Our man in Brussels

Multi-lingual and multi-talented, the MLC's Peter Hardwick, has travelled far and wide in his varied career in the food industry. He talks to Raymond Monbiot about his experiences and the opportunities lying ahead for the UK meat sector

Peter Hardwick certainly started life as an international jet-setter. Born in Georgetown, Guyana in 1956, his father, who had a Cambridge degree in geology, worked for the government at the time as a cartographer. "My mother was German. My parents met in Guyana where I lived for the first year of my life," he says. "When my father started working for BP East Africa, we moved to Dar es Salaam for a short time and then to Mombasa where we lived for seven years."

This early travel made an impression on the young Hardwick, and provides valuable insight into his current role as international manager with the Meat & Livestock Commission.

"I had a truly international upbringing and have favoured living and working abroad throughout my career." His father's next posting was Libya where Hardwick attended the King Idris British School in Benghazi before becoming a boarder at Rossall School in Fleetwood, Lancashire.

Ten 'O' levels and 3 'A' levels later, Hardwick went to Queen Mary's College, London University, to read modern languages, specifically Spanish and French. "As part of my four-year university honours degree, I spent a year teaching English in Spain."

While his early ambitions had been towards a career in teaching, his experience in Spain proved not to be to his taste.

"The 'milk-run' of companies trawling universities for graduates brought me into contact with Union International and I joined as a management trainee in 1979 expecting to see the world," he says. "However, my first posting was to the British Beef plant at Preston - not far from Rossall School. It was a down-to-earth introduction to the meat industry, working throughout the plant, from the lairage to the loading bay for six months before moving on to the trading desk at Smithfield, selling mainly to supermarkets."

His university years also led him to his future wife, Maggie. "She was the owner of the downstairs flat. I was a tenant upstairs," he says.

The couple got married in 1982. By this time, Hardwick was personal assistant to Edmund Vestey and, for a while, Sam Vestey. "This was part of their assessment technique before deploying a trainee in the world-wide organisation.

"I got to know the senior management through this process and was 'put up for offer'. I was given a short term attachment to Weddel South Africa Management Department (SAMD). This, through the Donald Cook brand and private label, was concerned with canning and freezing fruit, fruit juices and concentrate and exporting worldwide."

He was initially sent on a short trip to South Africa to familiarise himself with the business, but was instantly smitten. "When I returned to head office in London, my first question was 'when do I go back?'."

It was two-years later, in 1984, before an opportunity arose.

"For the next three years, Maggie and I lived in, or near, Cape Town and later Johannesburg, where our son, Alexander, was born."

At the end of three years, he was given a choice - to stay on or be re-assigned. They decided to move on.

The shift in direction left Hardwick out of the meat sector for three years. Expecting his next job to be in Europe, he was posted instead to Brazil. "They sent me to the huge Frigorifico Anglo plant in Barretos, to refresh meat production and trading. Barretos was a great place to live. There were opportunities to play all manner of sports including cricket on coconut matting wickets."

Cricket proved to be a popular sport, and Hardwick recalls entertaining touring teams, such as the Troubadors, made up largely of UK county players. "I suppose I could claim that I have played cricket for Brazil," he says.

Overall, he gained around 18 months of production experience in Brazil before moving to Weddel Spain in Madrid. "There I was exposed to more traditional trading from prime cuts to sheepskins, and learned about lamb for the first time.

"We would import light lambs from New Zealand to Spain where there is a big demand.

"As well as a trading office based in Barcelona, we found a suitable site north of Madrid to build a cutting plant, trained a local team and put Graham Shortland - an enormously tall New Zealander - in charge as production supervisor. This was a good business and we achieved a significant market share. We pioneered boxed, frozen half lambs, cut into joints and chops, selling to retail and food service outlets."

In 1990, Hardwick spent two months at French Business School at Fontainebleau, INSEAD, on the International Executive Programme - for people who already had business experience. The experience proved invaluable for getting to know people from other businesses and provided a better understanding of business decision-making.

"Vestey's businesses were traditionally highly geared and ours was no exception. When interest rates soared in 1991 it was a struggle, but events in the Vestey Group overtook us. I had no inkling of their intentions when I and other general managers were called to a meeting in London. I, like many others, was told to go home and shut down the business."

Fortunately, his experience and contacts paid off: "I was offered a job at Haverhill Meat Products, which had long been a Sainsbury's owned pork supplier."

However, the retailer was looking to dispose of the business, as it no longer fitted the company strategy. "It needed to become a more balanced business following the decision to sell," he says. "They asked me to build an export business from scratch to a market share equivalent to their domestic share. In the event we did better than that. It also introduced me to pork for the first time."

Three-years later, the fresh produce industry came calling, in the form of Del Monte, which had bought Vestey's South African interests, and they were looking for a sales director for south-west Europe.

However, it was not too long before the meat industry once again tapped Hardwick on the shoulder. "I met Colin Maclean at a trade fair in Spain. He offered me the opportunity to join MLC, working in Brussels. I leapt at it and took up the job in November 1994."

He says the opportunity was exciting: "It offered me the chance to do something different, working with European Institutions, the Commission and Parliament and meat industry counterparts in other member states. Vestey had offered a good training in languages. By this time I was fluent in Spanish, Portugese and French, spoke adequate Afrikaans, Italian, and, in my mother's tongue, German."

But it was far from an easy ride. "The first 15 months in the job was a period of grace. Then in March 1996 the announcement in the House of Commons about BSE changed the landscape and it has been a constant battle and challenge over the ensuing 11 years to recover.

"The UK had addressed the basic problems of BSE in 1988/9, further strengthened in 1996, but we were largely on our own in this approach and it took until 2001 for the rest of the Community to recognise it.

"History has proved that BSE was a much more widespread problem and the UK was right in leading the way through a dark and difficult time for the meat industry."

Now, however, Hardwick has an entirely different prospect ahead of him, but he has still got his work cut out. "After 10 years the OTM export ban has been lifted and we look to a big opportunity, particularly in France, where we have worked hard in the last decade to keep the door open, pending the lifting of the ban. "There is a lot of sympathy towards the plight of the UK, as I know first hand from my neighbours around my house in France.

"The date-based export scheme, introduced as an interim measure pending the lifting of the ban, had limitations, not least in the difficulties and disruption to the business of the few abattoirs licensed under the scheme.

"Whether we can now rebuild our sales to approach the 246,000t pre-ban remains to be seen. It used to be a £500m business for the UK. Initial targets have been set at 30,000t in the first 12 months and before the ban was lifted we had pledges for 20,000t."

Prior to the lifting of the ban, in 2001, Hardwick was asked to take on the export trade development world-wide, and extended his role as MLC's international manager.

"The team is based in Milton Keynes and we have permanent offices in France and the Netherlands. We work with agents elsewhere and with Food from Britain in Benelux, Germany, Spain, and Italy. Furthermore Greece was the first to order OTM beef following the lifting of the ban.

"Looking ahead there are opportunities for both cow beef and top quality beef of which there is a shortage on world markets. There is a big demand for it in Italy, Greece and Benelux. And the business is there to be had. Lamb is in recovery mode and we are looking to a 100,000t target but success here will depend largely on the size of the flock available."

However, it's not simply a question of volume he says, and it is important not to lose sight of what is important: "Export levels are not an end in themselves. The objective is to maximise returns to producers."