Processing industry boss calls it a day

Greg Cross recalls the journey to him becoming the WA boss of Fletcher International.

Fletcher International Western Australia general manager Greg Cross has retired, after dedicating four decades to the meat processing industry.

FLETCHER International Western Australia general manager Greg Cross has retired, after dedicating four decades to the meat processing industry.

Though years have passed since Mr Cross' first set foot in an abattoir, he remembers the moment as if it were yesterday.

The then 18-year-old was working for his father's earthmoving business and had been sent to grade the road at a processing plant in New South Wales.

"I lasted about an hour and a half on that job," Mr Cross laughed.

"I turned the grader around and drove it straight back to the depot.

"I told dad, 'There's no way in the world I am going to be out there for another five minutes with the smell of that place'."

His father - with a size 14 shoe - responded, "well, I think you better hop back on that grader, get back out there and do what you gotta do".

Knowing better than to argue, Mr Cross followed his father's orders and promised himself he would "never ever work anywhere near an abattoir ever again".

Three years later, everything changed, when a serious car accident left him paralysed and wheelchair bound.

But Mr Cross didn't wallow.

Through acceptance and a positive attitude, he gained a broader perspective and turned adversity into opportunity.

"Life's what you make it," he said.

"You get dealt some crap cards, but you carry on playing the game because as time goes on you get some good ones too."

Mr Cross' dream had always been to work with machinery and not long before his injury he had purchased the family business and a new truck.

The accident had altered his life, but it didn't stop him from living how he wanted.

"Everyone was keen for me to get involved in wheelchair sports," he said.

"I thought, 'no, I just want a job'.

"So I sold the business and went looking for work."

Employment found Mr Cross in a conversation with an export meat company manager at a social event.

"He offered me a job as a tally clerk at an export meat processing plant in central NSW.

"I thought, 'Oh well, this is a start, at least I am in the workforce'."

Mr Cross was quick to adapt to an environment - and even to a smell - he wasn't particularly keen on in the first instance.

He learned the ropes and thrived, taking in everything and anything he could.

This proved helpful in securing his employment and proving he was a valuable asset to the industry.

"At that time - and it still happens today - when shortage of livestock comes people get stood down," Mr Cross said.

"But I noticed those who weren't stood down were those who had other skills or had knowledge in the factory.

"So I thought I am going to be one of those people, who learn whatever they can, so when they do stand people down they realise they actually need me."

Beyond his work as a tally clerk and documentation, he became involved in shipping, cold storage and transport within the company in his first couple of years.

Sure enough, as people were tapped on the shoulder to be stood down, Mr Cross wasn't.

Eventually, he landed a job as the leading hand, before meeting his wife Lynne and moving to the small country town of Gunnedah, NSW.

Mr Cross worked his way through the ranks at a processing plant there, from load out and cold storage manager, to human resource manager, business development manager and assistant manager.

Then one day, he received a phonecall from Fletcher International Exports director Roger Fletcher.

"Roger asked me if I wanted to spend 12 months with him in Dubbo," he said.

"He said had just put together a new young management team and he wanted someone to sit shotgun with him - so I did."

Nearing the end of the proposed year-long stint in 1998, Mr Cross was asked if he could spend an extra three weeks with Fletchers at a new plant, which was built near Albany in WA.

Those three weeks became eight months.

Mr Cross went on to work in WA as an assistant alongside Mr Fletcher's daughter Melissa for six years.

When she took maternity leave he was thrown the reins as general manager.

Seventeen years later - and up until last month - he continued on with it.

"Three weeks ended up being 24 years here in Albany," Mr Cross said.

"My wife and two daughters moved over within eight months and we settled down - it has been a good story and we have really, really enjoyed it.

"I think of the 40 years I have been in the industry, the 25 years out there at Fletcher International WA, with that workforce, was the best of my whole working career.

"The memories I have will never be taken away."

Mr Cross paved the way for the future of the plant, guiding employees through many industry changes.

When Fletcher International Exports WA opened its doors, Albany had an unemployment rate of 13pc.

The company wanted to employ people who hadn't worked in abattoirs before, and started the first year running one shift.

In the second year this increased to two shifts with 630 employees processing more than 40,000-head (of sheep) a week.

Unfortunately, as time went on livestock numbers dwindled and by 2012, shifts dropped back to five single, nine-hour shifts per week.

As can be expected in a 40-year career, Mr Cross has seen a big change in the meat processing industry.

Winding the clock back to the early 1980s, he recalled a meat substitution incident, which happened in the Eastern States and was an "absolute disaster" for the Australian export meat industry.

"That's when the Australian government had to step in and fully regulate the industry, to gain the confidence of overseas customers," Mr Cross said.

"The regulation cost the industry billions of dollars and was one of the most terrible situations that could have happened."

As part of the government controlled inspections, production speed was regulated and therefore abattoirs could only run at a minimum speed.

This was not ideal for an industry, which is "all about numbers" as well as quality of product.

Mr Cross recalled the introduction of MINTRAC - a structure set-up for meat processing traineeships - as a reform to educate employees.

He said MINTRAC helped industry regain control, after the meat substitution, by training employees on the reasons why products had to be processed a certain way.

The training was all about food safety, personal hygiene, occupation, health and safety and "taking ownership for the destiny of the industry".

In the past 10 years, Mr Cross said advancements were made when the Australian Export Meat Inspection System (AMIS) was introduced.

AMIS worked on company inspections, which meant plants were no longer heavily governed by government meat inspectors.

This meant restrictions on chain speed were removed and the industry could further tap into the agricultural sector.

Mr Cross labelled it as a "major, major change and an exceptional one at that".

"It was not about taking advantage of having company inspectors, if anything else it was more stringent," he said.

"We were able to process the products with heavily or very well educated employees, plus an inspection service where there were no restrictions.

"It was also good for the farming community because companies could increase their processing numbers."

When asked what the most rewarding achievement in his working career was, Mr Cross modestly responded that it was more about the exceptional workforce at Fletchers, than it was about him.

He said he would challenge any company in any industry in Australia to say they had a better workplace harmony and relationship than those at Fletcher International.

"We have open transparency - I have always believed in having consultation instead of confrontation," Mr Cross said.

"All the workers know what the rules are and it is a matter of getting along with everybody.

"I always tell them, 'look, I am the general manager by name, but I am just a link in the chain, which is all important to each other'.

"All the workers made me look good in my role, they are brilliant and saying goodbye was the hardest part about leaving because we are like one big family."

Mr Cross had an open-door policy, which gave people the confidence to chat to him about any problems both in-and-out of the workplace.

He described his time in the industry as stimulating, rewarding and exciting.

And while this created a hard to miss vibe, Mr Cross now looks forward to spending time with his five grandchildren - Mason, Esme, twins Toby and Grace, and Maeve.

"I have had my time and now it is time for my family.

"I have had a very solid career, but I have an absolute rock solid wife, who met me two years after my accident and we've had two beautiful girls, who have given us five absolutely adorable grandkids.

"So what more could one want in life?"

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