Silver Fern Farms chairman Eoin Garden recently
announced his intention to stand down from the board at the
company's annual meeting in December. He speaks to agribusiness
reporter Sally Rae about his tenure.
Chairman Eoin Garden has seen significant changes in Silver
Fern Farms' strategy during his term with the company.
Photo by Craig Baxter.
For retiring Silver Fern Farms chairman Eoin Garden, it is
business as usual.
While not seeking re-election to the board in the forthcoming
election, there were still two months of his term to run,
with challenges for both him and the company.
Mr Garden acknowledged it would be an emotional time when the
annual meeting was held in Dunedin in December. More than
anything, he would miss the people, he said.
For while he was leaving with some regrets and ''unfinished
business'', he also departed with a lot of ''wonderful''
relationships that had been built up, and with vast respect
for the people involved in the company.
''The great thing is I don't leave with any bitterness,'' he
The Millers Flat farmer joined the board of what was then
known as PPCS in 1998 and was elected chairman 10 years later
at a turbulent time, following the sudden dumping of Reese
He regretted that when he took on the chairman's role,
farmers were dissatisfied with the level of returns and he
left at a time when the ''cyclical nature'' of the industry
had delivered similar returns, and further dissatisfaction,
even though there had been a highly productive, albeit
volatile, period in-between.
Although he had not achieved all that he would have liked to
achieve, he believed it was time to go, he said.
The company had a succession plan and South Otago farmer Rob
Hewett would take over as chairman following the annual
Asked if some would see standing down as taking an easy
option,with the current state of the industry, he said anyone
who thought that did not understand him.
''It doesn't worry me that people may take a view that I'm
getting out. I'm not,'' he said.
Born and raised on a Moa Flat farm in West Otago, Mr Garden
has been farming since the mid-1960s. He went into
partnership with his brother, Pat, when he was 19, and he
recalled how he gave away his sporting interests to focus on
''We certainly had our nose to the grindstone,'' he said.
That partnership was dissolved in 1989 and Avenel Station
split in half.
Mr Garden was involved from ''very early times'' in
representing farmers, including a long involvement with
Federated Farmers to national level.
''I always had the view that rather than complain [about]
what someone else was doing, or should be doing, I'd be
better to try and make the difference myself,'' he said.
After more than two decades' involvement with Federated
Farmers, it got to the point where he was more interested in
commerce, than farmer politics.
He had to wait some time for an opportunity to stand for the
board of PPCS.
In those days, when it came to an appreciation of governance
and the responsibilities of governing a large business, there
was a ''high level of naivety'' across the industry, compared
with the responsibilities that were now understood, he said.
During his tenure, he had seen significant changes in the
company's strategy, moving it from a traditional meat
processing and trading company to a market-focused food
There had been a realisation that change was needed and it
had taken a lot of determination to implement those strategic
changes in a big company in the meat industry, when some
questioned why there was a need for change.
Mr Garden derived ''great satisfaction'' from what the
company's board had been able to achieve, including the
creation of a high profile Silver Fern Farms brand which
resonated both with consumers around the world and with
He also oversaw a major governance restructuring, and the
transition to a new capital structure which relieved
redemption risk to the co-operativeAnother highlight was the
relationships with people in the business and he regretted
that those relationships would not be so strong once he left.
It was a regret that the focus of the industry - which had
always been volume throughput - had not been changed into
creating more value, he said.
As more value was created, not only would the companies be
better off but suppliers would be more affluent.
A competitive industry was needed and that could not be
achieved if it was ''simply throughput driven''.
Consumers were ''absolutely the most important part'' of the
total supply value creation component. Suppliers had to
understand that their wealth was going to be generated by
consumers prepared to pay more for the product.
A lot of farmers' wealth was gained by capital appreciation
and capital gain. That had not been done on the back of the
high values that could be captured from the marketplace.
''I want my successors in the industry, my successors in my
farming business, to actually be able to capture that wealth
I know is there.
''Then we'll be able to compete with other land uses, with
other developing economies producing lamb, beef and
venison,'' he said.
While part of the solution was clearly about creating more
value, the other part was the engagement model with
That had to be about having a smart strategy in procurement
so assets were better utilised and suppliers were aligned to
Committed supply was required to utilise those assets. It was
not about limiting opportunities or choices to farmers, but
giving them opportunities they did not have with the current
model, he said.
Mr Garden was ''absolutely'' optimistic about the future of
the red meat industry, saying it was a high quality, high
value product and a global contraction of supply of high
quality red meat had to be to New Zealand's advantage.
Provided that supply consumer relationships were modelled
correctly, then he believed it was an exciting future.
''You tell me an industry that doesn't go through these
phases . . . we're going through a phase which is creating a
lot of challenges . . .. but we'll come out the other side
far stronger,'' he said.
Opportunities for value creation had to be identified and
there had to be opportunities for young people, to encourage
them to be involved in the sector.
He recalled the 1980s when his contemporaries, with young
families, were actively discouraging their sons from going
He was now seeing a new group of young people that did not
want to go dairy farming.
There was a ''romanticism'' about working the land and
livestock, in the way that it had traditionally been done.
Mr Garden's own son Austin developed and managed a dairy
operation in West Otago before returning to Avenel to oversee
management of the sheep, beef, venison and forestry
Asked what his message to sheep farmers was, Mr Garden said
it was an industry that was ''absolutely worth getting
It was not going to be easy and it was going to require
giving up some of those historical beliefs, in terms of the
simple worth of competition.
''There's some far smarter strategies to be implemented if we
really are going to be co-operative in our thinking.
''Co-operative in our thinking means we have to have a
collective view outside the farm gate. Collective view means
committing livestock on a 12-month basis. We are destroying
value by competing as individual farmers,'' he said.
People owned businesses and had economic rights and that
could not be ignored.
What had been seen in the last year was a challenge around
how people valued their economic rights.
''It would have been nice to consummate a proposal and get
support right across the spectrum. The reality is everybody's
got different economic perspective as to where their future
might lie,'' he said.
''We have come close to creating significant scale and
efficiencies which could have changed many of the perverse
dynamics and behaviours which are in the industry.
''In particular, the PGGW [the failed merger of PGG Wrightson
and Silver Fern Farms] deal that was appropriate at the time,
but which was subsequently not completed.
''In recent times when pan-industry discussions have not
progressed, we have still not been able to move towards
bringing the two co-operatives into a strong united entity.
That is disappointing.''
One thing about co-operatives was that they would ''always be
Even though individual farmers would change, farmers would
always have an ownership stake, whereas ownership of the
privately-owned sector of the industry would change.
The decision to stand down from the board was a big decision.
Silver Fern Farms has been a major part of Mr Garden's life,
particularly over the past six or seven years when it had
been his ''total life''.
Mr Garden paid tribute to his family, saying part of the
commitment had been possible because of his wife Noeline -
whom he described as ''a rock'' - and also Austin for running
the farm, knowing he could not rely on his father to help
''She [Noeline] has lived and breathed and been awake at
nights, just like me, because of Silver Fern Farms,'' he
He had grown to really enjoy strategy, commerce and the
intricacies of governance.
There were other things he was looking to do, which would be
in the commercial field, he said.