From US TV networks to New Zealand beef works veterinarian it’s been a “bizarre” career progression into Greenlea Premier Meats’ senior management for Dr Julie McDade, but she’s relishing the challenge, she tells MeatExportNZ.
Greenlea’s business development manager took a few minutes out of busy preparation for the Waikato-based meat company’s stand at the Fieldays agricultural show in Hamilton to have a chat.
McDade’s career progression has been, “slightly bizarre,” she admits. Born in Atlanta, Georgia, in the US, McDade initially graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina.
Her first job was with CNN’s parent company, Turner Broadcasting, later bought by Time Warner. Starting in corporate communications – essentially as gopher organising CNN founder and media mogul Ted Turner’s personal appearances – she then moved around the massive country in the glamorous world of sales and marketing for all the Turner networks.
“It was an amazing experience but extremely fast-paced, hectic and a bit ‘shallow’,” she explains.
After eight years there, she accepted she had matured enough to accept the challenges of four more years at school to pursue her initial dream – veterinary medicine. She was following in the footsteps of her grandfather, the first dean of the University of Georgia School of Veterinary Medicine.
She began a four-year veterinary medical doctorate at The University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in 1999, where she met her British husband, Alec Jorgensen. She then practised for three years as an equine vet at a surgical referral practice – on call 24/7 – in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware, before calling it quits, exhausted, when the couple decided to re-locate to New Zealand in 2005.
It was a call from the Ministry for Primary Industries’ Verification Services in her first six months in New Zealand that enticed her into the red meat sector, rather than her seeking it out.
Her first reaction was: “Oh my God, this is the most unglamorous job,” she laughs. But, when she weighed up the offer: “It was good money, really good hours – and set hours – and, no after hours, no on-call, no emergency. You walk out of the door and you’re done. I thought this sounds OK, I’ll do this for a short-time,” she said.
She was surprised to find she really loved the work: “I was really interested in the policy side of meat regulation and market access stuff.”
McDade also found enough time to study and graduate with a Master of Philosophy from Massey University in 2011.
She had been supervising veterinarian at Greenlea Premier Meats Morrinsville plant for three years, when the “short time” – actually eight years – ended with another call in 2013. This time it was Greenlea managing director Tony Egan asking if she’d consider joining the company.
“We really hit it off and I thought it probably is the right time for a change,” she says.
The switch from MPI to Greenlea has been one of her career highlights: “It has been fantastic. I feel like I’ve really found my niche,” she says.
Her role now is challenging and interesting because it’s so wide-ranging and allows so many opportunities, she says. It pulls her own background together with a very wide ranging and interesting business development role – one that was new to the company and which she has made her own.
“I’m doing everything from research and development, new business development, overseeing our PhD student and our new e-commerce venture Greenlea Butcher Shop, marketing and communications. Then I get involved with Tony in policy stuff, like Healthy Rivers, animal welfare, policy development and events, amongst other things,” she says, adding she’s really enjoying the role. “It certainly keeps you from getting bored. Every day is very different.”
She also travels for special projects, such as representing the Meat Industry Association (MIA) in the sector’s foot-and-mouth-disease (FMD) response exercise in Nepal a few years ago, “which was amazing!” she says.
Egan has become McDade’s mentor: “though not in a traditional sense,” she says. “He gives me a very long leash here at Greenlea and I do run up against the end of the leash quite often. He has really encouraged me to break new ground, to challenge everything we do, not just as a company, but as an industry.”
As part of a Kellogg Rural Leadership course in 2015, supported by Greenlea, she had taken a close look at the bobby calf trade, “the skeleton in New Zealand’s closet.” It proved to be impeccable timing – just ahead of the media furore a couple of years ago. The report was not released at the time, because of the sensitivity, but it primed the meat industry on the necessary course of action.
McDade now highly recommends Kellogg as a great experience to anyone looking at stepping up in the sector.
Her expertise, common-sense and clear thinking is called on by several meat sector groups. She sits on the MIA Innovation technical advisory group, is Greenlea’s representative on the Red Meat Profit Partnership’s PGP partner advisory committee, Beef + Lamb NZ (B+LNZ)’s Mid-Northern North Island Farmer Council, and also sits on the Pāmu Vet Strategy Group. She has also served on the board of the New Zealand Veterinary Association.
Women bring unique perspectives
As a woman working in the sector, McDade does not feel she has been treated any differently to anyone else.
“You get respect based on how you treat people and what you achieve. I don’t think your gender matters,” she says.
She feels opportunities are also quite broad for women working in the sector. “I don’t see any reason why a woman can’t do any job in the meat industry,” she says, adding that women bring a unique perspective. “They look at things differently from men and this industry can use some of those unique perspectives.”
Change demands collaboration and unique perspectives
Those different perspectives will be useful as McDade says the meat sector is in the midst of a food revolution, with major change ahead. There will be winners and losers, she believes.
“Most people don’t like change,” she observes. “The television industry thrives on change and changes stuff every day, so to me, that rapid pace and that feeling of constantly not knowing what you’re doing is normal. For the meat industry, however, it’s a very uncomfortable place.
“This industry is reaching a point where change is inevitable, with the whole food system under the microscope. Unfortunately, there will be significant repercussions as a result of changing diets, lifestyles and climate change. It will all have an impact, whether people like it or not.”
As an industry, she has found the meat sector is often slow to respond. “The first response is always to deny, or a negative response, rather than dig in and find a way to make this work.”
Finding the winning formula
The sector needs to find a winning formula, she says.
“For me, one of the great things I see is Beef + Lamb NZ’s Taste Pure Nature origin brand. It’s about carving out our position, telling our story which I don’t think New Zealand has done well because it’s never done it collectively globally.”
Collaboration is already starting to happen, believes McDade “On a global stage, we are all too small to go it alone, we’ve got to collaborate, we’ve got to innovate and we’ve got to learn to be marketers.”
The Red Meat Profit Partnership has paved the way, she believes. “Because it has brought people from different companies together, one level down from the CEO, that don’t often get together. When we get together for a beer after the meeting, it’s surprising how often we find we all have the same issues and we think about solving them in the same way. That for me, is very encouraging.”
Collaboration features in the new Greenlea Butcher’s Shop, the e-commerce project she is overseeing that delivers Greenlea beef, Ovation lamb and First Light venison products direct to consumers’ doors. Sales are going well and growing – doubling monthly sales forecasts, she says. The company is using the exercise in New Zealand to learn about e-commerce, with the view to take it international eventually.
Looking ahead 10-20 years, McDade predicts the sector “might finally have cracked value-add” and embraced science to make the world’s most desirable red meat, food and pharmaceutical products.
“That full carcase will be utilised to its fullest potential and be receiving the greatest return,” she says.
“However, farmers are going to have significant challenges to meet the net zero carbon model. Those costs are going to flow into the cost of the animal and processors will need to get their customers to pay more. To do that we’re going to have to examine every bit of that animal to make sure we’re getting the greatest possible value from the ear to the tail.”
McDade, Jorgensen and their son Ben are now happily settled on a lifestyle block near Hamilton with sheep, her horse and dogs. Together, they are partners in Hamilton Veterinary Services and Waikato Equine Centre.
“However, watch this space as we’ve just signed a sale and purchase agreement for a 186-hectare farm,” she says.
When she’s not working, the health and fitness fanatic can be found running, doing Pilates or barre classes and also rides her horse when she can.
“I’m also pretty good in the kitchen, our family evening meals are fairly gourmet,” she says.
We predict she will be one to watch in the future.
This is one of a series of MeatExportNZ Women in Meat profiles highlighting the roles senior women hold in New Zealand’s red meat sector. Read more about Greenlea here …