Alumni stories

Prizing the People Behind the Process

14 May 2019

Red meat industry leader Melissa Fletcher grew up ‘taking the lead’ for herself; pursuing exactly what she wanted to learn and do. Now, she leads for others, working hard to instill pride and passion in her beloved meat processing industry, and applying what she learned through Course 18 of the Australian Rural Leadership Program to further her people-centric crusade.

Melissa was just 19 when she found herself giving advice on employment culture to Kerry Packer. Years of tailing her encouraging dad, (Roger Fletcher, co-founder with wife, Gail, of Fletcher International Exports) to business appointments, had culminated in an invitation to hop onboard Packer’s Learjet. The corporate mogul had reached out to Roger for some tips on improving his Rockhampton meat works.

“It was amazing, just the whole experience of being with Kerry Packer,” Melissa says.

On the spot, he reduced his payroll team and vowed to relocate his marketing team from Brisbane to Rockhampton, based on suggestions made by Melissa. Kerry later asked Roger whether he might take Melissa on as one of his own plant managers.

“Dad said that he couldn’t—that we’d just bought a property over in WA, and that would be my plant to manage.”

While Roger hadn’t quite intended to give his daughter a plant to run at such a tender age, in Melissa’s head, “the seeds were planted.”

She ended up moving over to the new plant in Albany in 1998 to perform administrative duties, but when the appointed plant manager left after just a week, Melissa saw no need to bother her busy father with the details.

“I got to put my own plan in place,” she says. At the age of just 22, “I wasn’t cynical, I had a uniting point of view, and I was very focused,” Melissa reflects.

She had a vision for the plant’s work culture and employment agreements, and lay down foundations that steer her workforce 20 years later.

“If you need a union at your plant, then you’re not managing or treating people well,” Melissa, who passed up a psychology degree to focus on the family business, says.

“At the end of the day, I believe I’m not in the meat business, I’m in the people business.

“It’s an interesting balance where I’m constantly learning, and this is part of what the ARLP developed in me,” she explains.

“It taught me self awareness. It taught me to question why I or someone else feels a certain way. To ask ‘what has made certain things happen?’ and then take a step back and ask ‘how do we change these things for the better?’—that was my biggest lesson.”

Melissa also adheres to the philosophy “if you’re not groaning, you’re not growing.”

“I think that being human, being honest and being transparent are probably the most important things I can do in a large workforce.”

At her family’s processing plants in Albany, and in Dubbo, where Melissa is now based, she sees the acute social importance of the industry she’s in.

“I’ve got the relationship with suppliers of livestock; farmers and suppliers of grain. That’s essential to our business. We also have our export customers … but there’s a group in the middle that I think can be very much neglected, and that’s your workforce,” she says.

“If you want to see unemployment rise, go and take a meat works out of a town … We’re going through a time where manual handling and manufacturing are not being pushed in schools. We have so many iconic conceptions of our farming industry, but there’s a working-class lot of people in the middle who aren’t celebrated.

“They are gutsy, they are tough, they are resilient. Some of my people have given me 30 years, working as part of a chain, to rigid specifications, yet I do believe that there is a stigma there. It’s a passion of mine to be able to get pride within our industry. It provides an avenue for those that society has neglected. Those kids that weren’t scholars in school, that didn’t go off to university, and didn’t receive many opportunities.”

When she’s not immersed in the workings of Fletcher’s Dubbo plant or promoting their railhead and transport business and attending to the customer engagement that comes with the sheep meat and wool export business, Melissa goes wherever she can represent her industry in Australia and overseas. She is deputy chair of the Australian Meat Processor’s board, and involved with the Australian Meat Industry Council. Since 2018, she has also been serving as a member of the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation board.

“My focus is always on what’s good for the industry and the country, and the people that are a part of this,” she says.

“That’s why I am so passionate about the Foundation, and all it does to give industries strong representation. Mine is an industry that’s essential to regional and rural areas, and it all goes hand-in-hand with stronger rural communities and economies.”

Melissa, whose sister and brother are also a part of the family business, says belief and support from her “magnificent parents” has given her an awareness of her role in a traditionally male-dominated industry.

“I think women in our industry offer so much. In our plants, they’ve broken down mental health barriers and stigmas, and changed the culture. We speak openly about mental health and treat it just like any other health problem,” she says.

“Along with that, being Aboriginal is everything for me about home, respect and how you make your place within community. It’s a hard place to be, in between big business and being an Aboriginal,” she says.

“But everything I do comes back to paying my good fortune forward—picking up those that didn’t get those opportunities and helping them to catch up.”

Photo first published on Farm Online.