November used to be the month when we could get a comprehensive idea of the financial state of the meat industry because annual results were published in quick succession by three of the major processors: Alliance, Silver Fern Farms and AFFCO, notes Allan Barber.
When AFFCO was absorbed as a wholly owned subsidiary of Talley’s, there were still the two co-operatives to provide a comparison, but now SFF’s balance date is 31 December. So we must now wait until March to find out about ANZCO and SFF. This means Alliance’s result is the only one which can give a factual record of the traditional meat year, while it is still reasonably fresh in the mind.
Therefore the headline numbers – turnover up 13 percent, $20.2 million operating profit (2016 $10.1 m), $11.4 million pool distributions ($9.8 m) and 71 percent equity (70.6 percent) – make encouraging, if not exactly overwhelming, reading and suggest Alliance has turned a corner after last year’s near breakeven performance, while also indicating a better trading environment for the industry as a whole. This has also occurred against the backdrop of improved returns for sheep and beef farmers. That said, last season was easier for sheepmeat dominant processors than for those with larger beef businesses because of the respective climate effects on livestock flows.
By the co-operative’s own admission it still needs to improve profitability for a business of its size with its $14.4 million net profit after tax representing less than one percent of annual revenue and a 4.5 percent return on assets. The Net Profit After Tax (NPAT) included $7.886 million of gains on disposal of assets of which the sale of the Makarewa site accounted for the majority, while a change in accounting policy saw $435,000 for a resource consent treated as capital whereas it would have previously been treated as an expense. An adjustment of the after tax figure to account for these two items would reduce NPAT to about $6 million, less than 50 percent of the reported figure, but nevertheless still a big improvement on last year’s $102,000.
Meat companies are traditionally low margin, but high cost investment and maintenance operations, as demonstrated by the serious amount of capital expenditure across the Alliance Group – according to the annual report current projects include $10.2 million on primal cutting technology at Dannevirke, $3.5 million on upgrading the engine room and $15.2 million on a new venison plant at Lorneville, $1.3 million on offal recovery at Pukeuri and an unspecified amount on wastewater upgrade at Smithfield, in total $31.75 million.
Alliance deserves credit for undertaking all this work which exceeds its reported operating profit by more than 50 percent, while continuing to pay a competitive price for its livestock supplies, as evidenced by the reported level of pool and loyalty payments which appear to add up to $26.5 million. In addition, in December 2018 it will issue non-taxable bonus shares to suppliers based on livestock supplied next season. All these extra rewards for supply suggest Alliance must have been able to get away with paying an un-competitive schedule, but according to industry sources this hasn’t been the case. For much of the past few months, the company has actually been leading the market, but whether loyalty and pool payments are included is unclear.
If the old truth still holds good, and I have no reason to doubt it, Alliance must have turned itself into a very efficient processor, because the only way to pay more and remain profitable is to do it better than the competition. The substantial increase in turnover indicates Alliance has done well at both ends of the market, increasing livestock throughput at one end and extracting more value at the consumer end. Shrinking stock numbers suggest one or more of Alliance’s competitors has shed some market share, although as explained earlier it will be several months before we discover which ones have been affected. In Alliance’s main catchment area and in the face of vigorous competition I suspect Blue Sky will have struggled to maintain its position.
Over the next 18 months, it will be very interesting to track how the industry as a whole is progressing, because we will see the impact on SFF of the influence of a new CEO and a full year of Shanghai Maling’s investment, the effect of Peter Conley as CEO for a full year on ANZCO’s performance and we may also glean information about quiet achievers like AFFCO and Greenlea who tend to get on with their business without much publicity.
The meat industry has already entered a fascinating phase which will require a nimble strategic approach, a focus on doing a few things really well, and the need to respond to changes in consumer trends. The red meat story and brand, currently under development, are essential features, if New Zealand lamb and beef are to gain a profitable share of the global protein market.
One thing is certain – there are most unlikely to be any new entrants willing to build new capacity. Although excess capacity has never stopped new investors in the past, there are several discouraging factors now; all the main processors are well capitalised, livestock numbers, even dairy cows, have peaked and are in decline, health and safety and environmental regulations impose a very high barrier to entry, and the impact of alternative proteins is uncertain.
The choice for farmers is more clearly defined than ever before. The risk of receiverships is minimal, all companies offer a distinctive way of transacting business and in theory the total price paid should be fairly close. So my advice is to choose the one that is philosophically and culturally closest to the way you like doing business and enjoy the ride.