SHARE
Trailblazer . . . Karen Morris has broken new ground by becoming the first woman manager at Alliance's Smithfield meat-processing plant since meat processing began at the site more than 120 years ago. PHOTO: CHRIS TOBIN

by Chris Tobin

For the first time since meat processing started at Alliance Group’s Smithfield site in the 1890s, a woman has been appointed to manage the plant.

Karen Morris (52) started in the position this month and said while it marked a milestone in the history of the plant, she preferred to concentrate on other issues such as her management team’s goal of extending the season.

“We are looking at ways to make the plant viable for the long term and extending the season is a way to meet our objectives.”

Until Ms Morris’ appointment two interim managers, who are still employed by Alliance, filled the position after the departure of the last permanent appointee, Nigel Cuthill.

Ms Morris acknowledged the industry was still perceived as being male dominated.

“But it has moved on a lot in recent years.

“If a person is right for the role it’s not about being male or female.

“There’s been no negativity – I’ve had fabulous feedback and I’ve got a really good team here.”

She was unsure of exactly how many women worked at the plant during the season, but it was “not where I would like it to be,” and there was the opportunity for the number to be increased.

Women meat plant managers

Karen Morris becomes the second woman appointed as manager of an Alliance Group meat plant.

The other, Melonie Nagel (51), was recently appointed manager of the company’s Mataura plant.

Chris Selbie, Alliance’s general manager people and safety, said the company employed almost 5000 people throughout New Zealand.

“The meat-processing sector has traditionally been a male-dominated industry and we are committed to increasing the career and employment opportunities for women across all areas of our business.

“We are delighted to have two female plant managers managing plants in our network. The sector offers great opportunities for people in a range of areas, including management, marketing, food science, HR, manufacturing and technology.”

Rival company Silver Fern Farms employs Bronwyn Cairns as production manager at its Waitane plant near Gore, where she has worked for two years.

Company spokesman Justin Courtney said in the past five years the company had employed two other women plant managers at the now-closed Fairton and Silverstream plants.

Both women had since moved on.

In recent seasons the Smithfield plant has struggled to fill positions during the killing season and last year undertook a letter drop around Timaru in a bid to attract staff.

At the height of the season Smithfield employs 510 people.

“Timaru has low unemployment, around 2.3%, so we’re looking at other avenues for job seekers such as part-time work and job sharing,” Ms Morris said.

“We want to engage with the community, showing there is a career path and opportunities with Alliance.

“We will have a letter drop again – the management team will be delivering them in the letterboxes.”

Rather than change things initially she planned to complete a review.

“We’ll look at what worked and what didn’t work to come up with new ideas and initiatives. We’ve got 50 ideas to improve things.

“It’s all around safety, quality, delivery and costs, with safety first.”

Ms Morris has worked for Alliance since 1995, most recently in a corporate role managing safety and quality assurance over all seven Alliance plants around New Zealand.

Before taking up the Timaru position, she worked in Alliance’s Invercargill office while living in Gore.

Her decision to apply for the Timaru position came after careful consideration.

“I knew they have a great team here and that Smithfield is embedded in the community.

“I think there’s a pride at Smithfield and there has been multi-generations of the same family working here.”

She was optimistic about Smithfield’s future, given the company’s investment in the plant over the past 20 years. That included the $1.2million being spent on its boning operation on which work would begin on Monday.

“Alliance has committed a lot of money to Smithfield. I feel it’s in a very good place.”