Sirma Karapeeva: Trading “gnarly issues”

Sirma Karapeeva, MIA
The red meat sector's trade issues are engaging Sirma Karapeeva, she says.

International business is what spins Sirma Karapeeva’s wheels. She’s found her niche as trade and economic manager for the Meat Industry Association (MIA), she says, working on business-related issues, such as Brexit, trade barriers and disputes.

Karapeeva is excited at the challenges thrown her way in her job, as one of three women in the nine-strong team in the industry’s trade association, led by MIA chief executive Tim Ritchie. The red meat sector is very complex, with a lot of challenges and a great deal of opportunities – and lots of passion and knowledge, she has found.

Every single interaction she’s had with people in the industry has shown her they’re totally committed and passionate.

“They want to do their best to continue to grow the sector, to look at the next set of opportunities and to position the industry to respond to global challenges and complexities.”

The heat on meat

Speakers at the recent Red Meat Sector Conference gave a really good synopsis of those “heat on meat” challenges, she says.

The biggest challenge for the sector is climate change. “And the policy changes could have unintended but really serious consequences for the sector as a whole, for industry, and ultimately for the New Zealand economy – particularly if core economic drivers for New Zealand are potentially being knee-capped. And, on top of that, you have the global eat less meat, alternative protein campaigns,” she says.

“While everyone has a right to make that personal choice, there is a lot of concern about the selective use of science to drive a really well-coordinated passionate campaign against animal protein, which is getting a lot of traction.  We’re finding ourselves having to fight hard to defend natural protein in a fast moving, fickle, social media world.

Most concerning for Karapeeva is that the various global reports appear to have been taken at face-value in New Zealand: “And don’t reflect the way we farm. The global research we’re seeing is largely based on grain-fed beef production, which is the norm in the US and Australia, but extremely rare in New Zealand where the vast majority of our animals graze outdoors on grass.”

Add to that on the trade side, there’s: “Brexit, President Trump, China and the notion of a global slow-down and what might happen.”

Potentially, there are huge risks all around the world for a trade-exposed sector like New Zealand’s. “How do we deal with that?” she asks. “It’s about keeping those markets open and being able to shift our products to wherever there is demand and wherever we’re able to extract the maximum we can for the limited products that we do have. It’s unlikely that our production base is going to grow, so it’s about extracting value, rather than growing the volume. Maintaining the international rules based system is fundamental to the success of that strategy,” the articulate trade specialist says.

On her to do list for later this year, alongside a communications strategy, is an update of the sector’s ‘manifesto’ for the New Zealand election period.

“We want to achieve one objective, that is for government to have a clear appreciation of the industry’s contribution to New Zealand in terms of export earning, GDP, wages, employment, research and development and innovation. The industry is critical to the prosperity and wealth of the country and policies need to enable our on-going success,” she argues.

Responding to Brexit uncertainty

One of the most important tasks in her role to date has been in supporting meat companies exporting to Britain and Europe, especially during the extremely complex and current Brexit crisis. This not only affects future trade with the UK, it impacts on European-wide trade arrangements through the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and on New Zealand’s arrangements with the EU too. Her clear and intelligent thinking is visible in the sector’s response.

“From the outset we know there would be a lot of uncertainty and a lot of risk and that we needed to prepare ourselves for all eventualities. The situation was evolving quickly and we were concerned about what this meant for the sector and what we needed to do to positon ourselves to mitigate potential risks.

Karapeeva’s role was to scope out the issues and implications of possible options, and to work with Beef + Lamb NZ (B+LNZ Ltd) to create a new joint role for a red meat sector representative in London to work with government and help the sector navigate the Brexit complexities on the ground. Central to this was shaping the role and putting together a business case to get significant funding from AGMARDT.

Subsequently, she has worked with former MP and B+LNZ chair Jeff Grant, who was selected for the position, providing him with advice and support on policy issues and how he would be able to use those with stakeholders and policy makers in the UK and in Europe more widely.

Developing relationships

What she’s been most proud of, however, is the development of the strong relationship for the sector with industry counterparts in China, which she says has been a “huge investment from the whole industry.”

She has been involved in driving and delivering the development of a China strategy, working with the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) on a joined-up industry/government action plan, supporting and organising delegations of very senior New Zealand company personnel to China, hosting Chinese industry interests in New Zealand, managing expo representations and technical seminars, and, more recently, hosting  Chinese celebrity chef to learn more about cooking with New Zealand chilled meat.

“There are ongoing market access issues that still need sorting,” she says. “But it is challenging and rewarding at the same time.”

Currently, Karapeeva is also the chair of the Food & Beverage Exporters Council, representing red meat processors, alongside representatives from B+LNZ, DCANZ, Fonterra, horticulture and the wine industry.

“It’s a free and frank, relatively informal, forum for us to get together from time to time to talk about issues of common interest, particularly on trade issues,” she says.

One of her core strengths is the ability to see both sides of a story: “It enables me to find creative win-win solutions and to drive for results,” she says.

She also provides a lot of support behind the scenes for Ritchie and MIA chairman John Loughlin for their board appointments: for Ritchie with the Strategic Directions Group, involving MIA and MPI;  for Loughlin on the NZ International Business Forum.

Global traveller

Born in Bulgaria in the 1970s, Karapeeva had already travelled the world before she arrived in Palmerston North in 1995, ready for a conjoint degree in law business and business management studies at Massey University.

She was raised predominantly in Africa, attending primary and secondary schools in Tanzania and Zimbabwe, where her now-retired architect mother was working on the design of medical facilities, including hospitals and clinics. During a post-high-school gap year in Denmark, she met “some really cool” New Zealanders, she says, who persuaded her to give the country a try.

She left Massey in the late 1990s with a first-class honours in international business, a love of travel and a curiousity about international trade.

Karapeeva joined the MIA in 2015, replacing her predecessor Phil Houlding, and making the position her own. Her role is “broad, motivating and interesting,” she says.

She brought with her strong trade policy and negotiation skills developed over the earlier 15 years from her former positions at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, its previous incarnation the Ministry for Economic Development (MED) and MPI.

She has been part of trade negotiating teams working on a number of free trade agreements (FTAs), including, the Malaysia FTA, Taiwan and Hong Kong Closer Economic Partnerships, the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership, RCEP and others.

But, the highlight of her career to date was representing New Zealand on international platforms like WTO and APEC.

“That was a fabulous experience, really enabling. It was a lot of hard work and quite a bit of stress but very gratifying to be in that position and to have that level of responsibility.”

What drew her to the MIA role was the chance to bring her into the commercial sphere and to see how the policies government had negotiated and developed are implemented and perceived by the private sector, she says. It was an easy step for her to transfer the public sector trade policy skills – still her major driver – into the role, she says, and to grow the role beyond a pure focus on non-tariff trade barriers (NTBs).

“It’s looking at it from a private sector perspective, with a slightly critical eye, to see what can be done to improve the system to ensure it can deliver more value for businesses. It’s also about supporting government to understand business needs and to reflect that in  their negotiations and policy development.”

The city girl, who loves travel, says when she came to New Zealand she always intended to return to Europe, but that never happened and New Zealand is very much her home now.

Now married and a mother herself, with a five-year-old daughter, Karapeeva is very firmly settled in Wellington, but loves travelling, alongside lead-lighting and art, is a member of a 20-year-old book club that meets every month, gardening and the outdoors in her very limited spare time at home.

Moving up the value chain

Looking ahead a few decades, Karapeeva would like to see red meat shifting more up the value chain, whether that is from innovative use of the high-quality raw material or the use of technology to improve productivity.

“It will be very exciting to see technology used to its full potential,” she says.

She likes to see the sector embracing the fact that it is producing food for global consumers and moving away from the “old language” of ‘freezing works’ and ‘slaughterhouses’.

“Essentially, we are way past that now. We are already producing bespoke meat products for discerning customers right around the world. Consumers are prepared to pay a premium for red meat produced as nature intended, free from hormones and antibiotics and we need to shift the narrative.  I think it’s already happening – if you look around the companies, they are already re-positioning themselves as food producers.”

She sees telling our story better as a real opportunity to balance things out for the future too.

Get stuck into the “gnarly issues”

Sirma Karapeeva values what she has learned from the excellent leaders and directors with whom she has worked.

One of her earliest MED directors inspired her most as a role-model and mentor: “In terms of her abilities and her approach and her grit to get on and do things often in difficult situations,” she says. “She also was so enabling of staff to develop, especially of me, helped me to develop my skills and gave me a bit of rope to grow in a supportive way.”

Karapeeva says women bring a different perspective to the meat processing sector. She’d like to say there are opportunities for women anywhere in the sector, but there are “still a few challenges for gender equity and balance,” she thinks.

“There are certainly more women in senior management, including plant management, now. While I’d like to think that we as a community are getting better at allowing women to step up, there is still some work to be done for it to be as seamless as it should be.”

In the next 10-20-30 years, Karapeeva believes there will be a lot more women in leadership positions right through the industry and the sector.

“It would be fabulous if we can see more women around the board table and in senior management roles. It will balance things out and bring a different perspective to the decisions that have to be made.”

The one message she’d like to send anyone – not only women – wanting to join the sector is: “If you want to roll up your sleeves and get stuck into some really gnarly issues, then this is the sector for you. You get a lot of scope to do that.”

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.

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