With a throughout of 30,000 pigs per week and 2011 turnover of approximately €275m, Rosderra is Ireland's largest pigmeat processor, accounting for around half of the national kill.
Despite the fact that Ireland only has around 300 commercial scale pig producers, the pig sector is third in farm output value terms after beef and dairy.
It is also the fastest growing, with output up 9% last year.
Jim Hanley is chief executive of Rosderra, the company formed after a 2008 management buyout of Glanbia's pigmeat division.
Other participants were Niall Leydon, head of operations, Michael Slevin, head of human resources and Andy Fleming, head of finance.
The firm today employs a total of 930 people at their two main slaughter plans in Roscrea and Edenderry, as well as facilities at Jamestown, Co Leitrim, Clara, Co Offaly and Stradone, Co Cavan.
Rosderra also produces pigs from 4,500 sows on their own farms.
When I visited the company's head office in Edenderry, Co Offaly recently, Jim Hanley had just returned from China -- his second visit in a month having earlier participated in the Ministerial trade mission.
It demonstrates China's increasing importance to Rosderra -- Asia accounted for 20% of sales volumes in 2011.
Rosderra has been going to China for many years. "Our customers are friends at this stage," Hanley said.
For many products, access to China is via Hong Kong-based traders, but as far back as 1998, Jim Hanley and his colleagues decided to talk directly to the Chinese, initially building relationships with customers for products regarded as offal in the western world.
A major breakthrough came in 2005 when a 'Pigmeat Protocol' between Ireland and China was signed in the Great Hall of the People by the then Minister for Agriculture Mary Coughlan.
It was two years later before the Rosderra plants were fully approved.
Trade has really ramped up in the past two years as China strives to contain food price inflation, particularly in pork, its dominant meat.
Rosderra has a range of customers in China, including some secondary processors who take prime cuts from Ireland and process them for re-export to Japan, Korea and other Asian markets.
When asked why Irish product could not be sent directly to these markets, Jim Hanley explained that the Chinese processors benefit from lower labour and energy costs, as well as much easier access to Asian markets.
Jim Hanley cautioned that companies can easily get carried away by the scale of the opportunities on offer in China, a market of 1.3 billion people.
"In China, it is easy to run very fast and find that you have run off a cliff," he said.
He admitted that Rosderra, like most western companies, has had occasional difficulties but the company is now very well placed with a deep understanding of the market and good relationships with trusted customers.
"The Chinese market can move up and down very quickly but the underlying trend is increased affluence," he said. "Pork is their preferred protein, so there are continuing opportunities for growth".
Pig sector growth plans
Given the challenges facing the sector, some eyebrows were raised when the Government's Food Harvest 2020 strategy included a target to grow pigmeat output value by 50% by 2020.
Jim Hanley was the sole pigmeat representative in the group, but he said that the target was agreed by a group that included IFA, Teagasc, Enterprise Ireland and the Department of Agriculture.
Substantial progress has already been achieved, with improved animal health, genetics and farm performance.
"Communication to producers is also better, advising them what customers want," he said. This is crucial, he believes.
"If we want to be competitive, we have to be able to give something special on specification to customers.
We, as a company, have been successful in a wide range of export markets and in supplying top quality product to the Irish market."
Irish pig producers are struggling due to a sharp rise in feed costs, but Jim Hanley maintains that this is "a timing issue".
Pig prices will eventually move up to reflect the increased cost of production, he argues. "We have seen that consistently over the past 24 months".
"There is no doubt that it very difficult today at farm and market level, but this is just one point in time," he said. "We believe that both will change.
"There is a large question mark over where feed costs will go, as hedge funds now appear to be a key driver of price," he said.
When I put it to him that other processers in Ireland are paying a higher price per kg than Rosderra, he argued that "it's about value per animal - price per kg is only one measure.
For example, our factories would have the reputation for having the highest kill out in the country".
"Furthermore, there is no point having a higher price per kg if it is at a higher carcase weight and therefore less efficient for the producer.
In our four years in business, we have paid a solid, consistently improving price to our supplier base, working to extract to maximum value to generate a return.
"We have a very simple policy here -- we have to maximise value to the farmer so that our supply base will grow," he said.
growth plans "Our ambition as a company is to grow. We are in the first cycle at present, which is to assist our supply base to grow," Jim Hanley said.
The company only sells Irish meat and does not engage in meat trading.
"Our focus is on establishing an image for Irish pigmeat as being top quality. If we can do that successfully, there is a bright future for this industry."
On the domestic market, recent years has seen more consumers returning to buying Irish.
"I believe that the consumer wants to buy Irish, as they understand that it is securing employment and adding to the Irish economy.''
He has concerns, however, that the consumer may be confused by the fact that Irish produced pigs can be exported to Northern Ireland for slaughter and re-enter the market in the Republic with the Bord Bia logo (but without the tricolour).
"Why is our industry - pigmeat -- the only one that allows the Bord Bia Quality Assured logo to be carried on re-imported product?" he said.
"I have no difficulty with the live export of pigs for slaughter, but we don't like to see it coming back onto our shelves, creating uncertainty in the minds of consumers," Hanley concluded.
Source: Argentine Beef Packers S.A.
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