He thought he might give his first fish factory job a go for a few weeks, but eight years later in 2022 Armi Chia is a senior manager.

Chia 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. 

Chia was established as one of Malaysia’s top TV broadcast audio engineers in 2013 when his partner Jeslyn suggested they take a brief working holiday in New Zealand. They had intended to end their adventure with a South Island roadie, but this plan took a detour when Chia 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!”

Chia and Jeslyn applied for jobs and were opening mussels the next day. Chia didn’t get the chance to ‘get fast’, however, as his supervisor quickly spotted his potential and started training him as a machine operator.

With a work visa secured, Chia was promoted to a senior supervisor role in 2017, followed by a role on a project to build a gaming-style app to help mussel openers develop fast techniques.

Fast mussel opening has to be safe however and the project had a second workstream to improve workers’ techniques and avoid sprains, strains and cuts.

“We filmed hundreds of openers in action and then analysed their techniques 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,” Chia says.

By this stage Chia 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.

Jeslyn is now a payroll clerk for Talley’s Blenheim, and in 2022 they hope to gain their residency so they can settle more into Marlborough life and progress their many great ideas for the seafood sector.