Milne makes $14m push into Mt Barker

Brad ThompsonThe West Australian

Leading agribusiness innovator Graham Laitt has used debt raised through a family company to pump more than $14 million into a major expansion of his Milne conglomerate.

Australian Securities and Investment Commission records show Mr Laitt's Dowford Investments raised $26 million through a bond issue aimed at beefing up the operations of subsidiary Milne AgriGroup.

The terms of the bonds and the identity of the financier were not revealed.

The group has shelved plans to move its livestock feed production division from Welshpool to focus on developing Mt Barker Free Range Chicken to supply domestic and overseas markets.

Mr Laitt said big opportunities were also emerging for his Liveringa Beef and Plantagenet Pork brands as consumers became more sensitive to animal welfare issues and demand for meat protein in Asia skyrocketed.

"Mt Barker chicken is planning to increase production by at least 40 per cent to enable it to catch up with demand and provide a platform for export growth," he said.

"We are processing more than 80,000 birds a week and looking to get another 30,000 to 40,000 birds a week as a minimum.

"There are a lot of inquiries out of Hong Kong and Singapore from the premium hotel and restaurant trade. We are aiming for the niche high-end market but with big populations a niche market can add up to big business."

Milne plans a major upgrade of its Mt Barker processing plant and has been awarded an AusIndustry grant to help fund investment in new technology.

It is redeveloping facilities at Rockingham to produce its value-added chicken and meals range after taking a long-term lease on the former Chemeq site.

Milne will also consolidate its pork and beef processing and distribution at Rockingham, where it owns the high-tech plant developed by biotech company Chemeq before it collapsed in 2007 with debts of $60 million.

Milne sold the Welshpool site, where it has operated for more than 100 years, to a Woolworth's subsidiary in 2011 as part of a plan to increase capacity by building a new feed mill.

Mr Laitt said there had been a long delay in planning approval for a Masters Home Improvement store on the Welshpool site. Milne was to buy it back under the terms of the sale contract.

"While it is not the ideal solution, it is important to be flexible given the company's rate of growth and the need to prioritise capital expenditure for meat products and their entry into export markets," Mr Laitt said. "We looked at moving to Katanning or Rockingham, and looked at building two mills. We probably will still have to do that but it might be in five years or 10 years time."

Mr Laitt hosed down recent speculation linking Milne and CBH. He said that while the WA grain handler was a big supplier to Milne and the two companies often talked, there were was no deal on the table.

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