Changing of the guard

Rob Hewett
Rob Hewett
Rob Hewett once said he did not believe in heroic leadership where the chairman sets the scene and everyone follows. Rather, he saw it as his job to get the best out of that board, and that has certainly been evident during his tenure at Silver Fern Farms.

Last week, the Manuka Gorge farmer and businessman announced he was stepping down as chairman of the co-operative, although he would remain on its board. He was also continuing as co-chairman of Silver Fern Farms Ltd which is jointly owned by Silver Fern Farms Co-operative and Shanghai Maling.

Mr Hewett's contribution to Silver Fern Farms, since first joining the co-operative's board as a farmer director in 2008, cannot be overstated.

During his address at the annual meeting in Dunedin, he summed up his tenure as chairman as an ``eventful ride''.

That is an accurate description of what was a tumultuous period for a company that went from dire financial straits to a joint venture with Chinese-owned Shanghai Maling in what was the biggest transaction in the meat industry.

Mr Hewett's leadership, since being elected chairman in late 2013, has been strong and effective, not only in selling the Chinese deal to shareholders - despite it not needing shareholder approval, either by law or by company rules - but also in the bedding-in process since the deal was inked.

He is a seventh-generation farmer, making him relatable to farmer shareholders, and his extensive corporate background has provided him with a skillset to help move the company from vulnerability to a far better position.

The deal had its detractors but the reality was there was no other option; an oft-talked about merger with Alliance Group was never going to happen and the company was on the edge of the cliff, potentially tipping over in a strong nor-west wind.

During an interview in 2015 when he was named Otago Daily Times Business Person of the Year - he was also a finalist for the Deloitte Top 200 Chairperson of the Year - Mr Hewett said he was proud of what had been achieved, but he was also at pains to point out that it was not all about him; it had been a team effort.

Back then, he raised succession, saying that was a large focus from a governance point of view, ensuring there were successors in the wings to come in and take over.

Silver Fern Farms Co-operative is now under the leadership of West Otago farmer Richard Young, the transition being part of the first stage of planned succession for the co-operative and Silver Fern Farms Ltd.

He has big boots to fill and no doubt he will have a different leadership style to his predecessor, but his passion - and enthusiasm - for the red meat sector is evident.

It is a time of change with the addition of Gabrielle Thompson as Silver Fern Farms Co-operative's first board-appointed farmer director, and the departure of retiring independent director Tony Balfour.

Ms Thompson has a broad range of skills as a Mid Canterbury sheep and arable farmer, trained veterinarian, chartered member of the Institute of Directors, and a director of Ruralco. Diversity of thought is vital as Silver Fern Farms positions itself for the future.

Shanghai Maling not only injected money into Silver Fern Farms but provided the connection to the fastest-growing red meat market in the world.

Last year, Silver Fern Farms' China market - now its biggest market - hit a record $500million in sales and it was on track to surpass $600million in 2019. That market was a $28million business in 2008.

Chief executive Simon Limmer has touted the ever-strengthening relationship between Shanghai Maling and Silver Fern Farms as one of the highlights of the past year.

But the China connection does not make it an easy ride; the company has acknowledged last year's financial performance was not up to scratch, although Mr Limmer is confident of an improved performance this year. Shareholders will also be demanding that.


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