Sparta Group – A family-run business worth millions

The Sparta Group is a family-owned enterprise which has grown from a humble 30 cattle to 50 000, employs 1 000 people, contributes R3 million monthly to the Free State economy and has become the leading supplier of beef and beef products in the Free State. Annelie Coleman reports.
Issue date: 16 May 2008

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Sparta was founded by Dirk VAN
Reenen in 1960 with 30 head of cattle on the farm Sparta in the Marquard district of the eastern Free State. Starting out, he and his wife Betty had a clear vision of the kind of business they wanted to develop.

”We wanted to introduce new standards for the feeding of cattle and the production of quality beef,” recalls Dirk. “also wanted to contribute to our local community and provide opportunities. But we never dreamed we’d grow into a company of more than 1 000 employees, 50 000 cattle, our own abattoir and meat processing plant.” Sparta also contributes R3 million to the Free State economy a month.

The family’s motto has always been “From the State, for the State”. Dirk runs the business with three of his children: Lou is the chairperson of the board, Lynette is the general manager of Welkom and Estelle is the CEO. “It’s a huge privilege to continue building the business my mom and dad worked so hard for,” says Lynette. “My dad’s not prescriptive at all and is always open to new ideas. He also accommodates our various management styles graciously.”

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Sparta farms
The Van Reenens have been farming in the eastern Free State for the past century and today own about 12 000ha in the Marquard and Clocolan districts. They produce maize for the feedlot with wheat as a rotation crop and the pastures support 10 000 to 23 000 calves. Some 45 000 weaners a year are backgrounded on the farms for the feedlot and for external sales. Feedlot manure is used as fertiliser and to combat erosion, a major problem in the eastern State.

he Sparta he Sparta is situated at the foothills of the Maluti Mountains about 15km outside Marquard and houses on average 35 000 to 40 000 head of cattle. Good feedlot management practice is a priority for the Van Reenens. “We strive to add value to our products by producing meat of exceptional quality. slaughter, market and process almost all of our animals ourselves. Weaners, procured from all over South Africa and Namibia, spend an average of 100 days in the feedlot,” Lou explains.
“We know that well-cared for animals perform and grow better, so we pay great attention to the new arrivals. They are fed and watered as soon as possible, undergo a health check and are treated if necessary.

“We stock and clean the pens according to industry standards, so each animal is allocated 20cm trough space and 14m² pen space. To prevent bullying, we put animals of the same size in the same pen. We also monitor health and feed consumption at least twice daily.”

Cattle rations are specifically designed for health needs for the first 14 days, followed by a growth ration and finally a finisher ration until time of dispatch to the abattoir. All rations are nutritionally formulated to meet growth requirements, ensuring high intake to satisfy optimal growth that equates to good meat. The cattle each consume an average of 38â„“ of water a day. “The South African consumer dictates, so delivering healthy meat is our main priority,” says Lou. Up to 500t of fodder at 65% moisture content, containing wheat, hominy chop, maize silage, oilseed cake, minerals and vitamins is used in the feedlots per day. A staggering 50 000t of silage is made on the farm annually and stored in bunkers measuring 38m x 6,5m x 120m.

Good environmental management
The future of the business depends on the availability of good-quality water. Proper water management and conservation is therefore an integral part of the business, especially as water is often seasonally scarce. Water run-off from the feedlot is treated by being passed through a series of oxidation and evaporation dams before the more purified water is used for irrigating pastures. In this way, it is not wasted but recycled.
No run-off water ever enters the natural water system or groundwater, while the groundwater is tested regularly. Manure is used as an organic fertiliser.

Medicine bottles are collected by a waste disposal company, while thousands of trees have been planted at the feedlot over the years, a process which is continuing.

Sparta transport division
The Sparta Live Cattle Transport Fleet covers up to 120 000km a month, transporting cattle to and from the feedlot. It consists of 13 cattle combination trucks, each with the capacity of 110 calves or 60 finished cattle.

The trucks travel as far as Upington, the Eastern Cape and the KZN Midlands, bringing some 650 head of cattle to the feedlot a day. Sparta annually delivers 50 000t of beef and offal products all over South Africa, with major markets in the Western Cape, Gauteng and KZN. The delivery fleet travels as much as 2 million kilometres a year. Sparta employs top-class drivers, trained in the handling and care of cattle. It fulfils up to 80% of the transport requirements, the balance being contracted out to independent operators.

Sparta abattoir
The Sparta abattoir in Welkom slaughters some 180 000 head of cattle from the group’s feedlot and from independent farmers annually. It also slaughters 12 000 lambs a year, with a total average of 750 animals a day. “We acquired the abattoir in 1999 because of the deregulation of the meat industry and the business opportunities it created,” Lynette says. “We employ state-of-the-art technology to ensure the best quality meat.”

After stunning, killing and bleeding, the carcass is treated with a low-voltage electrical stimulator to reduce the pH level, ensuring better meat quality. The slaughter floor has recently been revamped and Sparta has renovated the dispatch and chilling facilities. They are able to chill 1 600 carcasses, while about 30% of the beef produced by Sparta is deboned and sold as boxed beef. The deboning capacity is currently 55t of meat per day, having grown from 4t per day in 1999. Deboning starts after a 48-hour chilling cycle and all products are removed to either the chilling facilities or freezers within 40 minutes of deboning. Strict hygiene control is crucial in the deboning hall at all times. “A full-time hygiene officer is employed to check on all staff in the hall, but our staff is highly trained,” Lynette explains. “Most of our supervisors have come through the ranks and know the routine inside-out. We currently employ 600 people at the Welkom plant.”

Some 880 000kg of offal (the so-called fifth quarter) is processed per month. The offal is boxed and placed in plate freezers within an hour of processing for 24 hours. The boxes are then palletised and kept in a holding freezer for another 24 hours before transfer to the marketing department.

Estelle stresses that the group’s aim is to always produce the best quality meat for the South African consumer, “Our mission remains to establish and maintain Sparta as the most sought-after quality red meet supplier in South Africa, and to increase our market share here and abroad. We uphold the highest ethical values and add value to our product.” Contact Estelle van Reenen or Lynette van Reenen on (057) 916 7700. |fw

Community Involvement

Estelle feels strongly about the well-being of their staff. “We currently employ more than 1 200 people and they are our core asset. A major achievement was completing 300 RDP houses, in conjunction with the local government, for our staff and other members of the Marquard community.” Sparta provides bursaries for school and tertiary education for the children of employees and other deserving candidates annually. They make sizeable donations to schools in Marquard and the adjoining Moemaneng township, and have made a building available to be used as the Moemaneng crèche.

“We currently supply meat to a number of NGOs on a weekly basis to feed children and make a donation every year to treat the old and needy in Marquard to a sumptuous Christmas dinner,” Estelle says. The group also supplies medical care to the staff at clinics at the feedlot and the abattoir in Welkom. The clinics are manned by full-time nursing staff and part-time doctors. An important activity at the clinic is ongoing Aids education, including free, voluntary Aids testing. The company also sets aside an annual budget for tuberculosis testing.

Human development

“We are aligned with the objectives of BEE and have sold equity to a black partner who is currently a minority shareholder,” says Estelle. “There are no restrictions on him to increase his shares. We have two black directors and three black senior managers, with six black people at middle management level, two of whom are women.”
At junior management level, Estelle says they have 123 black employees, including 16 women. The company actively encourages its employees to go through extensive training programmes to enable them to progress in their careers.

“Sparta fully complies with the Skills Development Act and the Skills Development Levies Act. We spent nearly R200 000 on skills development in 2007 and had a total of 250 of our employees taking part. In addition, we spent another R100 000 on adult basic education and training.”

Training is also conducted on an ongoing basis at Sparta in the fields of HIV/Aids, First Aid, computer use, LP gas system installation, plumbing, bricklaying, diesel mechanics, health and safety, as well as basic business principles. This training is conducted either in-house or externally.

Estelle adds that it’s always been the company’s desire to develop black entrepreneurs. To this end, they have extended their credit facilities so that many black butchers can buy on credit to manage their cash flow more effectively.