The trouble with the MG and “Gary the Great” sideshow

Murray Goulburn’s colourful managing director, Gary Helou, is not universally loved and he’s become a bit of a target over the last year or so.

Some dairy farmers are nervous about his proposed transformation of the much-loved 100% farmer-owned co-operative into a “farmer-controlled” hybrid or are alienated by his brash, bullish style.

Some of his competitors hate him for driving up the price of raw milk (which is, of course, his mandate) and they also deeply resent this Devondale ad:

Given that Gary himself is a suit-wearing Sydney-sider who flies in weekly to MG’s Melbourne headquarters where a large corporate Mercedes Benz awaits him in the basement, he could be accused of a little hypocrisy.

So the acerbic commentary from the Financial Review directed at the so-called “Gary the Great” generates plenty of sniggers, including yesterday’s piece, which was republished outside the pay wall in The Land.

The article reveals a series of sales figures that suggest sales of MG’s Devondale branded products have tanked disastrously, followed by an observation that:

“When Helou locked Murray Goulburn into a decade of skinny margins supplying Coles with its $1 milk, his rationale was that it would lead to growth in his branded products and thus higher margins for his farmers.”

“But the growth has not transpired, which means the margins are on borrowed time – especially as Helou juggles significant debt covenants, tries to raise $500 million in new capital and wears major cost blowouts getting his new processing facilities online.”

Are the figures fair? I asked dairy industry analyst, Steve Spencer of Freshagenda, about the data quoted in the story.

“The figures are sourced from retail scan sales data reports, which are expensive and normally only purchased by some of the larger supermarket suppliers,” Steve explained.

“The figures supplied to the Financial Review are current and specific and certainly not publicly available, so the data was most likely leaked by a competitor. It’s unlikely that any of the figures were inaccurate but could have been used selectively to paint a certain picture or the columnist’s agenda.”

But if the article is fair, it’s worrying news for MG farmer shareholders. I invited MG’s Robert Poole to answer a series of questions to set the record straight:

  • Are the figures quoted in the Financial Review a fair representation of Devondale’s sales performance?
  • To quote from the Fin Review: “According to Murray Goulburn, a big upside of the Coles deal was that it would ‘drive significant growth in sales for [its] core Devondale milk and cheese brands in the years ahead’”. To what degree does the profitability of the Melbourne and Sydney plants rely on the sale of Devondale products?
  • How do actual Devondale sales figures compare to the budgets set when the plants were planned?
  • Does Murray Goulburn continue to enjoy “preferred supplier status” with Woolworths?
  • How have the Devondale sales at Woolworths compare with those at Coles?
  • Does MG plan to review its product mix or marketing strategy in light of Devondale’s sales performance?
  • How does Devondale’s sales performance compare with other areas of MG’s business?

Robert pointed me to a media release on MG’s website released later in the day. Unfortunately, it does not answer the questions. Instead, it plays the man rather than the ball, providing any genuinely concerned farmer shareholder little comfort.

Are the criticisms of Gary Helou and MG simply sour grapes or dirty competitive tactics? I hope so but it seems only time will tell. This is the tragedy of the “Gary the Great” sideshow: it all descends into an ugly bun-fight in which, ultimately, the farmer is the loser.

EDIT: I HAVE WOKEN TO AN EMAIL FROM ROBERT POOLE INDICATING THAT HE WILL BE PLEASED TO ANSWER THE QUESTIONS TODAY (20/02/2015).

13 thoughts on “The trouble with the MG and “Gary the Great” sideshow

  1. Marian,

    Many industry rep boards fall for the “Cult of the Spiv” when looking for a CEO. These spivs (and there are plenty of them) are brash, BS-driven career execs, big on marketing speak and small on accountability, who can run rings around the board. They promise the world but rarely deliver it. After raking in a pile of money during their tenure the spiv moves on to their next unsuspecting victim. Then, when the board members are asked what went wrong, they look like they have just left an hour long visit to the proctologist.

    A new international CEO search is undertaken. A new Spiv is appointed. New promises are made. A new brand strategy developed. A new team is ‘dedicated to increasing shareholder value’. A new bottle of snake oil is produced. Have a swig, poor, long suffering MG shareholders.

    Wash, rinse and repeat.

    • Hi Ian,
      I’ve seen the same thing. You put it so well!

      I wasn’t meaning to be at all derogatory towards MG’s managing director or the board in this post, though.

      I wanted to make a comment about the circus that surrounds him and what it means for farmers.

      On the other hand, I do hope that farmers will seek proper answers from the MG board. To simply brush away the numbers presented by the Fin Review would show that shareholders are not prepared to hold the board to account.

      At this time in the co-op’s history, it’s never been more important to ask questions.

      • ‘Good track record’ – you have to be kidding!

        Helou’s time at Sunrice…let’s just say that the whole Ebro fiasco was very ugly and smacked of hubris (dare I say another feature of spivs?). The debt levels under Helou were also outrageous (under much better control now under Rob Gordon who has had to clean up the mess).

  2. “Colourful” Gary Helou. That’s a first. Met him a couple of times and I’ve found him to be reserved, moderate, rather quietly spoken — far from spivvy. He had a good track record with RiceGrowers where he was for more than a decade. Some of the people firing these cheap shots need a Bex and a lie down. I’m neither a dairy farmer nor a rice grower so no vested interest in commenting.

  3. Hi Marion
    I’m a journo in northern Vic and I’ve interviewed him a couple of times. Also a sheep and horse farmer ie impoverished 🙂 .

  4. Two key interdependant features of demutualisation are the role of a Chief Executive Officer and a compliant board that accept the recommendations of the CEO and both emphasise farmer-control – as an implicit alternative to co-operative ownership. What happened to Bonlac? What happened to Dairy Farmers? What happened to Warrnambool Cheese and Butter?
    David Griffiths, Secretary, co-operatives Victoria

  5. A good record at Rice growers? Try asking some of the locals around Deniliquin what they think of Gary.
    Possibly one of the biggest threats to the Australian dairy industry and the future of the family farm

  6. Pingback: MG responds to questions about Devondale | The Milk Maid Marian

  7. I appreciate your comments above regarding personal attacks but without balance of opinion it merely becomes an MG fan post and subsequently accuracy suffers.
    As with the CEO MG has a love hate relationship with many of its current and past suppliers

    • Hi Nigel,
      It’s a really difficult line to tread, isn’t it?

      It’s so important to question MG’s approach and strategy but attacking personalities can be very counterproductive.

      Can we have a good discussion by playing the ball rather than the man?

      PS: I don’t think MG would consider this an MG fan post.

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