SFF’s focus on directors

Chairman Rob Hewett addresses the Silver Fern Farms Co-operative  annual meeting in Dunedin...
Chairman Rob Hewett addresses the Silver Fern Farms Co-operative annual meeting in Dunedin yesterday. Photo: Christine O'Connor
A review of Silver Fern Farms Co-operative Ltd’s constitution will include looking at the tenure of directors on the board, the board size and the ratio of elected to independent directors.

Speaking at the co-operative’s annual meeting in Dunedin yesterday, chairman Rob Hewett said the review was under way.

There would be roadshows for shareholders in June, ahead of a July-August vote. Any changes would require a vote of 75% in favour.

Governance was a key focus: the company needed good governance, and the co-operative wanted to develop future governors for its business, Mr Hewett said.

For a long time, the board had held a concern about governance talent generally. There needed to be a supply change of suitably qualified and  curious people to come on board to govern not only the co-operative but the operating company as well.

Opportunities to get experience at that level in New Zealand’s agricultural sector had diminished. There was a large gap between governing the likes of school boards of trustees to running a company with a turnover of more than $2 billion.

That was why there was a desire to increase the size of the co-operative board; the number of co-operative directors sitting on the operating company —  five at present —  would not change, Mr Hewett said.

The aim was to develop incoming directors so they could "hit the ground running". While consultation and feedback would be sought on the review, it was not wide-ranging, Mr Hewett said.

South Otago farmer David Shaw,  a former Silver Fern Farms director,  believed it should be wide-ranging, saying the position the organisation was in today was very different to why and how the constitution was constructed the last time it was voted on.

In December 2016, China’s Shanghai Maling completed its purchase of  a 50% stake in Silver Fern Farms.

Mr Hewett said there was a lot of flexibility introduced when the constitution was last reviewed about 2010, which meant there was a great deal  that did not need to be changed, despite the new structure.

Both Mr Hewett and West Otago farmer Fiona Hancox were convincingly returned to the co-operative board in the recent director election. Mr Hewett received 28,849,257 votes, while Mrs Hancox had 18,193,756. Challengers Conor English and Chris Allen received 14,046,529 and 4,595,285 respectively.

In his chairman’s address, Mr Hewett said substantial progress had been made on achieving key goals for the year. A good working relationship had been built with Shanghai Maling and that would continue to grow and evolve.

The balance sheet was strong — as at December 31, the co-operative had no debt and cash on hand of $16.6 million.

More than $21 million had been invested in capital expenditure, significantly more  than had been achieved in recent times.

There were strong farm-gate returns: it had been the best year for lamb since 2011 and beef since 2015 and venison and mutton were at historic highs.

December was a record month for livestock payments, with $260 million paid, and what was very positive was that it was "not sitting in the freezer" — the in-market was strong and the supply chain did not have much inventory sitting in it.

Mr Hewett said 2017 was a mixed year in value-add sales in retail and food service. Silver Fern Farms was part of the successful chilled meat trial to China, exporting beef and lamb to existing and new customers. Shanghai Maling’s support through that trial was valued while its support would also help the company set the right strategy for China market development, he said. He believed the benefits of having Shanghai Maling as a partner were "yet to be gathered in".

Mr Hewett paid tribute to former chief executive Dean Hamilton, who recently stepped down, saying he was "the right guy in the right place at the right time".

The passion and skill he had to "navigate the choppy waters" was a rare combination and Silver Fern Farms was very lucky to have had him.

His replacement, Simon Limmer, had a clear affinity with New Zealand agriculture, through his previous role at Zespri, and understood what was required to take Silver Fern Farms’ product successfully to consumers both locally and around the world, Mr Hewett said.

Mr Limmer said the first part of the year had been relatively challenging but, all in all, the company believed it was on track for a steady year.

Wyndham farmer Brent Robinson was concerned at the distance between suppliers and the operating company.

He wanted to be involved with the annual meeting of that company, saying its performance was below his expectations, and he believed there was a lack of communication from it to shareholders and suppliers.


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