Making the move from mining to red meat

25 November 2016

A belief in agriculture’s growth opportunities combined with a personal interest in food’s journey from paddock-to-plate has seen Helen Qiao make a major career switch from the mining resources sector to the red meat industry.

Earlier this year Helen started working as a food innovator for Harvey Beef, Western Australia’s largest beef processor and one of only two in the state accredited for export to China. Owned by mining magnate Andrew Forrest, Harvey Beef’s facility processes 140,000 cattle a year and exports 50% of its product. Helen’s move has been made easier by a new program backed by MLA Donor Company (MDC) designed to bring fresh insights into the red meat value chain.

Accelerating industry innovation

Helen is one of 15 young professionals from four sectors – red meat, horticulture, dairy and fisheries – participating in the Food Value Chain Innovators: Emerging Leaders Program. It is funded by agri-food business investments in partnerships through the MDC and the Federal Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, as part of the Rural Research and Development for Profit program.

The two-year intensive development program will see the red meat industry work with the agri-food sector to drive value chain innovation and growth.

Helen said she’s enjoying her move into the agri-food sector, which is a major shift from previous roles in the mining resources sector, international project management, and as a translator and interpreter.

“In my career to date, I have done relationship management and project management, mostly on projects and relationships between Australia and China, but also in other Asian and African countries,” Helen said.

“Food and agriculture have always been my personal interest, and this is the industry I want to work in. On a personal level, I’m a foodie - I’m interested in how food is produced and marketed, and how it’s being consumed.

“From a business perspective, I can absolutely see the potential of working in the industry in Australia and Asia. I think it’s an industry with lots of challenges but also enormous excitement and potential.”

Looking towards Asia

Helen is doing a Master of Business Administration (MBA) focusing on operational strategy to further understand the processing industry, and believes her previous experience in relationship management with Chinese businesses and government bodies is a key strength.

“For Australian agriculture, the future is not going to be a closed economy. We can’t consume all that we produce and the export market is where it will grow. We shouldn't just compete on price, but with high-value, high-end produce,” Helen said.

“We have been doing business with Asian countries for a long time, and Japan is one of our biggest partners. We have a good understanding of how to do business with Japan and Japan understands how Australia does business, but that’s taken 20 to 30 years.

“Now we’re dealing more with South-East Asia and China particularly, we need to build those relationships like we have with Japan and understand their way of doing business.

“Culturally, you need to understand things like how you manage relationship styles, timeframes, and who you talk to about particular issues.

“In Asian countries, it’s really about understanding and not imposing your own criteria, and having realistic expectations.”

Innovation requires diversity

Harvey Beef General Manager Wayne Shaw said the company became involved in the Emerging Leaders program because they were keen to assist young people who are enthusiastic about the industry and want to be part of the future of Harvey Beef and the industry more broadly.

“The industry needs a diversity of skills and abilities if it is going to continue to innovate and grow. Harvey Beef is focused on developing our supply chain and we need talented people who can assist with that endeavour now and in the long term,” Wayne said.

“This program will develop people from diverse backgrounds in the workings of the meat industry and further their training on supply chain innovation. Clearly that fits very well with what we are doing at Harvey Beef. While Harvey Beef already has a talented team, we are keen to build the team, in part with the assistance of this program.”

Wayne said the program’s focus on driving value chain innovation was vital for the industry.

“The meat industry is a tough business. We are impacted by a whole range of external factors including the weather, the exchange rate, and the international meat markets which cause considerable swings in values, especially commodities,” Wayne said.

“Developing robust supply chains helps take more cattle and more product out of the commodity space, giving more price certainty throughout the chain. Harvey Beef’s growth is dependent on us achieving increased volumes into high value markets with linkages right back to the product source.”

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