Shareholders say sale was inevitable

The possible sale of Westland Milk Products to China is a ''sad day'' for the West Coast but necessary to save the business, a sample of farmer-shareholders said yesterday.

The Hokitika dairy co-operative, praised for years for retaining its independence in the face of Fonterra amalgamations, is poised to be sold to the Chinese dairy giant Yili.

Harihari dairy farmer and former board member Jon Sullivan greeted the news yesterday morning with ''she's gone''.

Farmers had been left with ''no choice'' but to sell, he said.

A ''fire sale price'' seemed to be the result of the problems and losses at Westland in the past few years.

''Farmers have to go that way I suppose - but, really, at about a third of the price that a farmer is going to get that they [Westland] have lost through poor performance in the last three to four years,'' Mr Sullivan said.

''So the directors have failed. I suppose it's the best price they could get [but] it's a cock-up the directors have made over the last few years.

''We've lost the company, looks like.''

The board had failed to achieve its target of $78million in savings when it appointed present chief executive Toni Brendish two years ago and it was clear Westland could not carry on.

''It's going to get worse. Directors and management have let us down.''

Another former board member and Virgin Flat farmer Johno O'Connor said his father John sen, a long-time board member, would be ''spinning in his grave'' at the loss of Westland's independence.

The vote now would depend on farmers taking a long view concerning a return for their investment and that would depend on individual circumstances.

''No doubt there are people who have differing views to the board. Watch this space,'' Mr O'Connor said.

Guaranteeing the Fonterra farm-gate price under the proposal seemed extraordinary, when the new owner might view West Coast dairy farmers as ''working for them forever'' and regard their interests as just a small link in the chain of extensive overseas business interests.

''They can do and say whatever they want, because they're a massive company and we're just a small part,'' Mr O'Connor said.

Barrytown farmer and farm consultant Richard Reynolds said ''a severe reduction'' in senior and middle management in Hokitika was now inevitable, ''but they will still need people to run the factory''.

Whataroa farmer Dave Nolan said the proposed sale seemed ''a no-brainer''.

''I think doing nothing is not an option now. It will be interesting to see how some of those old established farmers voluntarily take the reins.

''Westland is a dead animal.''

-By Brendon McMahon

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