Fonterra chief executive Theo Spierings. Photo: Pat Scala, Sydney Morning Herald
Fonterra is one of the world’s biggest dairy companies with a glittering history. A cooperative in New Zealand, Fonterra is also Australia’s second-largest processor.
Just last year, Fonterra delivered a stellar Kiwi farmgate price far better than anything ever enjoyed by Aussie dairy farmers. Analysts enjoyed debating why Australia could not emulate its success. Today, the co-op is under intense scrutiny from its shareholders.
As I mentioned in the previous post, farmers in New Zealand are doing it very tough this year and Fonterra Australia chalked up losses last year.
Then, last week, Fonterra’s chief executive Theo Spierings, was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald in a story headlined Aussie farmers being overpaid amid global dairy rout, says Fonterra boss.
After quoting Mr Spierings as saying the current price of $5.60kg MS could not be supported, the Sydney Morning Herald reported:
Mr Spierings said the method on how Australian farmers were paid needed to change so it wasn’t based just on the farm-gate price and matched other processors.
“It’s loyalty and skin in the game that can lead to an upside. You can call it a dividend, or whatever, a bonus per kilogram milk solids,” he said.
“But we need to have the conversation now about what the endgame looks like. What is the value being created – what’s the size of the cake? Then we need to have a good debate with farmers … about how are we going to share – how are we going to cut the cake?
The comments raised a lot of questions for a Fonterra Australia supplier like me, especially in respect to the “Bonlac Agreement”, which extends until 2019 and commits Fonterra to paying its Australian suppliers a price that equals or betters the dominant processor.
I put some of those questions to Fonterra Australia and am grateful to managing director, Judith Swales, for answering them.
Judith Swales, Fonterra Australia managing director. Pic source: Australian Dairy Farmer
MMM: Why has Theo chosen to telegraph a change in Fonterra’s dealings with Australian farmers via the media rather than by opening a conversation with farmers?
JS: Theo was commenting on the global dairy situation and its impacts for Australia. He was putting a voice to issues that many in the industry are well aware of. These are difficult issues and shouldn’t be shied away from, and as an industry we need to address them.
MMM: Are there any inaccuracies in the article you would like to correct?
JS: The headline was unfortunate. The main issue to point out is that the problem is not around Australians dairy farmers being overpaid – as stated in the headline – but rather the impact global volatility is having on the sustainability of current dairy pricing in Australia. What’s important, is that we’re sending the right price signals to our farmers to avoid any surprises and so that they can budget for various scenarios.
MMM: Theo appears to cast doubt on the Bonlac agreement that ensures farmgate prices match or better the dominant competitor. Will Fonterra honour that agreement this year?
JS: We remain fully committed to honouring the Bonlac agreement. We are focussed on giving our farmers line of sight to the price we can pay this year as quickly and accurately as we can. The price we pay this year must be sustainable. We do not want to sacrifice investment in our long term strategy, which aims to deliver returns above the Benchmark price, in response to short term, tactical pricing pressures.
MMM: Does Fonterra remain committed to the Bonlac agreement in the medium to long term?
JS: We view the BSC Milk Supply Agreement as a baseline. We always strive to aspire to more – whether it be with our SupportCrew services, price risk management tools or our suppliers receiving the highest milk price (as found in an independent report by Ian Gibb for the 2013/14 season). We expect our relationship with our suppliers to continue to evolve over time.
MMM: “It’s loyalty and skin in the game that can lead to an upside. You can call it a dividend, or whatever, a bonus per kilogram milk solids,” says Theo. Does this mean special pricing that favours long-term contracts and large farms?
JS: Achieving a mechanism for determining milk price that drives behaviours that support the success of Fonterra’s strategy for all suppliers is our aim. This work is always evolving and we will continue work with BSC on this.
MMM: Farmers who supply milk to Fonterra Australia are suppliers rather than shareholders. What does Theo mean by “sharing the cake”?
JS: We have always said that the best dairy industry model is the one where everyone can get a sustainable return. Farmers need to be able to make money, processors need to make money and so do customers, like retailers. And that’s what he means by sharing the cake.
MMM: Does Fonterra continue to have a long term commitment to Australia?
JS: Absolutely we are committed long term to Australia; and our Board continues to voice this commitment. Australia is one of our four key strategic markets for Fonterra. It is a key plank to our global multi-hub strategy, which complements our Retail and Foodservice business. We continue to invest: we are progressing our Beingmate partnership; we have plans to rebuild our cheese plant in Stanhope; and only this week we commissioned a multi-million dollar Beverages plant in Cobden.
Thank you very much, Judith Swales!