Fonterra at crossroads

Dairy slump exposes areas of discontent for farmers and vulnerability of company.
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Pressure is building on Fonterra chief executive Theo Spierings as the dairy industry faces up to a winter of discontent.
Like the embattled coach of a struggling sports franchise, he is the focus of all eyes as the company heads into one of the most difficult periods in its history.
There is discontent on the farms, where the crash of global dairy prices has cut payout expectations.
Early next month Fonterra will set its new payout price, revealing just how grim things are for farmers.
There is discontent on the sharemarket, where listed units of Fonterra Brands stock remain stuck near record lows, despite milk price conditions which should be lifting that part of the business.
There’s discontent at head office, where staff face a brutal round of restructuring as management looks to cut costs.
Hundreds of corporate service and management jobs look set to go in a move that may appease farmers but will destabilise company morale without fixing fundamental issues.
And there’s growing discontent at a political level as Fonterra’s tough year lays bare the ongoing vulnerability of our so-called rock-star economy to the uncontrollable cycle of commodity markets.
Just how much discontent farmers are feeling will be put to the test at the annual general meeting later this year when chairman John Wilson and two other directors must put themselves up for re-election.
If there is a mood among farmers for wholesale change in the boardroom, then it is likely that senior management changes will follow.
So the stakes are high.
In the grand plan which surrounded Fonterra’s launch nearly 15 years ago, the consumer brands business was supposed to come to the rescue for farmers with higher dividends to offset low payout prices.
In theory it provides a natural hedge. When the dairy price falls, so too do its costs, and profits should grow.
But that theory relied on hopes that the business could be grown dramatically in key markets to rival Nestle and Danone and provide the scale needed to balance farmer returns. That hasn’t happened.
Despite hundreds of millions of dollars worth of farmer money invested, there has not been enough progress for it to come close to buffering farmers through this latest commodity cycle.
Spierings, now four years into his tenure, hasn’t exactly had a charmed run.
He took over with the company’s China strategy in tatters after the Sanlu tainted milk scandal.
While he initially had fair winds in terms of high commodity prices – culminating in last year’s record farmer payout of $8.40 per kg of milk solids – his attention has been distracted by a series of major production issues, including the 2013 botulism false alarm.
So through the good years the management team has been on the back foot. They’ve been in damage control around serious brand and reputation issues when they should have been focused on growing and consolidating around the world.
The company effectively had to start again from scratch in China and in doing so lost the first-mover advantage it might have had if Sanlu had not been a disaster.
The upshot is that farmers are once again looking at their investment in the brands business and wondering if it is worth it.
Nearly 15 years since an act of Parliament allowed the dairy industry mega-merger, the company is right back at the crossroads.
Exactly what sort of company farmers want Fonterra to be has never been fully resolved.
It is a divisive and complex issue and there are no easy answers.
Fonterra tried to resolve it in 2009 and got close. But plans to split the company in two and list the consumer brands business on the NZX were scrapped because they could not reach the 75 per cent shareholder approval level required.
Since then high commodity prices have papered over the cracks. But the slump that is putting so much pressure on farmers now will focus thoughts once again.
It is time for a fresh debate. There have been great leaders in the New Zealand dairy industry who have stood up and built something which – despite the current woes – we can all be proud of.
It looks like it is time for them to stand up again.
Source: NZHerald

Mirá También

Así lo expresó Domingo Possetto, secretario de la seccional Rafaela, quien además, afirmó que a los productores «habitualmente los ignoran los gobiernos». Además, reconoció la labor de los empresarios de las firmas locales y aseguró que están «esperanzados» con la negociación entre SanCor y Adecoagro.

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