Growing networks and equity

With the right skills, there are opportunities for people to make hugely rewarding careers out of farm management.

In Business13 Minutes

With the right skills, there are opportunities for people to make hugely rewarding careers out of farm management. In a series on managers, Country-Wide talks to leaders of high-profile operations about their career paths and the challenges and rewards of running large-scale sheep and beef businesses. This month Sandra Taylor talks to Matt Iremonger from Willesden Farms.

If Matt Iremonger worked in town, his job description would be chief executive of a multi-million-dollar business. He would likely have a flash office, a PA, and wear a tie to work.

Matt is general manager and equity partner in Willesden Farms, a large-scale and multi-dimensional farming business based on Banks Peninsula in Canterbury. He overseers a complex operation from a modest farm office, without a PA, wearing his shorts and work socks. Boots are left at the door.

Matt is a farmer who, along with his wife Katy, started out with nothing and has built a successful career in the sheep and beef industry by making connections, taking opportunities and learning from mistakes. He is continually growing his knowledge, networks and equity.

Chatty and engaging, he is a person who makes connections easily. This ability to build contacts is a critical one in his role at Willesden Farms as he deals with so many different people on a daily basis.

The business, which covers 6000ha of mixed terrain from hill country to expansive irrigated flats, includes 45,000 sheep and beef stock units, specialist arable crops, forestry, and a project extracting protein from plants. It also includes two dairy farms on 440ha near Leeston. Excluding the dairy farms, they employ 12 staff and a myriad of support industries, all of whom Matt views as being an important part of the Willesden business.

Matt and Katy Iremonger are in a hybrid-type equity partnership which allowed them to pursue farm ownership while managing.

Matt and his wife Katy have been at the helm of Willesden Farms, which is owned by the Thomas family, for five and half years, and in that time the operation has more than doubled in size and gross revenue has increased six-fold.

It is a large, diverse and complex farming business, and the skills required to oversee the operation and juggle the many balls that are in the air at any one time are just as diverse.

Matt estimates 30% of his time is now spent on compliance, although Katy suggests 70% might be closer to the mark. The rest of his time is managing the financial aspect of the business, the strategic decisions around stock classes, and managing their water and land resources, determined to continue to protect and enhance their natural and physical resources and leave the land in a better state for future generations.

Most importantly, Matt leads a large team of people and this is the aspect of the job he enjoys the most.

“I really enjoy seeing them progress and grow, just as I enjoy seeing the business grow and the physical improvements on the land.”

The only downside to Matt’s role is the lack of hands-on farming, which ironically is all he wanted to do growing up on a sheep and beef farm north of Murchison.

He began working on farms during school holidays when he was 14, then spent Lincoln University holidays working on a range of farms as part of his BComAg degree.

Matt did an honours degree in wool marketing and worked briefly for both the New Zealand Wool Board and Merino New Zealand before deciding that working in an office was not where he wanted to be.

After a three-year OE, Matt, then aged 24, and his girlfriend (now wife) Katy returned home and, in what was a ballsy move, took on the lease of a 500ha sheep, beef and dairy support farm in North Canterbury.

The couple had no money, although Katy had a good, well-paying job at CRT, which Matt says was absolutely critical.

They put together a business case and presented it to PGG Finance who were prepared to finance the couple into the lease. Matt doesn’t believe any financial institution would take that sort of risk today.

“Looking back now, I’m surprised they did that.”

The couple was also very fortunate they had a dairy farmer who was willing to take a gamble on the pair and pay for a winters-worth of grazing upfront, which enabled them to have cash flow from the get-go.

Matt says he can’t believe how naive he was taking on a lease with no money, but it highlighted the importance of communication, being respectful of people and showing how you can help them and be helped in return.

“Good deals are done when everyone wins.”

Matt describes the whole lease experience as life changing. It was incredibly tough – they literally recycled teabags – but it also made them very resourceful.

“We made a lot of mistakes and we didn’t know a lot, but when you’ve got no money, you quickly learn from those mistakes.”

After five years the lease had ended and so too had their dream of outright farm ownership as land prices continued to soar.

They were only making slightly more than if Matt had been earning wages, and while they were accruing some capital, it wasn’t keeping up with increases in land values.

Instead, they entered an equity partnership in a sheep and beef operation. It ended amicably after a few years when their goals and objectives no longer aligned with those of the partners.

It was the couple’s bank manager who suggested Matt meet the Thomas family who were looking for a farm manager, and while initially reluctant because Matt didn’t want to work as an employee, he and Katy eventually went along for a meeting.

While Matt started off as a manager, they now operate what Matt describes as a hybrid-type of equity partnership which has allowed Matt and Katy to fulfill their desire for farm ownership while managing and growing Willesden.

Initially they bought two farms in North Canterbury in partnership with the Thomas family. These have since been sold and both parties have co-invested in the dairy farms.

“We now see the business as a pastoral business which includes sheep, beef, dairy and dairy support,” Matt says.

He is grateful for the range of skills he developed as a teenager when working on stock and arable farms and with contractors during school and university holidays.

This was when he learnt about stockmanship, growing and harvesting crops, working with machinery and fencing, all vital skills, particularly when the couple was leasing a farm and had no money.

As manager of Willesden, Matt still applies these skills, and while he doesn’t believe he brings any particular strengths to the role, he does have his eye over, and an understanding of, the many moving parts that make up the Willesden business.

He doesn’t believe the industry as a whole is very good at providing opportunities for young farmers to develop the range of skills required in today’s increasingly complex farm environment, so at Willesden they do their best to expose their staff to a range of skills and encourage cross-over between the stock and arable sides of the operation when possible.

This also gives the business some security, with people being able to step up and provide cover for others when necessary.

As a manager or equity partner, Matt says financial competency is vital and this was one of the most important skills he learnt while studying at Lincoln University.

He learnt how to read and write balance sheets, profit and loss statements, cashflows and budgets, and how to communicate with the bank manager and accountant.

He encourages anyone considering a career as a farm manager and/or equity partner to do some form of study, not necessarily a degree, and most importantly, develop some financial management skills.

Matt says being part of a multi-dimensional business has taught him a lot about farm systems, and through his more recent involvement in the dairy industry he has learnt about pasture and feed management, the value of genetic improvement and the need for careful planning, all of which he is now applying to the sheep and beef side of the operation.

It’s all about people

Matt believes being open-minded and having the ability to engage with a range of people is important for anyone considering farm management or entering into an equity partnership. This includes co-workers, agronomists, fertiliser reps, stock agents, contractors, regulators, local iwi, lawyers, accountants, bank managers … the list is endless.

“You can learn a lot from these people so it’s really important to develop a good relationship with them and understand how to work with them as they’re an important part of the farm team.

“Use them as a resource to upskill yourself. They have a lot of knowledge you can tap into.”

Matt also encourages anyone building a career in the industry to create a strong network or people, not just amongst peers, but in the wider industry. Taking the opportunity to attend courses or field days will help build networks as well as knowledge.

For anyone thinking about advancement in the farming sector, Matt says it’s all about the boot leather. This means going out and meeting people, connecting with people and not giving up.

As he and Katy learnt, a manager’s role can turn into a business opportunity where both parties are able to grow financial equity.

“By contributing to the business in a non-financial way, people might recognise that value and provide opportunities that were not necessarily foreseen.”