FEATURE: How Hilton Food Group got an appetite for Brisbane
When you cast an eye across the industrial landscape where the southern Brisbane suburbs of Heathwood, Larapinta and Forest Lake converge, you’ll see names such as Woolworths, Asahi, Australia Post, Visy and more peering down from atop giant warehouses, factories and distribution centres.
But one of the more recent names to arrive in the area is Hilton Food Group, the UK-owned meat processing behemoth that kicked off operations at its 24,945m2 state-of-the-art facility in July 2019.
The massive meat processing facility is expected to employ more than 650 people when it hits full capacity, and those employees will help oversee what can only be described as a technological leader in the meat processing and packing industry.
Hilton Food Group invested about $150 million in automation at the facility, and because of its advanced processing technology and the company’s track record of being at the cutting edge of tech advancement in the industry, it will very efficiently service customers - including grocery giant Woolworths - throughout New South Wales, Queensland and the Northern Territory.
The Heathwood facility also features Australia’s second largest photovoltaic solar installation on its rooftop, providing around 50 percent of the site’s energy needs. A sophisticated Energy Management System of valves, controls and meters also helps to reduce the site’s baseline energy demands.
But what led the company, which was founded in 1994 and has facilities dotted across Europe and Australia, to bring this level of technological advancement to its facility in Brisbane?
“It can be a very old-fashioned business, the meat industry,” says Dug O’Hare, Executive Director Asia Pacific of Hilton Foods Australia and New Zealand.
“I suppose what makes the difference with this plant is that it really has the latest technology. Hilton has been building new factories, virtually one new factory every two to three years, across Europe and each one takes some learnings from the previous and takes some of the latest technologies.
“This plant in Brisbane has got the latest state-of-the-art technology, so we've got particular high-speed and high-yield slicing equipment that we don't have at any other facility. That's all down here first and really first on a global stage.”
That level of sophistication will be a welcome capability when you consider the scale of the operation and the output it will achieve.
The facility will process about 1500 tonnes of meat products every week when fully operational, and that produce will reach customers across the eastern seaboard and into the Northern Territory. Thanks to its location in Brisbane’s southern transport corridor, the logistics of getting that much product on the road and into its customers’ hands will be an efficient and finely tuned exercise.
And for Hilton Food Group, O’Hare says, location was vital.
“As a business we decided that rather than building a plant in Sydney we'd build a plant in Brisbane to supply Queensland, Northern Territory and the markets all the way down to Sydney from the Brisbane plant as a better future location,” O’Hare says.
“So we now supply a lot of products for the whole Eastern seaboard from the Brisbane plant that otherwise we were looking at splitting between Sydney and Melbourne. So it was really about getting logistics costs to be better and I'd say the speed of delivery from Brisbane around the whole of the Eastern seaboard and into the Northern Territory.
“It's the biggest of the three plants we have in the country and it receives 50 percent of our total capacity in the country, just because of that geographical location and an ability to get extra services and support in that area. It's linked very closely into where we've got particularly excellent raw material supply as well.”
But it was also the makeup and the size of the land that drew Hilton Food Group to the Heathwood site.
“The size of the facility is significant, and we needed a fair bit of land to access around it,” O’Hare says.
“We also had a view in the long term that we wanted to tie into some Woolworths logistics facilities and distribution centres, and there was space there for Woolworths to also add additional buildings and new logistics facilities.
“So it was a combination of things: size of land available, right timing in terms of it being serviced land, and land that we can access. But also the geographical location. We looked at places in Ipswich, we looked at places further down towards the Gold Coast and we ended up deciding that Heathwood had the best balance of cost, logistics and space availability.”
And O’Hare says that’s where Brisbane Economic Development Agency’s Investment and Industry Development team stepped in to help make the process as informed and smooth as possible from both a site discovery and regulatory perspective - especially when the scope of the project changed close to the finish line.
“We were working in conjunction with Woolworths at the time and Brisbane EDA helped us with the locations, what was available and then when it came to doing design, Brisbane EDA were very helpful in explaining local design requirements and regulations, approvals required, and more in conjunction with Brisbane City Council,” he says.
“The team there facilitated meetings with various Brisbane City Council planning departments, town planning, and more to help us understand requirements, what we needed to do and how to build our project plan together.
“They then supported it as we went through the approval process to help make it timely, consistent and reliable. It helped us have a reliable pathway that allowed us to plan our business, plan our investment and plan our timescales with a high degree of reliability.
“Then we, quite late on in the process, put some additional equipment in place for additional vegan capabilities in the facility, and there had to be separate permits required for that. We were under a lot of pressure to try to get that to market very quickly and Brisbane EDA and Brisbane City Council were there and responded very quickly.
“Brisbane EDA got involved to help us again to understand what the permit process would be and facilitated close contacts with the people who were providing the permits. They made sure that was a very quick and seamless process.”
For Hilton Food Group, their Brisbane facility all adds up to creating more jobs for the region and ensuring they remain at the cutting edge of their industry in terms of technology, people and products.
“I think we're leading edge in terms of culture, team engagement and ways of working in diversity in the plant. We really try to push a lot of those things because we have an opportunity in the Australian industry and markets to trial some things and to move some of those things forward very effectively.
“There is some genuine excitement from our people in the growth of a business like this in Brisbane.”
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