Meet The Man Running Our Awarua Plant

Mike is the Site Manager for Open Country’s milk processing facility in Awarua, Southland. It’s a big job. So how does Mike relax when he’s not running the factory? He owns a local pub, a bar he purchased ‘by accident’ four years ago.

Before the ‘accidental’ pub

Fifteen years ago, Mike got a call from Open Country and was offered the job of leading the new milk powder facility just outside of Invercargill. “New” meant bare land. A blank canvas and with the backing of a focused family business. Mike recalls the approach he took.

“I came into this project with 20 years’ experience in market milk, ice cream and project management, so I had a good grasp of what we needed to create the efficient operation Open Country was after.

“The first thing the project team of three did was to look in-depth at a traditional powder plant and define what was needed to make quality powder. If I could explain it in car terms, it was like we brought a basic Holden Executive, with the same engine and mechanicals as the top model but without leather, electric windows, air con and mag wheels. Half the cost with less stuff to break down.

Sure, we got the odd thing wrong and the windows fogged up, so we put in air con. From the conception and to today Open Country is smart with design, lean, but always willing to add capital where it improves safety and or operational excellence.

Anyway, by the time we’d finished building the facility, you could not swing a cat in it. We had an exceptionally small footprint but everything we needed to make premium quality milk powder.

Bang for the buck, versatile, simplified, easy to run and maintain. Clearly successful as we have six plants in the business now.”

MikeButler Photo 200

Finding the best people

By 2008, the facility was fully functional. All Mike needed was the right staff to make it run.  You would think Mike would be looking for people with experience in milk powder production, but he took the opposite tack.

“I intentionally steered clear of people from the milk powder industry. People who have been in that game a long time tend to have fixed ways of doing things, whereas we needed people who were open to a different way of thinking and working.”

I chose people with a strong work history, an open mind, and the “Southland character”. I employed freezing workers, a saw miller, rendering plant staff, and a wool scour operator. Keen individuals who were already great at multitasking and up for maintaining quality and productivity.”

“Everyone who joined the journey had a key quality: they came with open minds and were willing to step outside their core job to fill a gap. If they saw that something needed doing, they’d get on and do it without being asked. Looking back, we had the right people on the bus.”  

No one challenged Mike’s recruitment drive, and it worked. Today, Open Country’s Awarua site is known for its innovation and excellence in dairy, something Mike and his team are proud of.

Bigger & Better

Open Country has grown to become the second largest exporter of whole milk powders in the world. To meet the global demand, the milk powder drying facility has tripled in capacity and an additional warehouse has also been added.

Growing consumer health awareness has also shaped the Awarua plant. As A2 milk and organic products gained worldwide market share, Mike oversaw the design and construction of the organic A2 milk processing facilities.

As the Awarua plant has undergone substantial advancements, Mike has insisted that other things remain the same.

“The plant is obviously bigger now, and more people are with me running the operation, but we still hold the same values, we still have a fantastic culture amongst the team. That hasn’t changed, even though the task and our physical footprint is larger.”

In the time that Mike has been running the plant, the operation has increased from one to three milk powder dryers. There has also been the installation of an Anhydrous Milk Fat (AMF) plant and a Reverse Osmosis water purification plant. Most impressive is the new 13 mega-watt (MW) electrode boiler, which generates steam to be used in the powder drying process. This renewable energy source significantly reduces Open Country’s carbon emissions and won the EECA-sponsored large energy user award in 2021.

“The other thing I’m still fanatical about is quality control. You can never be too strict about producing food. We have a worldwide reputation for producing 100% high quality milk powder from the milk of pasture-fed cows in New Zealand. That reputation must be protected.

There is no “them and us” in our team, operating, engineering and technical personnel all share the same goals, same facilities, and the same workspace.”

Back to the accidental pub…

When Mike and his wife bought the country pub, it was run-down, and they had the intention of converting it into their new home. At 770 square metres, three acres of land, it was large enough to accommodate the family, including Mike’s space-filling hobby of restoring classic bikes and cars.

But then the locals called in.

“When we bought the Woodlands Tavern, we were certified townies, we did not understand a small community’s character. It was a meeting place for telling the day’s stories, a hall for community meetings, place for celebration events and fundraising. A bunch of the locals made that quite clear”

“So we stayed in the old house beside the pub, and committed to keeping the pub open for a year. Four years later, it’s still open. I can pour a good beer, but a couple of good staff and a bunch of locals keep me on the right side of the counter”

To add his own personal touch, Mike put in classic motorbikes, and one of his hot-rods inside.

“The 27 roadster looks mint in the corner, raced on the salt flats 51-58, I can start it remotely and its open exhaust V8 chev engine is a good way to remind the patrons that it’s closing time. I’ve always loved the classics. They don’t make cars like that anymore.”

Or milk processing site managers.