It has been a tumultuous year: a multi-million dollar lawsuit and investment write down, the departure of chief executive Theo Spierings and chairman John Wilson, and the announcement of the first ever loss of $196 million.
The drums of change are beating, amid promises by the new chief executive Miles Hurrell and chairman John Monaghan to take stock of the business, including all investments and assets.
Not that anything especially substantive is on the agenda for this Thursday’s AGM, besides offering a chance for disenchanted shareholders to sound off to management.
Controversial issues such as directors’ payments will be avoided; the board has recommended the present chairman’s fee remains at $430,000 a year, and likewise directors at $175,000.
Most interest will centre on the results of the board election, with five candidates standing for three vacancies.
Three of those – Zespri chairman Peter McBride, Maori businessman Jamie Tuuta and Moa chairman Ashley Waugh – have the weight of the Fonterra board behind them, who have accepted the recommendations of a panel which has screened them.
But there is another route to a seat on the board called the self-nomination process. Dairy farmers John Nicholls and Leonie Guiney have garnered the support of 35 shareholders to challenge for a position.
Guiney has attracted most attention in the run-up to the election thanks to her well publicised spat with Fonterra during her previous term between 2014-17.
Her self-confessed opposition to «group think» and close scrutiny of some of the co-operative’s financial decisions put her offside with colleagues, especially then-chairman John Wilson who stood down mid-year for health reasons.
When three vacant farmer-director positions came up last year, the panel charged with reviewing applications did not select her.
The animosity was ramped up earlier this year when the board took out an injunction against her speaking to the media.
The injunction was «to prevent the publication of what we believe to be leaked and misrepresented details of board discussions, supplied to the media by a former Fonterra director, » the board told the High Court, which ruled in its favour.
In turn, Guiney took out defamation proceedings against the board. By September the parties had come to a settlement, with Fonterra agreeing to meet her costs which she donated to charity.
Guiney represents the classic sharemilker success story. A Wellingtonian by upbringing, one of her first jobs was with the Dairy Board which controlled all New Zealand’s dairy exports until 2001, when Fonterra was created.
In the early 2000s she and Irish husband Kieran took on two sharemilking jobs before buying a Fairlie farm, aided by a $500,000 interest-free «handshake» loan from Timaru businessman Alan Hubbard.
Since then the couple have gone on to buy an additional three dairy farms. The value of her (and associated partners) Fonterra shareholding is well over $4 million.
In her self-penned candidate profile statement, the mother of four said Fonterra had made some poor choices.
«We can only strengthen Fonterra with some hard calls to exit non-core investments and focus on our core competitive strengths.
«Fonterra should not be a farmer. We have a strong advantage in quality ingredients supplied to companies that have established brands and in food service,» she said.
In saying this, Guiney has not strayed far from the official line of Hurrell and Monaghan. Among the non-core investments lined up in the crosshairs will be the loss-making China farms, which have bled $179m over the last four years.
Chief among the «poor choices» the previous regime made was the $750m investment in Chinese company Beingmate. While it has written off $439m, it may decide to cut ties completely.
Asked by a member of the audience at one of the recent candidate meetings why she wanted to re-enter the arena after her unhappy experience, Guiney responded that the new chairman gave her confidence he would be a real chairman; Wilson came across as someone who already knew the answers.
Taranaki farmer Rob Thwaites says he’s «highly impressed» by Guiney because of her experience coming through the sharemilking system, and because she is a champion of low cost farming.
«The key thing she focused on was improving the balance sheet and there are only two ways that can be achieved – through a serious improvement in performance possibly coupled with selling off non-performing assets. It won’t be an overnight fix,» Thwaites said.
Of the other candidates, outgoing Zespri chairman Peter McBride appears to be a certainty for a director spot. As a Zespri director since 2002, he knows how co-operatives work, although he is the first to admit the kiwifruit marketer is in a privileged position as a single seller.
«Peter impressed the panel with his leadership track record. [He] has a rather quiet and reserved personality, yet the panel observed that his communication style as a leader was compelling in its focus, succinctness and authenticity,» the three-person review team noted.
Federated Farmers Waikato president Andrew McGiven said all five were strong candidates, especially McBride and Tuuta.
At just 41, the latter is a rising business star. Recipient of the Maori Young Business Leader of the Year Award in 2016, Tuuta has held a range of governance roles in dairy, fisheries, health, tourism and media.
«Jamie’s forthright, thought-provoking, but respectful style demonstrated an ability to effectively question and critique,» the panel said.
Nicholls is also highly regarded. He and his wife Kelly own the Rylib Group in Mid-Canterbury which owns six farms, and his views on Fonterra will strike a chord with many.
«We’ve become isolated, misunderstood and defensive. We’re seen as the enemy and perceived negatively. Our campaigns to fix this communicate that we’re big and important, but fail to communicate that we care deeply about New Zealand and New Zealanders.»