New era for iconic Westland firm – Westland Milk Products

“My focus has been on enhancing our reputation for quality and the reliability of our assets.”

Westland’s Chief Operations Officer, Richard Hickson

A little over 18 months ago Westland Co-operative Dairy Company was purchased by Inner Mongolia Yili Industrial Group Company Ltd, (Yili), forming Westland Milk Products (WMP).
Also owning Oceania Dairy Limited in Glenavy, Yili is Asia’s largest dairy producer with the widest range of product lines, and one of the largest globally.
Westland’s Chief Operations Officer, Richard Hickson, says the purchase of Westland was part of Yili’s strategic growth plan to be the world’s number one dairy company by 2030.
“Yili’s purchase has also provided security and investment to Westland to help us evolve our product mix and upgrade our assets to meet market demands,” says Richard.
To understand the significance of dairy farming to the Coast is to understand the importance of Westland Milk Products to the region.
The earliest account of dairy farming on the Coast rolls back to 1868.
With an ever-increasing number of pioneering dairy farms springing to life, throughout the late 1800 and early 1900’s numerous co-operative dairy/butter factories appeared up and down the Coast — the first of which was the Hokitika Dairy Company.
The next major development for the company occurred in 1936 when Westland Dairy Cooperative was established, along with the co-operative eventually taking over all the remaining smaller co-operatives right along the coast.
Long and narrow, the milk catchment area encompasses the entire West Coast stretching 440km from Karamea through to glacier country in South Westland, with 375 farms supplying Westland Milk Products and a further 30 suppliers from Canterbury.
Geographically the West Coast is unique in terms of isolation, its lush pasture, the climate and the smaller breeds of cows.
“Our grass growth is typically based upon rainfall,” says Richard. “Because of the high volume of rainfall the jersey cows are typically farmed on the Coast. They’re a smaller cow and easier on the pasture than the larger friesian breeds.”
With three metres of annual rainfall at coast level and up to twelve metres in the hill country, to this day a large proportion of Coast farms do not have irrigation.
That uniqueness is also about how farming integrates with nature and a well established partnership between the ‘salt of the earth’ West Coast farmer and nature utilizing very traditional farming methods.
“The isolation of the region from the rest of the country has also made Coasters more resilient with a strong independent streak.
“When Fonterra was formed and many of the co-operatives around the country joined, Westland Milk Products stood on their own and for a long time did very well.”
Located on the eastern edge of Hokitika township and on the road leading to Lake Kaniere, Westland Milk Products is the biggest private sector employer on the Coast with a team of 579, with another 150 in its Rolleston plant.
The plant also provides indirect employment for the many and varied trades and services supporting the plant.
With multiple manufacturing units on site, milk is delivered to site and distributed to the different units for the manufacture of different products.
“Our butter, branded as Westgold and distinctive in its gold foil wrapping, is world famous, distributed throughout New Zealand and the globe.
“We also manufacture infant formula and a range of specialty protein products that are sent to customers globally for canning and distribution to the Southeast Asian market. UHT (Ultrahigh-temperature) products are manufactured in our Rolleston plant, mainly for the Chinese market.”
While a small range of commodity dairy products like whole milk and skim milk powders are manufactured for bulk business-to-business distribution Richard says that there is now an increasing move to more specialty products with a focus on business-to-customer.
“Our intention is to extract more value from the milk by moving more into specialty products.
Richard emphases that while a greater emphasis will be placed on business-to-customer, the company will never move away from the manufacture of commodity products and business to business supply.
Previously General Manager of Oceania from its development in 2013, Richard was offered the role of COO at Westland, an opportunity he was quick to accept, relocating in 2020.
“We have very good support from Yili HQ in China and there are very good people working here.
“My focus has been on enhancing our reputation for quality and the reliability of our assets.”
Embracing innovation and a champion of continuous improvement, Richard says he loves his role and the challenges it brings as the company transitions from a cooperative to a large multi-national structure.
“Innovation is extremely important and that’s where our future lies.
“We’re working closely with the market to determine what the end consumer is looking for.”

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