Leader wraps up long tenure at ABP

Rich Smith became executive director of Alberta Beef Producers when industry was still recovering from the BSE crisis

At a fall Alberta Beef Producers meeting in 2008, held at an auction market, executive director Rich Smith was there to tell cattle folks all the good things the organization was doing for them.

But the auction mart had left its sign on showing the most recent sale price: a dismal 84 cents per pound.

Smith hasn’t forgotten it.

“I was sitting there thinking, ‘can’t somebody turn that darn sign off?’ While we’re here talking about what we’re trying to do as an organization to help you as producers, and you’re looking right above my head at this giant 84 cents.”

But Smith, who retires from the ABP effective June 30, has also served when cattle were selling at $3 per pound, so the 84-cent incident will hopefully remain a distant memory.

Smith has been with ABP for almost 15 years, 13 of them as executive director. He’s seen some turbulent times and that is part of the job’s appeal.

“This job has always been really interesting and challenging and often rewarding. I’ll miss the intensity and the excitement of the work,” he said.

“I’ve had the opportunity to work with some really great leaders of an iconic Alberta industry in the producers but I’ve also had a really dedicated and enthusiastic staff who have made it a real pleasure.”

Smith started working for ABP as environmental manager and was sometimes frustrated that he couldn’t address some of the issues facing producers.

“That problem went away when I got this role,” he said with a laugh.

He arrived when the Canadian cattle industry was still in the throes of reopening international markets following the BSE crisis. All these years later, some markets have still not fully reopened but Smith has also been a part of industry consultation on various subsequent trade agreements made with Europe, Pacific Rim nations and the United States.

“All of those changes that have expanded our export markets, I think those have been really substantial changes. Certainly we’re an industry that relies on exports in Canada and even more so in Alberta because 82 percent of the beef that’s produced in Alberta leaves the province, a bunch of it to the rest of Canada but also a lot of it to export.”

Smith was at the administrative helm also when the government imposed a refundable service charge, which he recalls as a time of “absolute disruption.”

That forced the organization to adapt to a 44 percent loss in revenue.

A plebiscite on the refundable versus non-refundable service charge held nine years later saw producers vote to keep it refundable.

“At least producers had the opportunity to make a choice. We had asked for that in 2009 and we finally got the plebiscite in 2018 and were disappointed with the results but at least it was a choice made by producers this time, not by the government.”

Smith said he won’t miss navigating the tensions between various beef organizations, though things have improved in one vital sector.

“I’m pleased that in the last years, we’ve established a good and collaborative relationship with the Alberta Cattle Feeders Association and that wasn’t here when I joined the organization. I think that’s been really good for the industry in Alberta.”

Smith has been working with his successor, Brad Dubeau, for more than three years. Dubeau is the current marketing and education manager at ABP.

His advice to the new man at the helm is straightforward.

“Always remember that this is the producers’ organization. It’s not our organization,” said Smith. “We’re here to work on behalf of producers and we have to remember that. I think we always have to be listening.”

Come July, Smith plans to “take a breath” for a few months and spend time with his four grandsons.

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