Growing up on a 400 acre wheat and barley farm north of Adelaide, South Australia, Grant Rosewarne never knew an old pet.
“I think we had the world’s highest concentration of brown snakes – which is one of the world’s deadliest snakes,” Grant said.
“Every summer the cat would be bitten and my parents would phone around and we’d end up with a new kitten. “The dogs used to last a bit longer but we never had an old pet.” Subsequently, Grant was blissfully unaware of the effects of aging on pets until the night he met his future in-laws for the first time.
“When I’d just started dating Julie she said ‘come home and meet my parents’,” he said. They were Mr and Mrs Cox and they lived in the city comforts of Adelaide with relatively few snakes and a higher number of older pets including their own geriatric Labrador and a cat with cancer. “I’d rehearsed what I was going to say: “Mr Cox, you’ve got a lovely daughter, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” Grant said.
“But as I extended my hand, I saw this old, grey, drooling dog in the corner and a cat that was practically on life support – I was so shocked by the sight of these old animals that I completely lost track of the situation and instead of saying how much I loved their daughter, I said ‘Oh my God, why are your pets so ugly?” Luckily, Grant’s charm proved stronger than Julie’s mortification and the couple have been together ever since, raising three children, Jasmine 25, Matthew 24 and Bianca 14.
But the early experiences of living on the land still shape Grant’s character. “I grew up on a farm in a place called Two Wells, which was the last ‘waterhole’ for stock coming down to Adelaide to be loaded onto ships for the UK,” he said.
“In terms of distance we weren’t that far from the city, but I grew up with the mindset that I lived in the outback. “It was very rare for us to go into Adelaide and extremely rare to have visitors. And if you did have guests coming, you’d be down at the gate waiting – and that has stayed with me to this day: that genuine excitement at seeing friends.” So has the need to preserve water.
“Water was always a key consideration. We survived on what water was collected from the tanks and in times of drought they would get really low,” he said. “A bucket full of water was considered a lot to wash yourself with – even now I still won’t turn the shower on full because it feels like such a waste.” And although the image of red barren earth seems a million miles from the lush New Zealand environment that Grant now calls home, the lifestyle was surprisingly similar. “Our farm goes down to the sea, so I grew up catching seafood,” he said. “For six months of the year we were eating whiting and blue swimmer crabs. “We’d wait for the tide to come in and take the drag net out to catch the fish, then take out the crab rakes and get a pile of crabs you couldn’t jump over. “Then we’d hunt deer in the winter.”
Growing up in outback Australia also gave Grant an unfiltered perspective of the harsh realities of life as a farmer.
“I saw how tough it was: five years out of 10 were an unmitigated disaster. If it wasn’t drought, it was flood, or strong winds, or a bush fire, or mice or locusts or disease that would wipe out your crop. I went back recently and they’d put in $100,000 and got nothing back,” Grant said. “Of the other five years, two years would be average harvests. The other three years would be spectacular from a growth point of view but at least one of those would coincide with low prices. So you relied on two years to get you through each decade.
“My family has been on that farm since the 1840s and my parents and uncles still live there – but I knew from an early age that no way did I want to be a farmer. “I swore I would get out of it.” Grant became the first of his family to attend university and completed a degree in chemistry and microbiology while still living on the family farm. His first job was in the dairy industry in technical roles, specialising in fermentation processes such as in yogurt, beer, meats, cheese and wine.
“I set up the daily taste panel for the dairy company and the sales and marketing managers would come up and talk about strategy, branding and advertising as they tasted the products and I knew that that’s what I wanted to do,” he said. “They had resources and influence I could only dream of.” After a year in the wine industry Grant targeted and joined Unilever to run a margarine and edible oils production facility, because Unilever were leading edge in marketing and facilitated technical people to switch over into marketing and sales.
He was soon promoted to a role with the company in Sydney where he got his first taste of marketing and sales. “Looking down the microscope was fun during the degree but now I knew what I wanted to do, so I went back to study an MBA at the University of NSW and went straight into a role marketing margarine, oils and mayonnaise.
“My first job was marketing ‘heart health’ margarines, such as Becel (now Flora) before I was promoted to group product manager in personal products where I looked after brands like Sunsilk and Pears.
“I still have excellent haircare tips – just look at the quality of Julie and Bianca’s hair.” After 10 years with the multinational, Grant joined Cerebos Greggs where he managed the many brands including Gravox, Saxa and Snack Packs, but it was in his next role as the marketing and sales director of the coffee and tea division of Sara Lee Corporation where he had his first taste of global success. “Roast and ground coffee was the main event at Sara Lee but the market was about instant coffee – 8 out of every 10 cups drunk were instant,” he said.
“The Moccona brand was tiny when I inherited it and I was basically told my predecessor was sacked for trying to grow it and I should focus on roast and ground coffee or the same thing would happen to me. “Regardless, we put up a strategy taking Nestle full on with new products and the now famous ‘for lovers of coffee’ advertising (more known in Australia) which ultimately saw us go from a 3% share to a 19% brand with stunning profitability. “Because of our success, Australia became the lead for instant coffee and we set the world strategy.”
Grant was soon promoted to a role in the UK where he helped launch one of the first coffee pod machines in conjunction with Phillips – a decade before George Clooney and Nespresso put the concept on the map in New Zealand.
Then a new opportunity arose that would have him questioning his resolve to avoid farming. “Our two eldest children were getting ready to go to university so we returned to Australia, and were just getting them settled when I was approached to take on the Chief Executive role with New Zealand King Salmon,” he said. “I swore I’d never get into farming and for most of my career I avoided it – but I somehow came back thinking it would be different. “The board said to me, we have the production cycle worked out, but we need to get value from the marketing and sales. “From the beginning I could see NZ King Salmon had the same potential as Moccona with a highly differentiated position, branded all the way to the final customer, NZ King Salmon a little more rationally positioned but both able to command big premiums.
“Nothing in business is easy, but as it’s turned out, the marketing and sales side has been relatively easy and the farming has been extremely challenging. From farming events, feed variations, winds – it’s just amazing how many variables are beyond your control – and that’s before you even consider the incredibly unsupportive property rights.”
The value created through marketing and sales has been led by the creation of the Ora King brand. “When we started, there were any number of things we could have differentiated the product on – provenance, culinary attributes, sustainability etc – but the concept we came up with focused on our breeding programme,” he said.
“We’d spent $17 million breeding fish over 17 years and were able to prove that genetically, ours was a unique breed of King salmon – in the same way that Angus is different to Hereford. “Provenance is often used with salmon because salmon farming, whether in Norway or Scotland or Chile, is always in beautiful places – but our breeding is a truly differentiated programme and something that we could own and we have it registered as a breed and as a brand.” And it’s been a welcomed success for the company as they’ve experienced protracted and costly applications for new space and reduced yields due to various farming events. “Ora King has been stunningly successful,” Grant said.
“Farming is the most difficult part of the value chain but marketing is the most rewarding. Because of my background I am particularly passionate about farmers capturing high value which is more in keeping with the risks that they manage.
“We have some of the best marketing people I’ve worked with on our team and they have added huge value to the company and that’s all gone absolutely according to plan. “Regal has always performed well in the retail space but the part we didn’t have covered was food service and diversifying risk away from retail and individual premium restaurants was a good way to do that.” Adjusting to supply challenges has also contributed to a strategy that has seen NZKS shift from a 50/50 ratio of retail and food service, to a current rate of 75 per cent food service.
“Two years into the role, our tonnage peaked at 7,500 tonnes. But we’ve had volume decline since then, mostly due to difficulties of farming low flow sites, and we’ve had a fish shortage ever since,” he said.
“At our lowest, we got down to 5,500 tonnes and we were in difficulties but branding, team spirit and the way the team rises to meet a challenge – and we’ve had a lot – has got us through. “We’ve done very well thanks to a professional team who haven’t had a lot of product to work with. To make up for our shortages we’ve progressively pulled out of unbranded business to the point that the majority of our output now goes to premium food service with the exception of Japan where we also have significant premium retail business.
“Moving forward we’ll be continuing with the Ora King strategy and rolling out to more high-growth markets and creating more retail products and taking the Regal brand around the world.” And after a few tough years, the future is looking bright.
“This year we’re at 6,000 tonnes and with new farms coming on line we’ll be at 7,200 next year and 9,000 in a few years,” he said. “When volume gets back to normal, at current pricing, we’ll be incredibly successful. “I’m 100 per cent confident of selling the extra fish and maintaining a premium price. “There are many more premium niches than people realise. “We haven’t even scratched the surface yet in terms of potential.
“I don’t wake up in the middle of the night concerned about large retailers trying to bully us – we don’t find out what our price is in the newspaper, we set our own pricing and are independent of what happens in the market and I’m very proud our team has achieved that.” But there are some aspects of his tenure not remembered so fondly. “In terms of water space and volume it’s been a major disappointment,” he said. “If we can create an environment with conditions that support growth, we could be an industry that is prosperous for the entire region.
“The value NZ King Salmon can bring to the ‘Top of the South’ is huge. “We should have feed mills, processing facilities, education and all the auxiliary services that go with a successful industry. “And it should be celebrated in the same way the wine industry is.”
After all, we do produce the champagne of salmon.