A month into the job, new Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) boss Richard Norton has already made a small change, but one that flags his approach to running the besieged organisation more clearly than any number of reviews.
He has put his contact details on the MLA website.
“I know a lot of people think I’m mad, but I’ve done it in other organisations,” Mr Norton said.
“Having conversations with your fiercest opponents sometimes can give you great insights.”
MLA has plenty of those critics, as Mr Norton is well aware, helped by his time sitting in the Senate inquiry into grass-fed beef levies.
He’s beginning his term by telling those critics that the “circle the wagons” defensiveness that MLA has been denounced for is gone.
“I’ve got a clear pathway forward. The board has directed me to review all activities in MLA under an efficiency and effectiveness brief that, in my opinion, will transform MLA into a more transparent organisation.
“I hear the frustration that people have around the transparency of MLA and the way their levies are being spent. We will address transparency, and how levy payers become more engaged with MLA - perhaps through direct consultation.
“It’s clear that MLA needs to be on the ground, holding focus groups and ensuring that levy payers feel that they are more involved with MLA.”
A priority is to reboot the hung response to a review of MLA’s Livestock Systems research and development program.
“Like any organisation we must be accountable, we must deliver.”
The program came under strong criticism in an independent review tabled early last year, but so far, only eight of the 12 recommendations have been acted on.
“The whole report should have been addressed and closed out, and the stakeholders communicated with,” Mr Norton said.
Instead of just finishing the outstanding recommendations, he is starting over on the whole process.
“It’s one of the key priorities of the board," he said.
"We’ve got a few board members and stakeholders heavily engaged in the process so we can get to the stage where levy payers have an ability to influence the R&D supported by this organisation, and be engaged in the process, understand the milestones and where their money was spent.
“I want the review to give MLA clear peer review systems, so that we can understand whether any R&D being done has been done in the past, whether there are global experiences we can learn from, and that the methodology being used is world’s best practice.”
Adoption of research remains a challenge for MLA, as it is for most R&D corporations. Mr Norton is thinking that MLA will take a much more hands-on role in delivering the research it funds.
“If we’re going to be accountable for the R&D, then I would prefer that we deliver the R&D on-farm ourselves.”
Transparency of a different kind is the subject of another MLA review: price transparency in the beef supply chain.
MLA has started reviewing price transparency models around the world, along with proposals like the that put forward by Queensland grazier Rob Moore, who would like to see an Australian version of the US Stockyards and Packers Act.
“The role of MLA in this process is to gather all the information on all the different models, and put them into a recommendation for industry. We’re the enabler.”
“If industry wants further transparency, it's up to MLA to go out and review how industry could do it. And if a model is agreed to by industry, it’s up to us to put that model in place. It’s not for MLA to be the judge and jury.”
Initial findings from the survey should be available in 2014.
The bigger picture for Mr Norton is to better connect the dots between levy payments and the value that MLA has delivered to the levy payer.
“It’s going to be about more MLA people standing in front of levy payers,” he said.
“Like any organisation we must be accountable, we must deliver. At the moment, the opportunity is to adopt an engaged, on-farm process to find what levy payers actually want. We do significant engagement, but obviously we’ve got to do more.”
Global market access will deliver: Norton
RICHARD Norton grew up as a fifth generation grazier on the Monaro, NSW. He still holds a “very modest” operation in the highlands with his parents.
He got his stock and station agent’s licence in 1990, and with a few diversions, has been associated with the livestock sector ever since.
“I’ve lived through the shooting of sheep, through farmers paying processors to take sheep off-farm,” Mr Norton said.
“I’ve seen Merino ewes sell for $200 and commercial Angus cows and calves sell for $2500 - the highs and lows of industry.”
He has had a restless career. Between 2000-2006 he worked for Cospak, Coca Cola Amatil and Woolworths; from 2007 he ascended through Landmark, becoming managing director of Landmark Operations in 2010.
He developed Landmark’s live export business, now Australia’s largest breeding live export operation.
“That gave me the opportunity to understand global markets - protocols, barriers to entry. During that time I travelled to more than 20 countries developing the business.”
When Mr Norton left Landmark, it was for a mere seven months as head of Network Development at Ruralco. Then the MLA job beckoned.
“There can’t be a better job than marketing the best product in the world into new markets,” he said.
“I understand that at the moment seasonal conditions are as tough as they have ever been in some areas, and farmgate prices are tough on growers, but I believe that we are on the verge of having a price boom in the net 12-18 months if seasonal conditions turn,” he said.
“I’m not saying that it’s all due to MLA, but I believe that MLA’s decades of focusing on global market access is going to deliver rewards for the investment that has been made in MLA through levies.”