabs off. MAF found this out quite a while after the event and the farmer admitted it. By this time some of the products had already left the factory in containers and were on their way to Europe. Ian had to travel to Belgium to find the effected containers and sort through them, aided by John Sadler. Ian was away dealing with this for about 3 weeks.”
Highlights & important milestones
Ian is leaving behind an excellent management team and a very good slaughter and processing team. Over the years Ian has contributed to making that team what it is today: a hard-working team who knows the industry inside out. Having personal friendship is invaluable, as Ian says, “We all sort have grown together.”
New Zealand Deer numbers are at their lowest, and have been for some time, but there now appears to be a slow and steady climb in numbers, which is good going forward.
The Doug Hood Group has spent millions of dollars in the past three years developing Northbank Station by converting to pivot irrigation. Ian expects that Northbank Station will soon be a well-developed farm, and something the whole group will be extremely proud of.
“I am sure no other venison company in New Zealand has the complete pasture to plate scenario that our group has and something we can be really proud and grateful for”, Ian says.
Ian is a great example of someone instrumental in the growth of the business. Loyal to the concept of a supply chain that is owned by different parties, Ian has always seen the value of partnership. He focuses on his part while developing a good team.
Where to from here?
Kerry will take over as General Manager at Mountain River Processors. Ian’s advice for Kerry and Shane is: “good luck for the future. A lot of what we have achieved over the years is down to the hard work they have already done, so really it is just a matter of carrying on with the good work”.
Ian and his wife Ngaire have purchased a home in a Retirement Village in Rolleston, and they are planning to spend the next winter on the Gold Coast of Australia for something different. Ian and Ngaire are classic examples of ‘don't leave home until you have seen your own country’, so they intend to explore parts of the North Island over in the next few years.
Well done Ian, enjoy this next phase, you certainly deserve it!