April 23, 2014

New Zealand agricultural history. No 17. Importing exotic sheep breeds

The name ‘Sheepac’
Bruce Koller’s role
Malcolm Cameron's role 
Cameron’s conundrum 
Sheepac board and directors 
Sheepac Funding 
The Sheepac brand 

By Dr Clive Dalton

The name ‘Sheepac’
Robin Hilson
Sheepac was the name given to the company set up to market the exotic sheep purebreds and their various crosses, after they had completed their quarantine at Hopuhopu.

They’re a few versions of where the name came from. MAFTech geneticist Dr Neil Clarke remembers names being suggested during a meeting at Ruakura, with the late Bruce Binnie (MAFTech Gene Product Manager) and a group of sheep breeders including Cambridge Coopworth breeder Edward Dinger and Hawke's Bay Perendale breeder Robin Hilson.

Robin Hilson suggested a prize being given for the best name, and he remembers (after much head scratching and ideas for names ending in 'pac') sending his one of 'Sheepac' to Bruce Binnie to put into the pot. Sheepac won the day but Robin reckons he never got his prize!

Robin Hilson's also remembers a pivotal car journey he had with Dr Andrew Parrat of Ruakura Genetics, when Andrew made it clear to Robin that MAFTech were really bereft of commercial skills to market the sheep, and coming up with the right company name was an important step. 

Robin then claims that the name was  finally cemented in for official use at a marketing meeting at Flock House (see below).

Bruce Koller’s role
Bruce Koller
Bruce Koller  had been a MAF Farm Advisory Officer in various regions of New Zealand, spending many years at Rotorua and ended up in Nelson from where he was head hunted by the Director General of Agriculture, Malcolm Cameron.   

Bruce was asked to move to MAF head office in Wellington as the first National Business Manager for MAFTec in 1987, where his term lasted till 1991 covering the early years of MAF’s new commercial role.

Bruce described his role in 1987 as ‘to put a commercial focus for the first time to get the new genetics into the industry by employing people from the private sector with appropriate management and marketing skills, and manage the tensions and politics within a radically changing MAF’.  He described this as almost a mission impossible’!

Malcolm Cameron's role

Photo Malcolm Cameron -sans pipe!
Malcolm Cameron had been a Farm Advisory Officer and then Chief Advisory Officer in MAF Head Office before rising to the rank of Director General It fell to his watch to bring about the massive changes decreed by government to commercialise MAF’s previously free services.  
 From those of us who knew Cameron and his background, we always thought he was not the sort of person to willingly grab such a massive change with both hands, but he identified Bruce Koller as someone who could be the ideal person to take charge of the leg work.  This was backed up by recent comments by former Sheepac chairman David Wallace .

Cameron’s conundrum
Bruce Koller says that Cameron was keen to see the expensive quarantine and research investment in the imported sheep utilized to the maximum advantage of the NZ sheep industry and the technology transferred widely.  That would be right – as Bruce clearly got landed with the business and political end of the exercise.

Many others in the industry viewed this differently, and saw Cameron’s main problem as protecting his rear end from the Minister, as it was well known that he (Cameron) was against the importation from the start.  Indeed, one private importer of exotic sheep breeds described dealing with Cameron as him being ‘very obstructive’. 

Cameron’s problems would most likely have stemmed from the fact that Dr John Hutton who headed MAF’s Research Division drove the importation, along with Chief Veterinary Officer George Adlam. They were powerful allies in MAF.

Cameron may have been DG, but he was clearly outgunned both technically and intellectually by Hutton and Adlam, so would have had to accept the importation and all its associated costs and problems - which then became his problems.  You have got to have a bit of sympathy for him!

A former MAF Genetics colleague remembers Hutton finding out the game Cameron was playing with the importation proposal.  It was the old public service trick  of when a file came to the top of the in-tray for action, if it was causing you grief, just put it back to the bottom of the in-tray again.  

There was certainly no love lost between Hutton and Cameron, even to Hutton's hate of Cameron's office permanently filled with pipe smoke!

Photo: Dr John Hutton. Recipient of the McMeekan Memorial Award

 Clearly Cameron got landed with the project, and I can well imagine Hutton and Adlam saying that as far as money went, that was not their problem and they’d be happy to pass the ball to Cameron.  It was well known that Hutton and Cameron were not best mates.

So it’s not difficult to see that Cameron’s had to make sure that in selling the sheep, taxpayer money was not just recouped – but it was seen to be recouped. This could never be done of course, as I have covered in later blogs. The whole exercise of doing a cost/benefit analysis was totally ignored before the circus started. 

 Cameron must have sucked a lot of tobacco through his constantly chewed Sherlock Holmes pipe, before he decided what approach to take.  He needed a good right hand man to manage the sheep sale and Bruce Koller was that man.

Sheepac board and directors
David Wallace
Cambridge dairy farmer David Wallace said he was phoned by Chief Veterinary Officer Dr Peter O’Hara and Bruce Koller to act as independent chairman of a new company set up to market the exotic sheep, with the MAFTech directors of Ken Jury (Director of Ruakura Research Centre) and Bruce Koller.   It was going to be Sheepac.

The farmers asked to represent sheep breeders were  Robin Hilson (Perendale), Bob Turner (Coopworth) and Donald Polson (Romney).  These were all top sheep breeders whose knowledge of sheep and the  business of farming could not be bettered, especially as at that time, as sheep farming profits were at rock bottom.

Sheepac Funding
Bruce Koller says the first job of the Sheepac board and directors was to arrange the funding from MAF to employ Richard Bradley as General Manager. When MAF went commercial, Richard was hired from Massey University to join the staff in the Hamilton office Regional Advisory Officer (Geoff Miller) and from there he moved to the Ruakura campus with the entire Hamilton MAF staff. The theory was that they would not pay rent at Ruakura - which turned out to be somebody's bad dream!

Diana Houtman
Diana Houtman was employed in the Hamilton MAF office for the general Farm Advisory Officers under Geoff Miller and then when MAFTech went commercial, she moved to be PA to Richard Bradley at Ruakura. 

Diana remembers that as Sheepac had little money to start off with, their first business meeting was at the Christiana Ski Lodge on Mt Ruapehu where they worked mornings and evenings and hit the ski slopes after lunch!  

 She said it was good for 'brain storming, developing strategies, sharing information and team building'. Then Diana remembers the Sheepac team meeting at Matapaua Bay in Coromandel. She remembers that  at both these venues, Margaret Cornish (Brian's wife) was in charge of catering and did a great job in primitive circumstances.

Other Sheeplan staff Diana remembers were  Catherine Rapley, Julie McCall, Mark Hamilton and Evelyn Uljee who supervised the records at the Hopuhopu.

 Koller had then organise all the associated budget funding for the expenses associated with setting up ‘secondary quarantine units’ to be run for the next 4 years.

Bruce says the other funding came from 33 breeder shares (43 breeders in total) who put in $5,000 per year for 3 then 4 years, which was a big call for struggling breeders at the time.  In return they were to have first access to the new breeds in a range of packages once released.

The Sheepac brand 
Bruce Koller describes a pivotal two day conference being held at Flock House with all stakeholders present, chaired by David Wallace which effectively established the Sheepac Brand, and ‘demonstrated the potential power and influence of the group’.

Bruce says that the clear consensus from the meeting was to start crossbreeding in a range of secondary quarantine farms, so that a few purebreds at Hopuhopu would multiply to many thousands of three quarters, seven eighths and fifteen sixteenths, and be made widely available to the industry at release, with the emphasis on Texel and Finns.

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