AFTER a long and interesting career in the WA meat industry, Craig Mostyn Group (CMG) export liaison Ron Penn has decided to hang up his boning knife and will retire at the end of February.
CMG recruited Peter Spackman, formerly from Inghams, who began at the end of October 2017 as his replacement as the general manager of meat and livestock.
“CMG are talking about me staying on in a mentoring-type arrangement for a further 12 months,” Mr Penn said.
“I won’t be involved in the major decision-making, but with the acquisition of V&V Walsh and the beef and sheep experience I have had there may be something I can contribute to the business for a little while yet.”
Mr Penn has been one of CMG’s longest serving employees – with a career which started when he was just 14-years-old.
“It’s been a long career,” he said.
“I started in the meat industry at Lee Brothers as a 14-year-old.
“In those days if you didn’t have the aptitude to continue in school you were sought of pushed and moved on.
“We had a relationship with Ron Lee, who was my godfather, which was an opportunity to call in a favour and start off in the meat industry – which is how I got started.”
Mr Penn said he came from a family of slaughtermen and strong likes to abattoirs.
“I can remember being at school when they would say what would you like to do,” he said.
“I would always answer ‘a slaughterman’, which seemed to be a strange thing to them.
“My father was a slaughterman and my mother came from a family of nine - her five brothers were all slaughtermen and they all worked in and around the abattoirs in Perth.
“They always worked in the seasons up north and so there was this mystic about these abattoirs in Broome, Wyndham, Derby and Glenroy – as well as going north for the cattle season.”
After joining Lee Brothers, Mr Penn did a meat traineeship and then moved into export boning.
He worked as an export boner for Lee Brothers, Clover Meats and also Derby Industries Meat Processing Company (DEMCO).
“Coincidentally CMG owned Derby Industries,” Mr Penn said.
“So probably, like Bob Mostyn, the former chairman and now major shareholder of CMG, I worked in Derby Industries in 1968 with my wife Janet and I doing the 1971-1972 season in Derby – so I’m probably one of the longest employees if you track back to then (although there was a fairly substantial gap in the middle there).”
Mr Penn said his passion in those days was basketball and he was lucky enough to represent and captain the State team five times in the Australian Championships.
“When we played in WA in those days for Highgate, renamed the East Perth Hawks – we won three premierships in a row,” he said.
“So the fact that I was able to play sport and captain a team, even though I was a manual worker, I must have shown some leadership abilities.”
Up until 1975 Mr Penn worked as a manual butcher under “a tally system – so you were paid for what you did”.
“You always got paid good money,” he said.
“I remember when I was 18 – even younger at Lee Brothers, working in the tally boning system.
“I was earning more money than my father was – who was involved in the meat industry elsewhere.
“If you had the physical strength and skills then you earned the same as the chap beside you who might have been 30-45-years-old.
“So there were many times that I would be earning twice the day’s pay.
“The industry has been attractive from the start, in terms of financial support and security.”
In the mid 1970s, Mr Penn and his wife Janet took their 12-month-old son Steve to the United Kingdom via a working holiday in South Africa.
“It didn’t take long in South Africa to develop a role with Orchid Foods,” he said.
“It wasn’t long before I started playing basketball and soon after that I commenced playing for South Africa – suddenly your life changed.
“You were on a short-term excursion and then swiftly entrenched into the system.”
The system gave Mr Penn the opportunity to expand his leadership skills and learn more about the industry as he moved up the ranks into a supervisor position, before becoming the works manager.
“The works manager headed up the meat supply to the cannery, wholesale and so on,” he said.
“Suddenly you were given company cars, extra salaries and given an opportunity to improve managerial skills.
“There were opportunities to go to training courses and learn about meat production, shelf life, technology, cannery, people management and those sort of things.”
After two and a half years, and a daughter Kelle on the way, the family started looking at moving home or continuing on to the UK, until an opportunity arose at the Botswana Meat Commission (BMC) as a boning room supervisor.
“So again taking a downward step, I ran the boning room in Botswana and it was a big operation,” Mr Penn said.
“We were processing about 1200 bodies of beef per day and we took the plant to do 2500 bodies of beef a day on a single shift.”
After a two-year contract they turned back to Australia in 1979 where he “had to go back on the tools” at Clover Meats.
“I was re-employed the first day I went in there as an export boner again,” Mr Penn said.
During that time he sent out resumes and Metro Meats made contact offering a position at Katanning where he would run the beef floor.
He then went to Geraldton and started a boning room operation for Metro Meats at Narngulu before going back to Katanning to take over as boning and offal supervisor under the management of Peter Grierson.
“By that stage I had been contacted by Watsonia/George Weston Foods to join them,” Mr Penn said.
“So I left, even though it was probably a better position and a better future at that time in Katanning with Metro Meats.
“It was an opportunity to better our lifestyle as a family by moving back to Perth.”
Mr Penn joined Watsonia as the boning room supervisor in 1981 and was soon promoted by Brad Thomason to works manager and involved in the corporate structure with training provided.
“I worked there for 14 years – which is a long time,” he said.
After Watsonia, Mr Penn worked at Prota Pet Food until the “head-hunters came” and Craig Mostyn wanted to open up its abattoir at the old TipTop abattoir at Wooroloo.
“So it was in 1998 I joined the CMG to open up their abattoir and to run it,” he said.
It was at this time when the government allowed the importation of pork from the US and Canada and that the local pork industry was in decline.
In late 1998, the Nipah virus hit Malaysia – “which killed around 200 farm workers and a couple of abattoir workers in Singapore,” Mr Penn said.
“The Singapore government closed down the pork coming out of Malaysia for slaughtering, which devastated the industry virtually overnight.
“The Singapore importers came looking to Australia to import pork – and that was our saviour.”
At this stage CMG was not export accredited so when a “visitor from Singapore came down wanting us to export” it was fortunate that a relationship with Watsonia, through Lui Rinaldi, was in place, which enabled the company to meet the demand.
“We were sending female pigs to Watsonia to be slaughtered for export and to Singapore and we would pick up the males and the rejects from Watsonia and process them through Linley Valley Pork for Globe Meats, then owned by CMG,” Mr Penn said.
“And even though we were in competition both parties were working together.
“By this stage, we were doing about 3000 pigs a week – from 1100 in a very short period of time.
“When CMG opened and ran the Wooroloo abattoir in February, 1999 it processed about 1200 pigs a week because of the downturn in pig prices.
“A lot of farmers had disappointingly exited the industry and it wasn’t long that we realised if we were going to continue to grow this business we needed to grow the relationship with farmers, that was going to be critical.”
Mr Penn teamed up with Johnny Bell who joined CMG after the closure of Clover Meats and they worked together to assist farmers and build the business, which included the purchase of the old Western Australian Meat Marketing Co-operative export abattoir next door to their site in 2002, which they spent 12 months developing into a primary pork abattoir, and opened in Easter 2003.
But it was more than just building a business for Mr Penn – it was also about the people.
“All the way through there has been an excellent workforce,” he said.
“As we go through you will find that it has been the workforce that have made Linley Valley Pork and the workforce that have got us to where we are today.”
“I suppose the end point is that we started doing 1100 pigs a week and now leading into Christmas 2017, the team were doing 16,000 pigs a week.
“On any given day on site the rate of 410 pigs per hour.
“They will do 1160 - 1200 by morning smoko.
“That just shows the growth in the business and it’s all from local producers.”
Mr Penn said, “sixty five per cent of all Australian fresh pork sold in Singapore comes from CMG”.
He said, “due to having the same time zone, it being a close market and due to the quality of the product, CMG was able to export to all major importers in Singapore”.
“You can’t underestimate the quality of product that they put out,” Mr Penn said.
“There’s not a lot of difference from Eastern States and timelines to what we have got you know, but it’s the relationships you build as you go.”
Mr Penn said during the time of growth CMG took over a series of farms and businesses to expand and guarantee ongoing supply.
“We now have three breeder units running about 11,500 sows, producing about 45pc of our own livestock, plus eight contract farmers growing on our behalf,” he said.
“We started Linley Valley employing 22 people and with our farms now we employ around 460 people.
“There are 380 people on the site at Wooroloo.”
While Mr Penn admitted he hadn’t met anyone famous in his travels, he had met a lot of interesting people within the meat production and processing industry.
“The highlight has been the people,” he said.
“That has been by far the highlight.
“The growth has also been a highlight and travel-wise I’ve been to Singapore 60 times – which equates to about three times a year.”
“We visited importers, factory managers and key people in the pork industry.
“I haven’t been to Canada or America but all of our customers and markets are in Asia, so I have been right up through China.”
“Our labour comes out of the Philippines, Myanmar, China and Taiwan and therefore we have travelled all through that area trying to sell products.
“All of our machinery equipment comes out of Europe so we have been all through there in particular to Iceland, Finland, Denmark, Germany and Spain.”
Mr Penn said there were “certainly opportunities” in the agriculture and meat processing industries and if he was a young person today he “would go into it”.
“We are in a new era now, we have come through this structure of the old style experienced type management based on trial and error, where now there are more computers and a lot more business management and extensive controls in place,” he said.
“We have meat scientists, IT specialists, farm managers, vet advisors and nutritionists – it opens up a raft of opportunities.”
Mr Penn said, “in the old days if someone showed good ethical work skills they would be made supervisor – even though they didn’t really want to be the supervisor – that meant many failed to get the best out of the workforce and grow the business“.
“This is where you need good strong educated people that are computer literate and can present things, who have good communication skills and can transfer that knowledge.
“A lot of the people that work at Linley Valley have come in as cleaners, to sweep the floor or throw the bones away, or perform some menial task, and have progressed to be the supervisor or the foreman of their operation.
“It offers you those chances to do that with upskilling internally, but you still need to have the people coming in from outside having their agricultural degrees.
“Particularly on farms, you are dealing with growth rates, feed conversions and health and welfare of the animals.
“You are dealing with a whole raft of different things that are happening on farm that need to be under control every given day.
“Because what you are trying to do is minimise the cost of production, you are trying to make sure you’re feeding efficiently.
“Even though you may not be on the farm you are still tracking information all the time to see what variables are out there.
“This is where you need the people with the right training to do that.”
Mr Penn said at “70 years young” and after 48 years of marriage, two children and four grandchildren, he was looking forward to spending more time with the family.