Secrecy not helping SFF

Overseas investment is an issue always guaranteed to be divisive in New Zealand as year after year it becomes a political football.

In this region, Silver Fern Farms' (SFF) supplier shareholders are anxiously awaiting news of whether their co operative has signed up to Chinese investment as the meat processor seeks to reduce its debt - probably at the behest of its bankers.

Labour and New Zealand First politicians have been calling for strict scrutiny of the deal by the Overseas Investment Office. But, they also point out the OIO has not declined an application to buy farmland in recent years.

While SFF will be selling only half of itself to a prospective investor, farmers say a Chinese company will have the dominant say in the running of the group and will make all the key decisions on what price they will be paid for their stock.

What has particularly galled Silver Fern suppliers is the secrecy surrounding the negotiations. Refusals to comment on the issue have only added to the gnawing doubt about the deal. If it is so good, why will the group's executives not talk about it?

There are plenty of examples in New Zealand of the good things that have happened when overseas investors take a stake in New Zealand companies and one of the most obvious in Otago is the decision by Chinese appliance giant Haier to buy Fisher and Paykel Appliances.

Since Haier took over the company, it has expanded its research and design capabilities in Dunedin, bringing to the city new recruits who are attracted both to the job opportunities and the city's lifestyle.

It should be remembered, at this stage, it was not a Chinese investor which closed down the F&P manufacturing plant in Silversteam, near Mosgiel: it was the New Zealand directors who made that decision.

Manufacturing was taken from Dunedin and Auckland and put in low wage economies, such as Mexico, to cut costs.

Work on a $200 million luxury hotel on Auckland's waterfront will start next year after the project was granted resource consent this week.

The hotel will be built with the help of the Fu Wah International Group, which will invest around $200 million in the project. It will become one of the largest Chinese investments in New Zealand infrastructure.

Scott Technology, in Dunedin, is likely to have a $40 million to $50 million capital investment made into it by an Australian company, one of the largest food processors in the world.

The prospects look good for Scott Technology if the overseas investor takes a controlling interest. Markets will open up and Dunedin's technology will be in action around the world.

The reason Scott Technology looked for an overseas cash injection is because existing shareholders were not prepared to provide the money needed for the company's expansion.

There is a suggestion from some politicians the Government step in with cash to prevent the 50% sale of Silver Fern to a Chinese investor.

Taxpayers will be rightly alarmed if Finance Minister Bill English decides to put $100 million of their money into paying off the debt of a meat company which, by the way, has turned the corner as far as being back in profit. It is the debt which remains a concern for bankers.

Mr English says the issue is a fundamental choice for shareholders of the company. The owners, who are farmer shareholders, have had some time to look at the issue and have made various attempts to raise the capital.

Those shareholders have total control over the business now and have it in their power to keep control.

The Government cannot force them to own a business if they do not want to. However, it is not as though Silver Fern has not made an effort of its own to rebalance its books.

The company repaid about $100 million in the last year to September.

And after two years of losses - $42.3 million in 2011 12 and $36.5 million in 2012 13 - as it worked its inventory down, it reported a profit of $500,000 in the year to September 2014.

An unreasonable amount of anxiety is being generated about Chinese investment in Silver Fern Farms because it is one of the main meat processors in the country.

A more open approach would help allay some of those fears.


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