Fonterra rocked its Australian farmers last May with a price drop following Murray Goulburn’s own shock price announcement. I think it was fair to say nobody was surprised there was a drop – Fonterra had been signalling one for months – but the savagery of its execution left many farmers aghast and distraught.
Salt was added to the wound three weeks later when Fonterra chief executive Theo Spierings reportedly said:
“What we are doing is drive (sic) every cent of money which we can out of Australia back to New Zealand shareholders in this extremely low milk price environment,” he said.
“That is what we are doing everyday. And Australian business this year will be at a plus.”
Yesterday, the wound was opened afresh with Fonterra’s annual results headlined by a profit of $834 million after tax, including a healthy profit from the Australian division. With all this in mind, Milk Maid Marian asked Fonterra’s GM Australian Milk Supply, Matt Watt, some rather blunt questions. To his enormous credit, Matt had the following answers for us in less than 24 hours.
MMM: Fonterra Australia is very good at assessing farmer sentiment with its regular forums and Mood Meter surveys. How did the pricing changes announced in May affect the sentiment of farmers supplying Fonterra Australia?
MW: On the back of the shock and challenge that the price revision in May had to our farmers, we have seen a significant drop in farmer sentiment measures – that’s absolutely reflective of the discussions I’ve had over the phone and in person with our farmers and as has been fed back via our field team, BSC board and supplier forum.
MMM: How has sentiment changed since?
MW: Since opening price, we have seen a slight increase in sentiment. Importantly, the aspect that does rate positively is our field team interaction and support – we are proud of the work that the team does and, despite the surrounding circumstances, they continue to find ways to help our farmers through this period.
MMM: How much money did Fonterra Australia save by slashing the milk price in May and June?
MW: The milk price revision in May reduced our losses by around $40M which, on its own, enabled the Australian Ingredients business to get to around a break even position.
MMM: Given the reshaping of the Australian business was already well underway, why was it considered necessary to make the radical price cut?
MW: There has been significant effort and investment in the turnaround – we’ve divested loss-making businesses and non-core assets, such as our yoghurt and dairy desserts business, our Bega shares and our stake in Dairy Technical Services.
We reduced our working capital and our headcount, and undertook a program to drive efficiency throughout our business. However, the simple truth is, we were paying a milk price that was not being returned by the market, and that was impacting our profitability.
Our results today show improvement for the Australian business, which has contributed to the strong result for the Co-op, however, our turnaround is not complete and we need to continue to invest – our new, more efficient warehouse investment and further expansion of cheese capacity at Wynyard are examples of investments that have been made recently. Without a profitable business we compromise our ability to invest, risk devaluing the business, and risk our ability to provide sustainable returns right back to the farm gate.
MMM: What, if anything, do you regret about the decisions made in May?
MW: Whilst I can’t personally feel the impact on every single farm and the business and family circumstances, I am acutely aware of the massive impact that this decision had. In hindsight I often reflect as to how we could have more overtly communicated the disconnect between the Australian farm gate price and returns available in the market.
Having said that, the attempts that we did make about Australia not being immune to global challenges and that the milk price did not reflect what was being earned in the market had a discernible, negative impact on our supplier sentiment. We were accused of talking down the market.
MMM: How does Fonterra justify such harsh cuts while making a profit?
MW: While the milk price revision was regrettable, it is important that both our farmers and Fonterra have a model that ensures sustainable profitability.
The reality is that Australian milk price last year was not reflective of the global dairy commodity prices and around the world, all dairy farmers have experienced low farmgatge milk price. Our business is owned by farmers, and they have $1 billion of equity invested here. Last year these farmers received $3.90 per kgMS (NZD) in milk price plus a 40c per kgMS dividend on the back of the profit result. This takes them to $4.30 per kgMS (NZD) vs a final farm gate milk price of $5.13 (AUD) here in Australia.
MMM: Where have the 200 million extra litres come from?
MW: The new milk has largely come from MG farmers moving to supply Fonterra.
MMM: The presentation also says Fonterra Au’s outlook is to continue efforts to fill Darnum and notes that Stanhope will be online in 2017. How many more litres will be needed?
MW: The additional milk that we have brought on goes part way to meeting these needs. However, we continue to expect to see market opportunities continue to emerge, meaning that we will want to continue to grow volume, particularly in Northern Victoria.
MMM: The presentation says Fonterra Australia has gone from “Disconnect between milk price and reality” to “Market connected milk price”, yet Fonterra Australia is still bound by the Bonlac Supply Agreement to match or better the price of Australia’s largest processor. What are Fonterra plans in respect to that agreement?
MW: Our opening price and forecast close of $5.00 per kgMS reflects market conditions, but also is well above MG, the benchmark milk price. We remain committed to meeting our obligations under the BSC agreement, which is why, in 8 out of the last 10 years, we have paid a higher price than the BSC minimum commitment.
Thank you very much to Matt Watt, Fonterra’s GM Australian Milk Supply, for answering Milk Maid Marian’s questions.