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International operator takes Man. beef packer’s helm

The CEO at Winnipeg beef packing firm Keystone Processors has stepped down to make room for a new management company that has built and run beef plants in the U.S. and Uruguay.

Kelly Penner, who helped found the company in 2007 with investment from the levy-backed and provincially-supported Manitoba Cattle Enhancement Council (MCEC), announced Tuesday he has quit to “pursue new opportunities.”

Astana Group LLC and its chief Doug Cooper, who have worked with Keystone and MCEC since this summer to fine-tune the plant’s business plan, have taken over “full management responsibilities” for Keystone, the company said.

According to MCEC, the Astana management team has “strong connections” to international buyers of premium beef, including the kosher market. Keystone’s business plan is to process beef for niche markets, handling up to 250 head of cattle per day.

Astana is expected to secure the private financing needed for Keystone to make the upgrades to start operations at its plant in Winnipeg’s St. Boniface area, complementing $17.5 million in support announced in November last year by the MCEC and federal government.

Astana is also expected to oversee decommissioning of parts of the company’s building, preparing for demolition and reconstruction.

MCEC emphasized in a release that the changes in management follow “mutual agreement.”

“Collectively we identified a need for a management team with more international beef industry experience and have been working towards this transition for some time,” MCEC executive director Kate Butler said in Tuesday’s release.

Penner, she acknowledged, has “put in a lot of effort to bring federally-inspected beef slaughtering and processing capacity back to Manitoba. He has invested his time and energy into this project to bring it to this stage.”

Keystone, organized by cattle producers in 2003, bought a former Maple Leaf Foods hog processing plant in 2008 and converted it to a provincially licensed beef processing facility, further-processing beef from slaughter plants elsewhere in the province.

“The journey has been a rollercoaster ride and this decision has not been easy,” Penner said in Tuesday’s release. “We have brought this company as far as we can with the help of some excellent partners.”

Penner said he’s still confident the company “will be successful and that Astana has the right mix of experienced personnel to make it happen.”

Cooper, Astana’s CEO, was previously president of Global Protein Group, which ran processing and marketing operations in Uruguay. Before his work with GPG he founded and led PM Beef Group, an “integrated” U.S. beef company.

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