If bootcamp conjures up visions of redfaced drill sergeants barking orders at young recruits shivering with fear and cold on a pre-dawn parade ground before being marched off for cold showers and breakfast on tin plates, think again.
The bootcamp Gisborne's Hilton Collier attended last year was light years away from this stereotype 10,800km to be precise at prestigious Stanford University near San Francisco. And among the "sergeants" was a petite, dark-haired woman with a familiar face, affectionately known as "Condi". Former US Secretary of State from 2005 to 2009 under the George Bush administration, Condoleezza Rice has been a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business since 2009. She was one of 20 or so world-class professors and speakers who "drilled" Hilton and 39 other Kiwi agribusiness leaders at the Stanford University New Zealand Bootcamp, a programme now in its third year.
"Condi spoke about global business and the economy for 45 minutes with no notes," said Hilton. "She's a very smart lady, aged 59, but looks way younger, and is surprisingly small in stature. It was my job to thank Condi so I presented her with a hei tiki and an NZ Merino Icebreaker jumper. It was a real highlight."
Other inspiring speakers were Professor Baba Shiv, a professor of neuroscience; Professor Hayagreera Rao who spoke on negotiation; Professor Frank Hawke, an expert on China; Jeremy Moon, executive chairman and creative director of Icebreaker; Greg Muir, former chief executive of The Warehouse and now CEO at Tru Test; and Virginia Ransom from Bulls who has just sold her company to Google for $300m.
Above: The former US secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice was presented with a taonga by Pakihiroa General manager Hilton Collier.
Hilton spent seven days at Stanford University in August last year along with other major players in the New Zealand primary industry sector. A registered farm management consultant with AgFirst, general manager of Pakihiroa Farms Ltd and chairman of the New Zealand Institute of Primary Industry Management, Hilton said while he did not technically meet the criteria, bootcamp founder NZ Merino CEO John Brakenridge said since he was doing the work of a primary sector chief executive, he was qualified to attend.
The aim of the bootcamp programme at Stanford is to "unlock the power of New Zealand's primary sector," said Hilton who is Ngati Porou, born and raised on the East Coast. "It's an executive development programme aimed at building relationships 'between the land and the rest of the world'," he said. "In practice, that means recognising that New Zealand is a small country with a finite supply of resources. We are, in global terms, a niche producer, and value will be created when we act as a niche marketer versus our traditional industrial approach to food and fibre production and selling. It's about creating scale and developing markets by having companies that have traditionally been competitors working together. The recent 1080 scare is a good example of this. We saw all the dairy companies respond jointly to the hoax, which was the result of relationships formed while the chief executives were at bootcamp together.
“Traditionally competing companies would have used the scare against Fonterra to gain a market advantage," said Hilton. "Some of the stuff we did was fascinating like looking at things from the eye of the consumer and understanding the market by studying the neuro-science that drives behaviour. We learned about co-creation versus collaboration, co-creation meaning working together to build a better outcome for all. We did exercises on negotiation, how best to get deals done and the consequences of not sharing. New Zealand exporters face lots of challenges but we need to turn them into opportunities.”
“We looked at the whole notion of 'itinui' turning something small, rare and precious into something of value, marketing the unique things about our country, and we floated the idea of buying a page in the New York Times, publishing a letter from New Zealand to the world saying 'You are waking up today and we are already tomorrow' a play on our position to the international dateline to reinforce unique, special and different things about New Zealand.”
"One of the great things about Stanford is that it encourages the freedom to dream and to try things and sometimes fail. There's nothing wrong with trying and failing the message is to try small first. GoPro is a great example, an $800m-$900m company that started with a $150 prototype camera strapped to a hard hat. It was too heavy at first so they modified it until they got it right," he said. "The lesson here is when you come up against obstacles and problems, it's not a reason to quit. It just means you haven't the great found the right solution yet. People quit because of their fear of failure — but you can learn as much from failure as success."
Boot camp was not all conducted on campus. "We visited Silicon Valley, Google and Paypal where they lots of shops set up to test how shoppers make decisions, and determine how shops should be laid out."
During the week, Hilton also witnessed "the acceleration of the marriage of Maori and non- Maori culture"."Each day began with a karakia or reflection and everyone ended up learning Maori waiata. On the last night, we hosted a dinner featuring a variety of New Zealand products. It opened with a karanga which drew people from everywhere into the courtyard."
One of the main long-term benefits of bootcamp was the networks formed with the top layer of the New Zealand primary industry sector, Hilton said.The programme involved senior executives from companies that account for about 80 percent of New Zealand's export earnings about 50 companies including heavyweights Fonterra, Synlait, Tatua, Silver Fern Farms, ANZCO Foods, Alliance, PGG Wrightson, Aotearoa Fisheries and Sealord.
Above: Standford University Campus.
"About 140 people have now gone through bootcamp, about 50 of them Maori all very useful contacts to have.When it comes to getting things done, it's often the personal touch that counts.People often do things because they know and trust each other. We now have each other's direct-dial numbers and can pick up the phone and talk."
The week at Stanford also consolidated Hilton's thinking and validated a lot of what he was already doing. “It gave me a better understanding of a framework to operate within," he said. The boy who grew up milking cows at Ruatoria on the family dairy farm, and graduated from Lincoln University with an agricultural science degree, has never been afraid to make bold moves and has often found himself at the forefront of change.
He joined the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries as a farm adviser in 1985 on the eve of a decade of constant restructuring, culminating in 1995 with the government's decision to sell off the consulting arm of the organisation. Based in Wairoa at the time, Hilton was one of 21 advisers who seized the opportunity to start their own business, AgFirst, which is now New Zealand's largest privately-owned farm consulting group.
"They were exciting but scary times, going from the security of a government department salary to starting a private enterprise from scratch while providing for a young family. Then in 2002 Uncle Api (Mahuika) and cousin Selwyn Parata suggested it was time for me to come home and help Pakihiroa Station, which was owned by Ngati Porou and governed by committee of management.Uncle Api and Selwyn wanted me to help set up a better commercial strategy for the station and develop it into a business plan. I was pretty busy at the time, working in Wairoa for AgFirst. I recall saying 'No' but it obviously came across as 'Yes' so I ended up becoming a facilitator on a contract basis."
In 2006, Hilton was appointed a director of Pakihiroa Farms Ltd (PFL), a stand-alone, wholly-owned subsidiary of Ngati Porou. He became general manager in 2009. "About this time, I was being challenged about why we had so many 'outsiders' working on our land. I realised that in order to re-engage owners with their land, we needed to set up training programmes to deliver to the next generation the skills and qualities needed to manage or have governance roles on these collectively-owned farms. We needed a pool of people who would be able to succeed us. So in 2011, PFL the vehicle we use to support a wide range of initiatives, including education began investing in training programmes providing scholarships and pastoral care to promising young students.”
“We are now seeing great results from this initiative with young graduates starting to come through. Watarawi Ngata was the top student at Smedley Farm Training School two years running and is now at Lincoln doing a Bachelor of Agricultural Science, and Tumoana Harrison is in his second year at Smedley. We have a couple of boys in their last year at secondary school who we expect to follow Watarawi and Tumoana. And we are supporting and mentoring two other young people through the Kelloggs Rural Leadership Project Steven Thomson who works with us at AgFirst and Ngarangi Walker who works at Gisborne District Council. This is about building leadership capability and capacity.”
"The other part of this work stream is identifying those from Ngati Porou who may have obtained the appropriate level of training and would like to come home." Hilton mentors the students, meeting with them two or three times a year to keep them on track. "These young ones are our longer-term investment, and are very effective role models stretching and changing the thinking of other youngsters on the Coast."
As part of the commercial strategy for PFL, Hilton began looking for opportunities to farm livestock that could provide higher value as opposed to trying to simply produce more from the farms. But there were obstacles to overcome first. "There are a lot of doubters on the East Coast but to make more money, we had to rethink our farm management practices and do things differently. Production is important but so is value. We wanted to farm animals that created unique products our customers would pay a premium for." Wagyu cattle and merino sheep met the criteria.
"And then our job was to just to overcome the challenges of farming them," he said."We bought 80 merino rams from the Rakaia Valley in the South Island and put them over our ewe hoggets last year we've just shorn those lambs and now have crossbred wool in the sought-after 25-28 microns category which fetches $15 per kilogramme instead of the usual $5 per kilogramme." PFL is now providing wool through NZ Merino to the largest hosiery retailer in the United States.
Hilton was also looking for ways to differentiate beef production at PFL. Enter Gerard Hickey, the CEO for meat marketing company Firstlight which markets high priced Wagyu beef. "Gerard is part-Rongowhakaata and I've known him for 30 years. We chatted about the merits of Wagyu beef and two years later, PFL and related entities are now farming 500-600 Wagyu cattle, producing a higher value, differentiated product.”
"Critically we are leading the market in terms of offering 'grass-fed' beef. In New Zealand, it's easy to forget most beef elsewhere is grown in feedlots.We now produce differentiated meat and wool products, that cannot be easily replicated, for a market that pays us better than the industry average. In fact, people pay a phenomenal price for Wagyu beef," he said.
Above: Pakihiroa Station
Another key person Hilton came across in recent years was Doug Avery, a Marlborough farmer who converted his property from traditional ryegrass and clover to a lucerne based farming system to counter ongoing droughts. "I first met Doug in 2008 when we visited his farm, Bonaveree. In the middle of a typical Marlborough drought, his farm looked like an oasis. He had sold all his trading stock prime and was planning to go and sail his yacht for a couple of weeks. He was happy and cheerful and had earned more than the average farmer in about four months.
"I thought about our farmers during droughts and the high levels of stress they experience. That started a mission to integrate lucerne into our farming systems to drought-proof our farms. Lucerne uses a third of water that ryegrass does because the roots go down deeper. We've planted 500 to 600 hectares in lucerne on farms at Nuhaka, Mahia and on the East Coast. We are working on planting lucerne in hill country and have managed about a 70 percent success rate there. It's a bit of a 'spray and pray' programme on the hill country," he said. "We are not totally drought-proofed but we are well on the way."
Another lesson he learned at bootcamp was the concept of working together to build a better outcome for all. "In New Zealand, we have a fragmented meat sector where companies are competing with each other in marketing and selling. This encourages survival not innovation. We need to start to align all factors to get higher value out of the market place. With this in mind, PFL has developed informal relationships with farms in Rotorua whereby we share information on beef and wool, and try to sell our products together not in competition. New Zealand is too small a country to compete."
Hilton also went to Stanford in June last year with Callaghan Innovation, a government-funded organisation which accelerates the commercialisation of science and innovation by firms in New Zealand. "The topic this time was the application of IT in primary production. The challenge for pastoral farmers is how do we capture realtime farming information to understand how well we are managing our farms, when an animal is ready for processing and marketing, developing a mechanism to understand what the consumer likes and doesn't like so we can improve what we are doing, and understanding the impact of social media," he said. "Insights into consumer needs are hugely valuable. Look at Steve Jobs he didn't just create another mobile phone. He created a range of solutions that offered music, cameras and the internet all in a single gadget."
Hilton looks ahead to the day when a buyer can scan the barcode at the supermarket to pay a virtual visit to the farm where the lamb was produced. "Although our consumers will be 11,000km from our farm, they will be able to visit us. The technology already exists," he said. "With Icebreaker, the buyer can look at the tag and meet the farmer where the wool came from, and Wagyu beef is also fully traceable."
Hilton may be a visionary but he is also a man of action and gets frustrated with government departments that constantly call for feasibility studies before doing anything. "Stuff the studies just get on with it," he said. "When Martin Luther King said: 'I have a dream' he should have added 'not another a feasibility study..."