Valda Morris, md of speciality sausage maker Mr Lazenby's, finds the meat industry dangerously complacent. Mike Ingham met her Value added meat products are again a growth sector as favourable long-term demand trends re-emerge after the turmoil of the BSE crisis. Changing lifestyles and demographics promise a warm welcome for suppliers able to offer imaginative blends of convenience, taste and value without losing all the character and emotional appeal of traditional carcase beef, lamb and pork, along with bacon and poultry. But can Britain's meat industry, itself deeply traditional in outlook, exploit the opportunities? Valda Morris, md of gourmet sausage manufacturer Mr Lazenby's since early last year, is not alone among the sector's senior executives in believing it will miss the chance unless attitudes change and archaic prejudices are discarded soon. "If we don't get it right, we could see someone else, the Americans or Australians, come in and take over," says Morris. She is, however, one of very few industry insiders willing to voice such doubts in public. Not that the meat processing establishment would be short of critics if its own ranks stayed silent. It has more than enough enemies on the outside, and at first sight Valda Morris could easily be one of them. An elegant young Latvian blonde, she initially appears to be the typical articulate, glamorous fine food enthusiast, the sort usually unable to comprehend commercial reality outside the world of the television chef and Knightsbridge delicatessen. Listening to Morris dispels the illusion immediately. Despite the Baltic ancestry, the accent is Bishop Auckland, which helps account for the gritty analysis of the meat processors' prospects. Morris grew up not far from the Teesside factory where she now ensures the Mr Lazenby's business extracts a useful margin from its £10m annual sales. As a child and teenager she watched the north-east's industries decline. Today her office is almost literally in the shadow of Nissan and Samsung. Although clearly no sentimentalist, Morris talks with obvious feeling when warning of how an industrial inheritance can slip away. As for fine food fanaticism, she has the wrong sort of personality. By temperament, not just profession, she is a manufacturer. Even the schoolgirl Valda Morris was fascinated by factories. She made her way into management by studying production techniques ­ not law, or accountancy, or marketing as were the usual routes for the minority of young women who sought industrial careers. "There are lots of women in the meat industry these days, especially in finance and on the technical side, and of course in marketing," she acknowledges. "But it's very unusual to find a woman running a meat products factory." However, whereas a woman running a meat factory has curiosity value, Morris is worth taking seriously as an industry critic because she is a production expert running a meat company ­ and running it profitably. That touches a raw nerve. To an outsider much of the sector appears a ramshackle outfit barely in touch with this half of the century, let alone the decade, even though, like other sclerotic industries, meat processing and marketing supposedly had its structural overhaul and productivity revolution in the '80s and early '90s. Traders complained about "bean counter" financial directors and the "sales prevention managers" in new credit control departments disrupting amiable relationships with buyers at the other end of the bar. Many slaughterhouses closed, as did hundreds of butchers' shops. And the networks of little cutting plants and depots linking abattoirs and importers with their retailing and further-processing customers were pruned ruthlessly. Up to that point, the story is familiar enough. The twist in the tale is that it is now clear some of the old guard were better at counting the beans. This is the disturbing theme just detectable in the squabble between Unigate and Hillsdown. One way and another the City has put a lot of money into the meat industry over the past 20 years, and has little to show for it. That is why so few words are said in public these days against the meat industry's antediluvian attitudes and its weird commercial and technical practices, some of which are masonic rituals that can be traced back to mediaeval guild butchery. In the '80s the corporate accountants tried to throw out all this historical baggage, but they got it wrong. Either the bean counters were innumerate, or bean counting skill was nowhere near enough for running a meat business ­ at least, that is the traditionalists' interpretation. Morris seethes with indignation when hearing industry worthies claim that the moral of it all is meat is somehow different, its market working unlike others and by implication shielding them against normal economic and commercial pressures. "They're so complacent!" The body language suggests throttling, or worse. "Nothing can make this industry different. The basic principles are exactly the same as anywhere else." Evident now is the experience of watching those sunset industries. "I've seen this before ­ it's just history repeating itself. Other industries told themselves they were different. They thought they'd got it taped. "Then they were knocked over, and the outsiders came and sorted it. I see no reason why the same might not happen in the UK meat industry if we're not careful." Credibility as a critic by virtue of not being a bean-counter is fair enough as far as it goes, but Morris's status in the industry will depend also on how successfully she does her job. She appears to run the upmarket sausage maker according to the same principles she advocates for the industry as a whole ­ genuinely trying to focus on the needs of the immediate customer, regarding meeting those needs as the purpose of the product, and recognising that business is mostly about subtlety rather than complexity. "We've gone from what was classically an owner-managed business to a professionally managed business," she says of the enterprise Richard Lazenby started about 20 years ago. Then it was one of those little cottage industry operations dedicated to fine food, the sort often regarded condescendingly by the big manufacturers. Under Morris, who was brought in by Lazenby full time after their paths crossed during her stint as a management consultant, the image is still West End sophistication (as is some of the revenue), but the reality is serving the multiples. "By the end of the year we'll have all of them," says Morris. Ten million pounds is obviously a small turnover figure by meat industry standards, yet already Mr Lazenby's has national distribution and is taken seriously enough by the supermarkets to have been awarded a gong by one multiple as best supplier. Ending the year with black ink on the bottom line after the investment needed to achieve that speaks for itself: Morris's management approach clearly yields an enviable gross margin. "We took the company apart bit by bit, and asked ourselves questions," says Morris. "Are we competitive? What can we do to preserve our competitiveness?" Morris says she and Lazenby decided the company did have a secret, a characteristic giving it a sustainable margin and market share potential in a viciously competitive environment. "No, I'm not going to tell you exactly what it is!" One hint is her constant emphasis on the speed of new product development. This is partly a reflection of the customer focus ­ "It's not: what do we want to sell? It's: what does our customer want to sell?" ­ but it's also to do with locking in margin by fixing the company permanently to a point in the average product lifecycle just before marginal returns fall away fatally. If the Baltic blonde has a business philosophy, it would seem to be management by managers, not management by numbers, and sometimes even the managers are not enough. Hence the repeated emphasis on the importance of Richard Lazenby still being in the business; "Some people have a feel for what will sell, and all the objective analysis you try won't beat that." n {{PROFILE }}