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McCain’s Smithton plant manager Gordon Gillies shares with Doris Prodanovic how the team completed the Tasmanian site’s $37 million upgrade and kept it running during the peak of the pandemic. This article was first published in Food & Drink Business September/October 2020.

Describing the completion of a $37 million site upgrade in the midst of a pandemic as “certainly challenging” was the “understatement of the month” for Gordon Gillies, McCain Foods Smithton plant manager.

The Tasmanian plant launched in 1984 as a French fry and vegetable facility but has specialised in solely French fry production since 2011. Its latest upgrades were installed in March this year.

“We managed to start on the original day we planned, 20 March, but we only had fifteen per cent of our commissioning resources when COVID-19 hit,” Gillies told Food & Drink Business.

“A lot of the team from the equipment manufacturer from overseas and elsewhere in Australia were called back to their respective homes, so we were left with limited resources for the last couple of weeks of installation and commissioning. It was challenging, but we managed to get up and running.

“There was a great can-do spirit from everyone here, with a successful outcome.”

As McCain’s primary retail production facility for Australia and New Zealand, the Smithton expansion has meant doubling the packing area, which now produces 27,000 bags per hour. The site has also installed new fryer, batter and coater applicators, allowing for a variety of product capabilities.

“We now have the capability to make the coated batter products with different flavours and different textures that battered products provide, and we also now have the ability to focus in on retail products for our retail customers,” says Gillies.

McCain’s Smithton site was working to a five-day roster operation to the end of June and has since returned to a full seven-day roster for its staff and production. Gillies says the reduced operation was the right thing to do and was vital for the safety of employees.

“Because we had fewer resources for the training, as well as the commissioning, there wasn’t enough of us to do seven days a week,” Gillies says. “We had quite a few people who weren’t working because they were supporting a close contact with COVID, or for their own health reasons, so we made sure their safety was first.”

Local potato growers helped to pick up the pieces but were facing challenges themselves not only caused by the pandemic, such as seasonal labour that “wasn’t necessarily there, and the wettest potato season in a long time – there’s 8000 tonnes of potatoes out there, but it’s still too wet to harvest,” Gillies says.

“Running the plant five days instead of seven days put some constraints on the growers as well because they can’t harvest while we aren’t running, but we had some great support from the potato growers.”

McCain’s upgrade injected a further $8 million in supplement projects to the Circular Head region. Gillies says the construction has demonstrated the ongoing commitment to the local growers and production in the region as the McCain team upskills with new equipment.

“$37 million of investment really shows McCain is here to stay,” he says. “We want to keep building as a site, with more upgrades planned for the future.

“We’re proud to be bringing the best of Tassie to the supermarket freezer aisle."

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