Category Archives: Fonterra

ACCC takes Helou, Hingle and MG to court but lets Fonterra off the hook

eleanor-roosevelt

Pic credit: The Solution News at TSNnews.com

Today, the ACCC announced that it is taking Murray Goulburn to the Federal Court for unconscionable conduct. It will also pursue MG’s former MD, Gary Helou, and CFO, Brad Hingle.

That’s a bit of a relief after Gary Helou told the Senate Inquiry in February that he had not been questioned by investigators. If there’s a villain in the whole dairy disaster we can all agree on, it is Gary Helou. I, for one, am glad he will have his day in court.

I am also relieved the ACCC has shown the wisdom of Job when dealing with MG. As the ACCC said in its statement:

“The ACCC has decided not to seek a pecuniary penalty against Murray Goulburn because, as a co-operative, any penalty imposed could directly impact on the affected farmers.”

On the other hand, many farmers will be disappointed the ACCC has chosen not to take any action against Fonterra. The watchdog explained that decision in a quote from ACCC chairman, Rod Sims:

“A major consideration for the ACCC in deciding not to take action was that Fonterra was more transparent about the risks and potential for a reduction in the farmgate milk price from quite early in the season,” Mr Sims said.

Rod Sims is right. Fonterra did say, more than once and from early on in the season, that the milk price was unsustainably high. Why, I was one of the farmers upset with Fonterra big banana, Theo Spierings, for broadcasting this via the newspapers eight months before the price collapse. That much, I do understand and, with the benefit of hindsight, Fonterra was doing the right thing.

Theo

Fonterra was in an impossible position. While, technically, Fonterra could have cut its price earlier and, therefore, less savagely, the reality was that it had little choice. It would have haemorrhaged supply to MG and, if the co-op had delivered on its promises, the Bonlac Supply Agreement would have forced Fonterra to match MG’s price – no matter how unrealistic – anyway.

What it does not excuse, however, is the way Fonterra responded once MG announced its price cut.

At first, Fonterra sat on its hands, apparently caught by surprise like the rest of us. Then announced a slashing of the milk price from $5.60 to $1.91kg MS – the equivalent to 14 or 15 cents per litre. It gave no notice – actually, it revised the price for May and June on May 5. There was no time for farmers to plan and we were all faced with a frenzy of late-night nightmarish decision making.

On top of that, the Fonterra response failed to consider the devastating effect it would have on farmers with autumn-calving herds. Fonterra moved the goalposts a week later to spread the pain more evenly across its farmer suppliers but, for those who’d been most responsive, it was too late. Cows had been culled and the decision to send milkers to market is absolutely final.

Even now, farmers who chose not to accept the low-interest loans Fonterra offered to partially fill the void are still paying a mandatory levy to fund the scheme.

The weeks of insanity in May and the pain it continues to wreak on farmers cost Fonterra Australia loyalty that took it decades to build, as Australian GM of Milk Supply, Matt Watt acknowledged in this excerpt of an email to suppliers just minutes ago:

  • “You will have seen today that the ACCC released its findings into their investigation into MG and Fonterra over last season’s step down. The ACCC advised that they have decided not to take action against Fonterra.”

  • “I know the last 12 months have been incredibly challenging for you and your families, your communities and our industry.

  • “We’ve listened to you, and we’ve learned a lot over the past year. What you’ve told us has informed the steps we’re taking to ensure a stronger dairy industry.

  • “As you know, we’re working with BSC Board on greater transparency on price and as mentioned earlier I look forward to sharing more on that at the upcoming cluster meetings. We’re also fully engaged in the Dairy Industry Code of Conduct.

  • “We understand it will take time to rebuild confidence, and this is something we are firmly committed to.”

Neither of the two big Australian processors covered themselves in glory a year ago.  At least we now have some prospect of justice, if not recompense, for all the farmers affected by the reckless behaviour of the man at MG’s helm that sent so many to the rocks.

It’s a sign – a good sign – that the dairy community will chart a better course and keep a closer watch in the years to come.

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Light at the end of the tunnel: Fonterra

Well, as you saw in the previous post, I’m looking for light at the end of the tunnel (other than an oncoming train!) for Australian dairy farmers like me. In that post, ADF’s Terry Richardson took up the offer to present a vision. Today, Fonterra Australia’s new(ish) managing director, René Dedoncker, presents his view. My brief was pretty open: give farmers a reason for optimism without going into all the intricacies of Fonterra’s strategic direction.

I’m very grateful to René for sending Milk Maid Marian not just the written response below but a video too. Both are worth a look because they’re a bit different.

There’s no question that there have been challenges in recent seasons. What happened last season was a reminder that we operate as part of a global market – we can reap the rewards, but it also means we share in the risk. We as companies have a responsibility to tell it like it is, so that our farmers are prepared – positioned for prosperity when conditions are good and able to weather the storm when they aren’t.

However despite the challenges there are still plenty of opportunities for Australian dairy – it’s about knowing how to capitalise on those opportunities. Today, around 406 billion litres of dairy are consumed globally every year. By 2020 it will be 465 billion litres. That’s a 59 billion litre difference – around seven times the size of Australia’s current milk pool.

We know that countries that don’t have enough milk will look to the countries that have a surplus. Australia is one of those countries. But simply selling our surplus supply in the global marketplace will only ever achieve commodity returns. It will not be enough to win back confidence on the farm.

We need to be providers of premium dairy products that are aligned with specific consumer needs and life stages, and we have to make sure we produce and deliver those products as efficiently as possible.

Two years ago Fonterra embarked on a mission to change the way we operate to enable us to better capture that demand. Overseas consumers want Australian cheese. We have a reputation for quality and excellence. Across Asia demand for cheese is growing. Mozzarella demand in China is growing at around 30 per cent each year.

In China, and across Asia, pizza is a social food – they eat it with friends and with their hands rather than a knife and fork. That’s why it’s important that as a dairy company we create a cheese that enhances that social experience.

Understanding what our customers want is crucial to our long term success as an industry. The reason there is such high demand for Fonterra’s cheese is because we’ve been immersed in the Chinese market for 25 years.

We know what Chinese consumers want. For example, we know how they eat their pizza, and how they want it to taste. Chinese consumers want their food to look as good as it tastes – they want that slightly brown crust on melted mozzarella, they want those stretchy cheese strings as they pick up a slice. Now, Fonterra cheese tops around half of the pizzas in China.

As companies, we need to leverage Australia’s reputation for high-quality dairy to make the most of the opportunities before us. The way we do that at Fonterra is through innovation – innovation in farming, in manufacturing, and in product development.

It’s why we’re investing in modern and efficient manufacturing; using technology to make dairy foods that tastes and performs the way our customers want it to. We have the technical know-how to deliver what they want – products developed with the end user in mind.

When it comes to nutritionals, the fundamentals in China remain incredibly strong, despite recent dips in demand. Here are just a few figures to consider:

  • The Chinese economy has been growing for 26 consecutive years, with economic growth still relatively strong at 6.8 per cent per year.
  • Over 54 per cent of Chinese people live in cities; by 2030 it’s expected that over 1 billion people will live in Chinese cities.
  • In 2000, just four per cent of Chinese families were considered middle class. By 2020, 76 per cent will be deemed middle class
  • China’s birth rate is climbing after the relaxation of the one-child policy – in a country with only four weeks of maternity leave many Chinese mums rely on infant formula to feed their babies after they return to work.
  • The next 12 months will be tough, as authorities seek to get greater control through regulation over the supply chain. However, the reputation of Australian dairy and the quality associated with that in China is invaluable.

We take a base commodity product and leverage everything that we have – high quality farm practices, best in class manufacturing and a point of difference on country of source, and make it into a higher-value product that is highly-desired in China.

That’s why we are continuing to back and develop the nutritional partnerships that we have so that when we get to more stable settings in China, we can take the opportunity to flourish.

There is huge potential for dairy looking ahead – not just in China, or Asia, but across the developing world. If we as processors work smarter, developing products that meet the needs of our customers and fulfilling that demand, our entire industry will benefit through greater investment, more jobs, and most importantly, a higher farmgate milk price.

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What it will take to get this farmer growing

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The last two years – a drought and the infamous dairy debacle – have taken their toll and not just on my hip pocket. Unless there’s change, my cheque book is likely to grow cobwebs for up to a decade. Sounds melodramatic? Not really.

My reasoning is this: first, we need to recover the equity lost over the last two years.

Second, we need to catch up on the maintenance we couldn’t afford to do over the last two years.

Third, I want at least another $100,000 in equity as extra protection. Interest rates won’t always be this low and, when they rise, another shock of this magnitude could be devastating rather than debilitating.

It all adds up to roughly $300,000 in profit to make up before I have an appetite to invest in any project that takes more than a year to break even. And that will take me years and years to accomplish.

If other farmers have the same attitude, we will continue to see Australian milk production stagnate.

The problem with this is that the processors have been investing in hundreds of millions of dollars worth of new stainless steel that requires enough milk flow to make it efficient. Time and time again, they have said growth is the only way to return the maximum price to farmers.

Do we have the start of a vicious circle? I hope not to hear the processors blaming a low farm gate price on inadequate utilisation of bloated stainless steel created by a low farm gate milk price.

Making me even more risk averse is the lack of definitive action to prevent this happening all over again.

Both the big processors, MG and Fonterra, have pledged to be more transparent and that’s a good first shuffle. I say “first shuffle” because to call it a good first step would be overstating its importance. We need a game-changer.

MG has commissioned a price review that will consider farm gate price models from around the world. At the same time, the Bonlac Supply Company, which represents farmers supplying Fonterra, also announced it would present alternatives early this year. Will these be the game changers we need?

I suspect not. The game changer we need is one where risk is shared along the supply chain rather than simply shifted onto farmers.

After all, while the current system is a legacy of an industry dominated by strong co-operatives, it’s also a marvellous “magic pudding” business model for corporate processors.

Consider this recent ACCC submission by Warrnambool Cheese & Butter‘s new owners, Saputo:

In February, Saputo announced a quarterly profit of C$197.4 million. I’m not sure why it feels it is appropriate to make Australian farmers responsible for its inability to negotiate a better energy contract. But it does because it can.

It serves as a timely reminder that the push for farmer prosperity has to come from farmers.

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Filed under Farm, Fonterra, milk price, Murray Goulburn, Warrnambool Cheese and Butter

The MG fallout for Fonterra

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The trump card held by Fonterra milk recruiters has long been a promise to match or better the price offered by Victoria’s biggest processor. What could possibly go wrong?

Indeed, the so-called “Bonlac Milk Supply Agency Agreement” has worked well for a long time. But it all unraveled last season when the biggest processor, Murray Goulburn Co-operative, started to behave at odds with the deteriorating global price.

Aunty MG, which had always worn a demure twin set and behaved with utter decorum, pawned the family silver, took off in a turbo-charged red convertible driven at break-neck speed by the sweet-talking new boy in town while tossing money at admirers like confetti. Fonterra was dragged along, screaming for Aunty to slow the hell down but nonetheless tethered to the rear bumper.

The wreckage of the crash has been messy for all involved. The Bonlac Supply Company chairman, Tony Marwood, writes in the BSC’s annual report that:

“…clearly we cannot have a benchmark mechanism in place against a processor that is under performing and also facing significant headwinds and an uncertain future.”

Ouch!

BSC and Fonterra, he wrote, are working on a new benchmark that it will reveal early next year.

In the meantime, a group of suppliers has written to Fonterra Australia, saying the processor has failed to honour its agreement to match MG’s price. The dispute revolves around the question of whether MG’s closing milk price was $5.53 or just $4.80 per kilogram of milk solids (kgMS).

Confusingly, as you might remember, MG dropped its price last April but then added money back in the form of a “Milk Supply Support Package”. This MSSP, MG stressed, was not a loan to individual suppliers but a “socialised debt” that would come off the milk price. Since then, MG has paused the MSSP in a bid to stem milk losses. In a nutshell, it means that MG announced an official closing milk price of $4.80 per kilogram of but actually paid “an average cash price in FY16 of $5.53 per kgms“with the MSSP included.

I asked Fonterra Australia’s Matthew Watt to explain his company’s position.

MMM: Excluding any loans or the $2.50 offset paid this financial year for milk supplied last financial year, what was Fonterra’s closing price?
MW: Fonterra’s average milk price for the 2016 financial year was ultimately $5.13 per kgMS, which was 33 cents higher than the benchmark price set by MG.

MMM: What was paid to Murray Goulburn suppliers last financial year?
MW: Murray Goulburn has clearly stated in its public announcements and 2016 Annual Report that its final farmgate milk price for the 2016 financial year is $4.80kgMS. The advance to suppliers under Murray Goulburn’s Milk Supply Support Package does not form part of the benchmark price, and neither does any Murray Goulburn dividend payment.

MMM: How is the term “bundled return” in section 10.1 of the Fonterra Australia Milk Supply Handbook defined?
MW: The Bundled return (following the payment of BSC shares out in 2014) is defined as the average farmgate price paid by the largest processor in Victoria

MMM: MG has suspended the repayment of the MSSP. If MG does not require suppliers to repay the MSSP, doesn’t that mean last year’s price was effectively the “cash price” of $5.53 and how will Fonterra respond if the MSSP is not recouped?
MW: Fonterra has an obligation under the BSC contract to match MG’s benchmark milk price. MG has clearly stated that its final farm gate milk price for FY2016 was $4.80. Based on MG’s announcements, the MSSP operates independently from the FY2016 milk price.  We are not in a position to speculate what MG may do in the future with regards to its MSSP repayment schedule.

Thank you very much, Matt, for answering Milk Maid Marian’s questions!

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Could this have been the wake-up call Aussie dairy needed?

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When the two biggest processors of Australia’s milk, Murray Goulburn and Fonterra, squandered the goodwill of farmers earlier this year, there was a sense they could do as they wished. They made the rules and broke them, too.

One executive told me there was no risk of supply loss following the drastic price cuts, saying, “After all, where would they (farmer suppliers) go?”.

How things have changed. Both the big processors have watched milk supply evaporate and, with the dawning realisation that something had to be done to avoid the death spiral outlined here and detailed by MG’s own advisors, Grant Samuel, both have responded.

After suspending the MSSP while reducing the forecast close by about the same amount a week earlier, MG made amends with a step-up the day before its AGM.

In his AGM address, MG chairman Phil Tracy acknowledged farmers’ pain and offered an apology of sorts.

“While as a Board, we did what we could with the information that we had at the time, we know that the outcomes of that period have been devastating for suppliers and for that we are deeply sorry.” – Phil Tracy, MG Chairman

Like MG, Fonterra Australia has announced it is reviewing the way farmers are paid for milk in order to avoid a repeat of the May debacle. Farmers whose milk production peaked in May and June were initially singled out for a thumping, causing many to sell off cows, only for Fonterra to back-track days later and spread the pain of its price cut more evenly among suppliers.

Despite poaching 200 million litres of milk from MG, Fonterra Australia’s supply remained fragile, due to the tricky season, the low milk price and the damage done in May to autumn-calving regions. Hours after MG announced its step-up, Fonterra came out with its own, much larger (and incredibly welcome), price increase.

The size of the step-up challenged the oft-held belief that Fonterra only pays the price it needs to in order to prevent supply loss to MG. With profitability restored, perhaps Fonterra has indeed extended its co-operative spirit to this side of the Tasman. On the other hand, Fonterra’s announcement provided a hint that perhaps it was essential to fill under-utilised stainless steel:

“The last six months have been challenging for all of you, and we know that spring is critical to optimise production.” – Matt Watt, Fonterra Australia

No matter what the motivation, it’s enormously heartening to see the two biggest processors act and act so positively. Maybe this is the wake-up call Australian dairy had to have. It might even help to rekindle the traditional sense of partnership between farmer and factory that had been on the wane for so long.

What’s certain is that farmers – and their supply of milk – can no longer be taken for granted. Loyalties have been stretched or broken and farmers who have now experienced how easy and rewarding it can be to shift their supply may well be tempted to do so again.

In return, expect processors to lock in a broader range of “desirable” supply with more special deals and contracts. Be careful what you sign. I’m tipping the unfair contract law that came into force quietly this weekend will be more important for dairy farmers than legislators could have imagined.

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Fonterra, farmers and that fat profit

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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.

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Why I welcomed Four Corners to our dairy

I’m looking forward to watching Four Corners tonight with all the enthusiasm of a patient awaiting the lancing of a boil. Will it be fun? No. Will it be good for me? I guess so.

It’s almost four months since Murray Goulburn called a trading halt, followed by the infamous “clawbacks” of both MG and Fonterra that rocked the dairy community.

In a state of confusion and panic, farmers called out for help. Ordinary Australians did what they could, ditching cheap unbranded milk in a show of solidarity with farmers that continues to hearten.

Four months on, panic has given way to a sense of aimlessness and loss. Helou and Tracy’s vision had offered a shining path towards security and prosperity but now Gary the Great has vanished and nobody has filled the role of white knight. Leadership is lacking at the time we need it most.

We farmers have a fleeting once-in-a-lifetime chance to fix things. Politicians want to know how they can help but we don’t seem to be able to articulate a coherent answer other than to cry for something, anything, to dull the pain.

Meanwhile, there’s a puerile optimism amongst some elites, reckoning that every casualty improves the prospects of the survivors. It’s a sentiment that disgusts me and simply doesn’t stack up.

Floods of milk generated by the powerhouses of Europe, NZ and the USA sink or float the export market – not the farm next door. We’ve already lost thousands of Aussie dairy farmers since deregulation. More of the same won’t solve our problems.

The first step towards a cure is to work out exactly what ails us and, at the moment, all we’re doing is bandaiding a festering sore. If there’s anybody who can sniff out and lance a boil, it’s Four Corners.

That’s why we welcomed Deb Whitmont and her team to our farm. Sure, I’ll be cringing on the couch but Four Corners’ Milked Dry might just reveal the bitter pill we need to swallow.

 

 

 

 

 

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