Keen to engage with staff, farmers

Silver Fern Farms' new chief executive Dean Hamilton in the company's headquarters in Dunedin....
Silver Fern Farms' new chief executive Dean Hamilton in the company's headquarters in Dunedin. Photo by Linda Robertson.
When Keith Cooper's surprise resignation as chief executive of Silver Fern Farms was announced last month, his successor's name was unfamiliar to many. Agribusiness reporter Sally Rae meets Dean Hamilton, the man taking the helm of the billion-dollar business.

Dean Hamilton finds a challenge very appealing.

Having always been very driven and competitive, he acknowledged he enjoyed winning and taking the reins at Silver Fern Farms was an opportunity to ''have a big challenge and to win with that''.

Mr Hamilton joined the company as chief strategy officer in April, following more than 20 years in corporate finance and investment in both New Zealand and Australia.

Affable and engaging, he brought a combination of skills to the position that were a ''relatively unique mix in an unplanned way''.

''I think I bring a different set of skills and views on things. Hopefully that creates some opportunities for success for the firm,'' he said.

He believed there was a lot of opportunity in the red meat industry and he also believed the business was ''poised to be successful''.

Born in Christchurch, Mr Hamilton grew up in Wellington and studied finance at Victoria University, graduating with a bachelor of commerce and administration degree.

His career started as an equity analyst at a sharebroking firm, before he moved to Brierley Investments as a member of its investment team.

His first introduction to the red meat sector came when he ran the company's subsidiary Riverlands Foods, a beef processor with three plants, for three years before returning to Brierley Investments.

He later ran a manufacturing business for private equity interests before being ''lured'' into the financial markets.

He joined Deutsche Bank in 2000 as an investment banker, initially in Auckland, then relocated to Melbourne in 2006 as managing director and co-head of Melbourne corporate finance.

When Mr Hamilton's eldest daughter was about to start college, he and his wife decided to return to New Zealand with their family - they have three children - wanting to ''bring them up as Kiwis''.

The intention was to have a six-month sabbatical in Queenstown before settling back in Auckland.

But about halfway through that period, they decided to stay and they remained living in the resort two years later.

Mr Hamilton started working with Silver Fern Farms as an adviser nine months ago, helping Mr Cooper and the company's board look at organisational and capital structure.

When Mr Cooper announced his resignation, alongside confirmation the company would return to profitability this year, it was announced Mr Hamilton had been appointed interim chief executive.

Asked to clarify if that meant he was Mr Cooper's permanent successor, or if there would be a recruitment process, Mr Hamilton said he was chief executive ''for the foreseeable future''.

There were some clear tasks ahead in the next 12 months, including an internal reorganisation and raising some equity.

At the end of that, he and the board would sit down and see if he wanted to carry on, or what the right set of skills were for the next part of the job, he said.

The role of chief executive, he acknowledged, was a big - albeit interesting - job and, having had an involvement with the business over the past nine months, he had a clear understanding of the challenges.

The business was at an interesting point with a group of passionate people making ''great inroads'' with its value-added strategy.

While there had been a difficult two years, Mr Cooper had the ship ''pointing back in the right direction'' with a pleasing financial result and debt paid down.

The company will announce its financial results next month and has already signalled that pre-tax earnings are expected to be $5 million to $7 million. It also paid down $100 million in debt.

Last year, it made a pre-tax loss of $36.5 million and the year before had a loss of $42.3 million.

The company was now looking at capital structure options and also reorganising itself into three species of beef, sheepmeat and venison, Mr Hamilton said.

The timing of Mr Hamilton's appointment was good, given it coincided with the annual round of supplier roadshow meetings throughout the country.

Those attending were not shy about sharing their views, which was something he liked, given it was ''their business'', and he also enjoyed the very different perspectives, Mr Hamilton said.

With five farmer-elected directors on the board, who were echoing similar views to what was heard on the roadshow, there were no surprises.

''We're getting that frequently inside the business,'' he said.

At the meetings, a ''real change'' in the engagement from farmers was felt and it was positive engagement.

Farmers were seeing the value-added focus was the way of the future and he believed the number of ''nay-sayers'' was dwindling.

He felt the farmer shareholders were in good heart. They felt the prices they were receiving for their livestock were good, relative to recent years.

The beef outlook was looking very optimistic, the lamb market was stable and farmers were generally feeling good about their own businesses.

They were pleased Silver Fern Farms had stopped losing money and a big message had been to get debt down. Sticking to the value-added strategy, they genuinely felt the company was on the right path, he said.

Asked what he wanted to achieve during his time at the helm, Mr Hamilton said all chief executives had a goal of leaving the business in a stronger position than when they started.

At Silver Fern Farms, it was about creating a sustainable business, something shareholders were also demanding.

Shareholders wanted a better business; customers wanted a sustainable business. It had to be profitable and part of that was getting the capital structure right.

Everyone wanted the business to add value and the company was convinced that was the ''right way''.

Mr Cooper was a big believer in that, and could take a lot of credit for it, and he had been supported through that by the board.

It took passionate people to create such a brand and it would have been easy to have not gone down that path, Mr Hamilton said.

When Mr Cooper announced his intention to stand down, he said the opportunities he would be looking at would not be the ''24/7'' role of chief executive of a big company, with its challenges, trials and tribulations.

Asked if he was fazed by that aspect of the role, Mr Hamilton said he had worked, on average, 18-hour days in investment banking, taking about 120 flights a year.

''In terms of intensity, I've been at that level,'' he said.

But the new position was a different environment to investment banking.

''Here, you want to take the people with you. You wake up thinking about what other people are thinking.

DEAN HAMILTON finds a challenge very appealing.

Having always been very driven and competitive, he acknowledged he enjoyed winning and taking the reins at Silver Fern Farms was an opportunity to ''have a big challenge and to win with that''.

Mr Hamilton joined the company as chief strategy officer in April, following more than 20 years in corporate finance and investment in both New Zealand and Australia.

Affable and engaging, he brought a combination of skills to the position that were a ''relatively unique mix in an unplanned way''.

''I think I bring a different set of skills and views on things. Hopefully that creates some opportunities for success for the firm,'' he said.

He believed there was a lot of opportunity in the red meat industry and he also believed the business was ''poised to be successful''.

Born in Christchurch, Mr Hamilton grew up in Wellington and studied finance at Victoria University, graduating with a bachelor of commerce and administration degree.

His career started as an equity analyst at a sharebroking firm, before he moved to Brierley Investments as a member of its investment team.

His first introduction to the red meat sector came when he ran the company's subsidiary Riverlands Foods, a beef processor with three plants, for three years before returning to Brierley Investments.

He later ran a manufacturing business for private equity interests before being ''lured'' into the financial markets.

He joined Deutsche Bank in 2000 as an investment banker, initially in Auckland, then relocated to Melbourne in 2006 as managing director and co-head of Melbourne corporate finance.

When Mr Hamilton's eldest daughter was about to start college, he and his wife decided to return to New Zealand with their family - they have three children - wanting to ''bring them up as Kiwis''.

The intention was to have a six-month sabbatical in Queenstown before settling back in Auckland.

But about halfway through that period, they decided to stay and they remained living in the resort two years later.

Mr Hamilton started working with Silver Fern Farms as an adviser nine months ago, helping Mr Cooper and the company's board look at organisational and capital structure.

When Mr Cooper announced his resignation, alongside confirmation the company would return to profitability this year, it was announced Mr Hamilton had been appointed interim chief executive.

Asked to clarify if that meant he was Mr Cooper's permanent successor, or if there would be a recruitment process, Mr Hamilton said he was chief executive ''for the foreseeable future''.

There were some clear tasks ahead in the next 12 months, including an internal reorganisation and raising some equity.

At the end of that, he and the board would sit down and see if he wanted to carry on, or what the right set of skills were for the next part of the job, he said.

The role of chief executive, he acknowledged, was a big - albeit interesting - job and, having had an involvement with the business over the past nine months, he had a clear understanding of the challenges.

The business was at an interesting point with a group of passionate people making ''great inroads'' with its value-added strategy.

While there had been a difficult two years, Mr Cooper had the ship ''pointing back in the right direction'' with a pleasing financial result and debt paid down.

The company will announce its financial results next month and has already signalled that pre-tax earnings are expected to be $5 million to $7 million. It also paid down $100 million in debt.

Last year, it made a pre-tax loss of $36.5 million and the year before had a loss of $42.3 million.

The company was now looking at capital structure options and also reorganising itself into three species of beef, sheepmeat and venison, Mr Hamilton said.

The timing of Mr Hamilton's appointment was good, given it coincided with the annual round of supplier roadshow meetings throughout the country.

Those attending were not shy about sharing their views, which was something he liked, given it was ''their business'', and he also enjoyed the very different perspectives, Mr Hamilton said.

With five farmer-elected directors on the board, who were echoing similar views to what was heard on the roadshow, there were no surprises.

''We're getting that frequently inside the business,'' he said.

At the meetings, a ''real change'' in the engagement from farmers was felt and it was positive engagement.

Farmers were seeing the value-added focus was the way of the future and he believed the number of ''nay-sayers'' was dwindling.

He felt the farmer shareholders were in good heart. They felt the prices they were receiving for their livestock were good, relative to recent years.

The beef outlook was looking very optimistic, the lamb market was stable and farmers were generally feeling good about their own businesses.

They were pleased Silver Fern Farms had stopped losing money and a big message had been to get debt down. Sticking to the value-added strategy, they genuinely felt the company was on the right path, he said.

Asked what he wanted to achieve during his time at the helm, Mr Hamilton said all chief executives had a goal of leaving the business in a stronger position than when they started.

At Silver Fern Farms, it was about creating a sustainable business, something shareholders were also demanding.

Shareholders wanted a better business; customers wanted a sustainable business. It had to be profitable and part of that was getting the capital structure right.

Everyone wanted the business to add value and the company was convinced that was the ''right way''.

Mr Cooper was a big believer in that, and could take a lot of credit for it, and he had been supported through that by the board.

It took passionate people to create such a brand and it would have been easy to have not gone down that path, Mr Hamilton said.

When Mr Cooper announced his intention to stand down, he said the opportunities he would be looking at would not be the ''24/7'' role of chief executive of a big company, with its challenges, trials and tribulations.

Asked if he was fazed by that aspect of the role, Mr Hamilton said he had worked, on average, 18-hour days in investment banking, taking about 120 flights a year.

''In terms of intensity, I've been at that level,'' he said.

But the new position was a different environment to investment banking.

''Here, you want to take the people with you. You wake up thinking about what other people are thinking.

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