Between two worlds

The Welsh meat industry is not immune from the challenges facing the wider sector. Fred A'Court catches up with HCC boss Gwyn Howells to find out just how he's leading the industry through the tough times

Gwyn Howells has just come from being quizzed by members of the Welsh Assembly when we meet. As chief executive of Hybu Cig Cymu - Meat Promotion Wales (HCC), he is accountable for how levy payers' money is spent and for the interests of stakeholders. This is before the furore over Westminster MPs' expenses and the whole issue of accountability took centre-stage in the media spotlight. Nevertheless, does he find it a daunting experience to have to go before such a body Not really, he says, it is just part of the process that HCC has to go through in keeping its politicians up to speed with what it is doing and what is needed. "I know most of them anyway" he says with a nonchalance, as if it were no big deal. In fact, Howells has always looked at ease among politicians and farmers - two of the key groups that not only judge, but challenge and set goals for the Welsh industry body. A career of nearly 20 years at the Meat & Livestock Commission schooled him in the art of dealing with politics, while his upbringing and current home environment - he has his own sheep farm - have ensured he is not only in the loop, but right inside the inner workings of the farming community. Keeping in touch with politicians and working constantly in the world of politics is a big deal, though, for the position that Howells finds himself in, as head of one of the UK's big generic promotion and marketing bodies. Fail in the political arena in this job - or fall foul of it - and you fail in the job. Under Howells and chairman Rees Roberts, HCC has made steady progress since its formation in 2003, despite the inevitable crises that seem to hit the meat industry periodically - not just in Wales but across the British Isles. The biggest crisis in Wales in recent years has been the 2005 E.coli outbreak in South Wales, which affected 40 schools and claimed the life of a five-year-old boy. That resulted in a Welsh Assembly inquiry. HCC was steered through the issues surrounding the outbreak by its chief executive and chairman and is now focusing on more positive industry developments. Centre-stage recently has been the delivery of a Strategic Action Plan for the Welsh Red Meat Industry, one of the most important and forward-looking documents ever produced for the red meat industry in Wales, according to Roberts. More than 33,000 people are employed in the red meat supply chain in Wales and the industry contributes 361m a year to the Welsh economy, including red meat exports of more than 100m, making it an important sector in its own right. Acknowledging the significance of the sector, rural affairs minister Elin Jones has said the Welsh Assembly Government does not view the Welsh red meat sector as a Cinderella industry - in fact, quite the opposite.

ON THE FRONT FOOT

It is Howells' job to keep the industry at the forefront of political and economic development. For that reason, HCC has been closely involved in developing the Strategy Plan in consultation with the Welsh red meat supply chain and the Welsh Assembly. The Plan is a blueprint for the industry over the next few years and has formed a template for Howells and his team to devise future marketing and promotional strategies. The Plan highlights some 20 challenges and opportunities across the political, environmental and demographic spectrum facing the Welsh red meat industry. This is distilled down into what Howells calls four planks or strategic aims: to improve the industry's understanding of the market and to influence consumer behaviour; to improve the supply chain and foster innovation; to improve the business performance of processors; and to improve farmers' business performance. Within the Plan's main framework are 10 key actions. They are to: promote Welsh red meat products among the supply chain; undertake research; develop an environmental 'road map'; provide training; encourage entrants to the industry; improve transparency and integration; support product development; produce information and advice; advise on, assist with and influence the development of regulations; and make contingency plans. Although profitability remains the biggest challenge for the sector, other challenges include responding to political and environmental change, adapting to shifting market conditions, embracing innovation, adopting technical best-practice and improving overall business management. At a practical level, Howells is working on a number of important HCC projects, designed to benefit the industry, including research into a biodigestor project at Bangor University, video-imaging analysis to provide objective measurement and consistent grading of cattle at abattoirs, and research into breed improvement. The strategic aims and actions identified in the Plan have provided the template for a recently released HCC Corporate Plan for 2009-2012. Howells says core aims in the Corporate Plan are to improve the industry's level of understanding of market trends and to influence consumer behaviour; to foster innovation and improve supply-chain linkages; and to improve the performance of processors and primary producers in response to changing market conditions, environmental needs, climate change and consumer demands. Howells acknowledges that a long period of low prices and profitability have left many Welsh farms struggling to survive, but says that, with the current recession, there has been a silver lining in the form of a much-improved export market because of a weak sterling. This has boosted prices and demand for Welsh red meat abroad - important because a high portion of Welsh lamb and Welsh beef is sold outside the Principality, with England being the main market. Howells says a key HCC role is further development of both established and new markets. Although some 92,000t of lamb, 99,000t of beef and 5,500t of pork were produced in Wales last year, Howells says just 4% of beef, 4% of lamb and 5% of pork produced in Wales is consumed there; 63% of beef, 89% of lamb and 95% of pork is eaten elsewhere in the UK while, last year, some 30,000t of Welsh Lamb and approximately 6,500t of Welsh Beef, valued at nearly 108m, was exported. The traditional main export markets in Europe are France, Italy, Belgium and Spain, although Howells says that, in recent years, important new markets for Welsh lamb have opened up, especially in Dubai, Singapore and Hong Kong. In these countries, HCC has been part of inward missions with exporters. Howells says Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status has been an essential promotional tool for Welsh Beef and Welsh Lamb in Europe. Some in the British industry question the value of PGI status, particularly in relation to recognition of its value by shoppers, but Howells says HCC has had some notable successes on the export front as a result, including the securing of a contract to supply Welsh Lamb to all primary schools in Rome.

INDUSTRY REMIT

Howells has been associated with farming and the red meat industry for most of his life. The 45-year-old spent most of his career with the Meat & Livestock Commission, initially on the sheep development side, before being appointed to his current job. Despite his political role, however, Howells is clearly happiest among farmers and enjoys his weekends looking after sheep on his own farm. This must provide welcome respite from the busy HCC office, where Howells now has a staff of 26, responsible for a range of activities including UK and export marketing, the development of new markets, and farming and industry issues, including technology transfer, research, training and communications. Scholarships have been an important part of the training, education and industry development remit, often sending key people abroad to see how things are done in other countries. Through the scholarships, successful applicants get the opportunity to improve their business, visit foreign producers, learn more about the global industry and feed back information to other Welsh producers. HCC offers an annual scholarship to applicants who are employed on a full-time basis within the Welsh sheep and/or beef industry. Successful applicants will spend up to six weeks studying the sheep or beef industry in a country of their choice. They are then expected to present findings to the Welsh industry and also undertake a series of presentations to interested groups. These are the people likely to make an ongoing contribution to the industry in Wales, says Howells.

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