He thought he might give his first Talley’s factory job a go for a few weeks but eight years later Armi Chia is a senior manager and counts his colleagues among some of his closest friends.
Armi will tell you that his move from the factory floor as a mussel opener, to a site production manager for Talley’s Blenheim aquaculture division, is due to luck and good timing. His success with productivity and staff safety projects tells a different story however – one of a forward-thinker with an engineer’s aptitude for innovation.
Armi was established as one of Malaysia’s top TV broadcast audio engineers in 2013 when his partner Jeslyn suggested they take a break and travel in New Zealand for a few months. The couple based themselves in Hastings, packing apples for six months and nurturing a growing interest in New Zealand’s industry food processing sector.
With their working holiday coming to a close, Armi and Jeslyn headed off on a South Island roadie. Their plan took a detour when Armi got a hot tip from a Motueka local that went something like this: “Go and get a job with Talley’s mussels! It’s bloody good pay if you can open them fast!”
Armi and Jeslyn applied for jobs and were working on the factory floor opening mussels the next day. Armi didn’t get the chance to ‘get fast’ however as three days later his supervisor had recognised his potential and started training him as a machine operator. The supervisor also spoke Malay and loved Malaysian food, which was the start of a close working friendship that extended into the weekends for shared meals.
“My supervisor encouraged us to apply for work visas and so we did. Once we had our visas, I still thought I’d be going home to Malaysia to pick up audio engineering again, but I could also see lots of opportunities with Talley’s and was really enjoying the team culture.”
Over the next few years Armi and Jeslyn’s shared meals grew into quite a tradition for the Motueka team, with people taking turns to host get togethers for as many as 80 people at a time. Armi and Jeslyn loved it – especially the fact that people from all parts of the business participated.
“I was attracted by the workplace culture and also management’s vision for building the best team, by the way they recognised talent and valued people.”
By 2017 Armi had been promoted to a senior supervisor role and Jeslyn had moved up into a training role. Talley’s tried their best to secure residency for their star workers. Their application was declined but the experience strengthened Armi’s conviction that he wanted to keep working for Talley’s.
“I saw the effort and resources this company put into supporting people like us.”
In 2018 Armi was invited to participate on a project to improve productivity.
The project started with a trip to Christchurch with Talley’s IT manager to meet an IT development team.
In the Christchurch meeting Armi’s job was to ‘answer questions about opening mussels’, to shed some light on the practicalities of the factory floor. He did that, adding his own ideas and was appointed champion of a project to build a gaming-style app showing mussel openers their work, so they could see where they could make improvements.
Fast mussel opening has to be safe and the project had a second workstream to improve workers’ techniques and avoid sprains, strains and cuts. Jeslyn championed the project among workers, getting their critical buy-in to being filmed and then being asked to watch footage of themselves in action.
“We filmed hundreds of openers in action and then analysed their techniques in slow motion – at about one-tenth of their normal speed. After a month, we’d found the best, safest technique for opening mussels and broke this down into six clear steps.
“We played staff footage of themselves, alongside the footage of workers with the best technique to help them see where they could improve,” Armi says.
Strategically, Amri started the video training with the newest workers, then to intermediate workers. By this time, the longest-serving workers – more likely to be confident and settled in their technique – were starting to see the positive effects of the training among their less-experienced colleagues. They started to ask to do the training themselves.
By this stage Armi was on general manager Don Boote’s radar, who pulled him in to participate in the build of the new Blenheim mussel processing plant in 2020. Armi had been teaching himself 3D design and printing in his spare time, designing a range of robotic arms with factory automation in mind. His initiative did not go unnoticed.
“I like building stuff and with some quiet time during COVID-19 lockdowns we managed to implement some out-of-the-box ideas, like a system to produce whole blanched mussels and meat, simultaneously, on a half-shell line.”
Once the Blenheim plant build and new processing line development could pick up the pace, post-lockdowns, Armi was offered the site production manager’s role. This meant moving from Motueka to Blenheim, something that he and Jeslyn have no regrets doing, although it meant leaving their close friends and the epic Motueka team dinners they’d started seven years earlier.
Armi is still fairly new in the job and it feels like a big step up. But he and Jeslyn, who is now a payroll clerk for Talley’s Blenheim, feel well supported with training and mentoring. They’ll have another go at gaining residency this year – with the backing of their employer and everyone they work with, who look forward to seeing what Armi comes up with next.