Wagin Grainfeeds a success story

23 Feb, 2001 10:00 PM
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NATIONAL dog food company Uncle Ben's has been a long-term sponsor of the Woolorama sheep dog trials but there are local links behind the glossy Pal Pedigree Meaty Bites label.

The relationship between the big manufacturer and local company Grainfeeds is one of the town's good news stories and one of persistence through adversity.

Essentially Grainfeeds is the phoenix that rose from the ashes of Graincol, a farmer owned company set up when wheat prices were in dire straits in the early seventies.

The base plan was to manufacture alcohol as a fuel additive but the idea never gained the political support needed.

In the meantime wheat prices recovered and the savior to the industry was no longer needed.

However, a second industry evolved from the grain research and the plant was commissioned on Starea, a cereal and urea based formulation for cattle.

With marketing pitched at an international level the local company was facing bankruptcy by 1977 but a last ditch effort by the receivers to generate a cash flow saw Allan Rowe, a former West Australian working in South Australia who had considerable experience in the paper industry, put in charge.

The idea of dry dog food production that was first considered in 1974 advanced as markets were developed around those products but the move came too late and the plant was closed.

It was the threat that the infrastructure would be sold to South Australia that prompted local farmer Ian Pederick and businessman Chris Ingrey to put in a bid.

They scaled their thinking to a local level and started producing a heat-extruded pellet. Thus Grainfeeds was born.

Allan says a major turning point was local farmers Ric McDonald and Malcolm Edward's request for a totally balanced sheep formulation and their contribution gave Grainfeeds a significant step forward in identifying local demand for a summer feed.

So for the first time a sheep pellet using the Starea technology was manufactured and that was the beginning of the highly successful "Wagin nuts".

It was a bold move by Ian and Chris but a gamble that paid off when in 1978 the region was in the grips of a severe drought and demand skyrocketed.

The formulated feed was used extensively throughout Australia by the stud Merino industry and although not made for many years, Allan still receives enquiries for them.

The stigma of bankruptcy was finally wiped from the slate when in 1981 the company, now with Allan as a minor shareholder, received an Advance Australia Award for its contribution to the Australian feed industry.

In 1982 Grainfeeds, now a dynamic small company with a staff of eight, was recognised firstly as a state then as a national small business winner and received an award for outstanding achievement.

In 1993/94 a major downturn in farming and the seasonal production of the sheep pellets ceased so that the processing line could be dedicated to dog food. This time there was no turning back.

Foodland was wooed as a major customer and their generic line was produced along with Grainfeeds own brand Alert which was sold, among others, through Coles supermarkets.

Allan came to the conclusion that they were good manufacturers of dog food but the marketing was more complicated and they sold the Alert label.

Today Grainfeeds concentrates totally on dog food, producing for several major companies but as a close associate of the Merino industry through some exciting years Allan says he still has a yearning to diversify back into Wagin nuts, saying the technological know-how is still there but it would require a second extruder dedicated to seasonal production lines.

Allan and his wife Pam steadily increased their shareholding and now own the business outright.

Today Grainfeeds is the town's biggest single privately-own employer with a permanent staff of 17 and up to 25 when two lines are running concurrently.

The business is also a big customer for locally grown wheat, sourcing from both local farmers and retaining an ongoing contract with the Australian Wheat Board for ASW.

The business employs almost the entire Rowe family with Pam and daughter Suzanne working in the office, son Paul and son-in-law Mitchell (also Rowe) working in the factory and other daughter Jackie and husband Laurie Andrews managing the packaging unit.

Allan says the strength of the business lays with good staff, using plant operator Craig Stephens who has worked there for 15 years and his father Bob and brother-in-law Wayne Pugh as examples of the loyalty he has received from his workers over the years.

Grainfeeds has also been a loyal supporter of Woolorama in its own right and has sponsored the grand champion Poll Merino ram for as long as it has been awarded.

Pam's interest in patchwork and art has resulted in long-term sponsorship of those sections.

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