AT a time when executive turnover in the beef industry is the talk of the town, it is somewhat ironic that we also have at the helm of our most influential organisation what many are describing as the biggest personality to ever hold a beef leadership role in Australia.
Meat and Livestock Australia’s (MLA) managing director Richard Norton has just notched up three years in the job.
He’s been called everything from visionary to polarising but there really is no question he is pushing boundaries and shaking things up.
In a game where it seems getting offside with just one key player can see you rolled in a split second, Richard Norton has managed to stay put and keep his agenda of big change moving forward.
Ask the industry stalwarts how he has managed to do that, particularly given there is plenty of suggestion of a head honcho or two gunning for his resignation, and there is bewilderment.
Maybe it’s because he’s putting runs on the board, maybe he is far more strategic than anyone else, or maybe he just has remarkably thick skin, they say.
Queensland consultant Noel Haug, who – with more than 50 years in the beef industry – has watched the sometimes lengthy, sometimes short careers of many beef chief executives and managing directors, says Mr Norton is like no other to come through.
“He is dynamic in that he has the industry experience and the knowledge to make a difference to the beef industry but also the character to push it through,” Mr Haug said.
“He’s getting a lot done.”
From the ambitious plan to roll out the now famous DEXA (dual energy x-ray absorptiometry) technology across all beef processing plants to the way he has challenged longstanding wool industry ideology, Richard Norton had made both enemies and friends.
Whatever those in the industry feel about him, they feel it passionately.
“Some people accuse him of being self-serving. Some say he just wants to create a legacy. No one says he isn’t able to make a decision,” said one longstanding industry watcher.
The beef industry was very much cheering him on when he took on AWI (Australian Wool Innovation) and the sheep industry has delighted in the DEXA dramas.
“The longer he can maintain that willingness to go in head first the more he will be able to effect change for the better in what can be a very conservative industry,” said another keen observer.
“It will be a fine balance though, because that way of operating is also often a fast track to departure.”
For his part, Mr Norton’s plan is to stay.
“There is nothing is on the table,” he said.
It wasn’t always a smooth path but the commitment to transparency and accountability he made when he joined MLA has been put into action.
“Everything we do, from budgets to strategies, is now on our website so people can see exactly where the money goes,” he said
“If you want to ask a question as a levy payer you can now do so from an informed base.”
Even the MD’s direct email is on the website.
Just don’t include butterfly emojis, lest your message or invite end up in the spam folder.
In the past three years, Mr Norton has also been in front of close to 20,000 levy payers. He has averaged three days a week on the road, fronting up at everything from field days in the bush to politician’s offices in London.
It’s about reinforcing MLA’s change towards wanting to listen, he said.
One of the first things Mr Norton heard loud and clear was the resentment with over-the-hooks trading and the way producers were being paid.
That’s where the push for objective carcase measurement, spearheaded by DEXA, comes in and Mr Norton doesn’t back away from the fast-track approach he took.
There is frustration, he says, in the fact this industry has such a history of taking a very long time to adopt great things.
Seven months after MLA’s ambitious DEXA plan was announced, the whole industry is on board - the final piece of the puzzle being the processing sector research and development organisation’s support.
That is endorsement the technology is right, he said.
Stop attacking your own industry
MLA’s managing director Richard Norton seems ok with copping the criticism, warranted or not, that comes with such a job.
And he’s open to having his mind changed.
MLA was always big on the concept of a social licence to operate but when a Far North Queensland producer rang the MD direct and said he hated the term - it was an attack on his livelihood and an affront to him, Mr Norton saw it in a new light.
He issued a blanket ban on anyone in MLA using the term.
The biggest vexation he has, however, is with what he describes as “the attack on your own industry by various sectors.”
The red meat industry was in a very healthy state, he said, pointing to bipartisan support for matching levies for research and development, the recognition the industry received for its organisation around free trade agreements and the way the industry mobilised to address the decision by Costco to drop Aussie beef in Korea.
“Yet it is so hard to corral this industry,” Mr Norton said.
“I don’t understand the motivation behind the recent Casino discussion, for example.”
He was referring to a push to replace peak producer lobby group Cattle Council of Australia.
What levy payers want
THE average beef producer just wants to know whoever is managing their levy knows what they are doing.
They want to know MLA has their back.
That’s how managing director Richard Norton sees it.
The senate inquiry into the grassfed levy changed the DNA of MLA, he said.
The big corporate savings that have been made in MLA in the past three years - to the tune of $14m plus or 10 per cent of operating costs - have been funnelled into consumer insights.
MLA has moved away from being a simple buyer of advertising space towards a provider of in depth global market knowledge.
It’s advice is now sought by those making strategic management decisions for big players in the food and agricultural industries.
The new approach is underpinned by a focus on the customer.
Customers change value chains, Mr Norton said.
“If we don’t understand what consumers want we won’t have the opportunity to determine what our future looks like,” he said.
“Millennials, for example, don’t care about how much money they make, they care about the impact they have on society.
“They are our next generation of beef and lamb consumers.
“You ignore that kind of macro trend at your own peril.”
He said producers were so passionate about wanting others to know how much they care for the environment and the their animals.
“Everyone talks about the environmental impacts of beef production. I’d like to move the conversation to the environmental credentials,” he said.
“We have an opportunity to tell these millennials the great things about beef farming in Australia and flag our credentials.”
How does MLA come up with a game plan?
A brainstorming session on the part of the executive team.
“It’s definitely a managed process,” Mr Norton said.
“But it starts with asking what is currently the one single biggest risk to us as an industry, outside of disease.
“What might bring our industry down. What might drop consumption of red meat overnight by 20pc?”
The current batch of risks coming up: processing becoming too expensive and carcases being value-added in South East Asia and World Health Organisation findings.