Lack of answers frustrates shareholders

A 75% majority of Westland Milk Products shareholders will have a final say over the co-operative’s future whether it be dismantling it, allowing a partial takeover or keeping the status quo when options are put to farmers next March.

Farmer shareholders gathered in Hokitika last week in reportedly the biggest annual  meeting turnout for years — on the promise of an update by the board on the capital structure review commissioned early this year.

The meeting was also against the backdrop of Westland’s business being caught in the political crossfire in Parliament due to a nearly $10 million loan from the Government to help pay for $22 million of new capital investment in Hokitika for "segregated milk".

The loan was announced as part of the $140 million provincial growth fund package for the West Coast.

The promise by Westland to update its farmer owners comes after it reported "limited financial flexibility" in its annual report last month.

This follows several tough trading years in the international dairy market amidst growing shareholder disquiet over lack of returns from previous "value add" capital investments, which have  added up to more than $154 million.

Potential new partner proposals were played very close as shareholders attempted to ask questions from the floor.

Some shareholders who declined to be named said it was put to them as "work in process".

"They don’t tell us anything," one said, noting it was "the most people" at an annual meeting for years, and "no questions were answered".

West Coast Federated Farmers president and Karamea dairy farmer Peter Langford said the options were yet to be seen.

"Everything is highly confidential . . . it’s completely under wraps until March. Obviously they’ve got consultants — they’re not doing this themselves. They will go through the options the consultants put to them and look at the options."

Mr Langford said  as a co-operative Westland remained in farmers’ hands. Any proposal including keeping the status quo could be on the cards and would need a 75% vote in favour.

"We’re not out of the loop at all."

Westland chairman Peter Morrison said more than 25 interested  parties had engaged with Westland in the capital review process.

On the strength of "indicative proposals", the board would assess those with the intention of engaging with a selected number in detailed due diligence and a final proposal process.

The next update to shareholders would be in March 2019 and nothing further would be said until then, Mr Morrison said. 

- Brendon McMahon

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