A new big Aussie dairy co-op?

ReneDedoncker

Fonterra Australia’s managing director, René Dedoncker

“It’ll be months, not years,” says Fonterra Australia’s managing director, René Dedoncker when I ask him about plans to form a new big Australian dairy co-op.

Industry veterans will tell you the idea of Fonterra forming an Australian co-op is not new and seemed a real possibility after the demise of that other great milk co-op, Bonlac, in the early 2000s. So, why now?

“I think the time is right,” says René. “This is a value proposition at a time when the industry is fragile.”

“Fonterra Australia is also in a great position to reduce risk. We have learnt from our mistakes and have a stable, repeatable business model with a balanced customer and product mix. Confidence, if not trust, is running high.”

I cough a little nervously and ask René how he expects farmers would rate Fonterra in the trust stakes and whether that might be a problem.

“Trust may well be a stumbling block.” he concedes. “Farmers – even those who’ve been supplying us for many years – tell me it will take years to rebuild. Purely on trust, we could well be ranked quite low but we are working hard to regain that.”

“I can tell you that there is not a key decision made without the input of farmer voices.”

The consultation on the co-op idea will officially begin at the Bonlac Supply Company AGM next week and be discussed at farmer forums across the country.

If it gets a sufficiently warm welcome, the next stage in the process will be discussions about the form the co-op would take.

“We already have several different models in mind,” René says, “but at this stage we want to keep it simple and see whether there’s an appetite for this co-op.”

What Rene can say is that there won’t be a mandatory requirement for farmer suppliers to “share up”, matching share numbers to milk production.

“We need to make it attractive and give everyone an opportunity to participate. Farmers will also be able to supply Fonterra Australia without becoming shareholders,” he explains.

It’s also decided that the shares would be in the Australian operation only, rather than the global Fonterra organisation. The Australian co-op has the blessing of the board of directors but would not need to clear a Kiwi shareholder vote.

The plans towards forming a co-op has “paused” the progress of a replacement for the Bonlac Supply Agreement, René says. While that replacement has already been drafted, it won’t be made public until it’s clear it would suit any new co-op model.

It has done nothing, however, to dampen Fonterra’s Australian expansion plans. The processor has already committed to lifting its processing capacity by another half-a-billion litres over the next six months and will add another half-a-billion within 18 months.

While René stresses that the 3 billion litre target is in capacity rather than milk supply (allowing enough headroom for a bumper season), he says the processor is aiming for a milk supply of 2.6 to 2.7 billion litres within two years.

At the same time, Lino Saputo Jr is on record saying Warrnambool Cheese & Butter will win back the milk MG lost. And, of course, the main beneficiaries were Fonterra and WCB itself.

“What about Saputo?,” I ask.

“We’re running our own race,” says René. “We have incredible confidence in our business and they’re offering powerful competition that’s good for our industry.”

“It might be better to ask Saputo about us.”

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).

MG capital raising program raises plenty of questions

Farming is all about taking risks. Our businesses rise and fall largely on the backs of increasingly volatile international commodity price cycles, exchange rates and the weather. Plenty of really good farmers have come unstuck through no fault of their own, other than taking a good risk at a bad time.

On the other hand, our co-op, Murray Goulburn, has always been considered a pretty safe bet. It was formed more than 60 years ago by a group of Victorian dairy farmers seeking a better deal for their milk and has grown to become Australia’s third-largest food and beverage company – dwarfed only by Coca Cola Amatil and Lion.

Our managing director, Gary Helou, doesn’t want to stop there. At a supplier meeting this week, he spoke about the need to move at “break-neck speed” with new products to capture new markets within the next three to five years, swallowing competitors along the way.

They’re exciting times for this once risk-averse co-operative. The proposal being put to farmer shareholders is to list a chunk of the co-op on the ASX so that anyone can buy a piece of the action. Farmers with excess shares will be able to sell to non-farmers but these external investors, however, wouldn’t have voting rights.

Am I in favour? Yes, if the new capital structure can:

  • Enshrine farmer control
  • Maximise farmer profitability
  • Treat all farmer shareholders equitably
  • Allow the co-operative to provide great opportunities for new generations of farmers

Those are big “ifs” and there just isn’t enough detail yet to know whether any of them are satisfied. It is incredibly heartening though that the MG Board has listened to member concerns that the initial start date of the program of July 1 was far too soon to consider the complex implications of the proposal.

That’s the beauty of a co-operative: members have a real say in their own futures. And that’s why those of us who cherish it must have no fear of asking questions.

Our co-op gallops towards the wide blue yonder blindfolded

Me (whispering): “You need brain surgery”

You: “Huh?”

Me (a little louder but still almost inaudibly): “You need brain surgery. Tomorrow.”

You: “Wha…why?”

Me (with great confidence): “Because I am a brain surgeon and it will make you better in every way.”

You: “What do you mean?”

Me: “Look, if you keep on like that, you’ll never get anywhere.”

You: “What is this surgery?”

Me: “I haven’t yet decided on the details but I am a surgeon and you would do well to respect my expertise. In any case, I will have finalised the details by tomorrow. If you have any more questions, you’ll have ample opportunity to ask them on the way to theatre. Thank you for your interest and attending this consultation.”

Our co-op, MG, is rushing onwards with a “capital raising project” that would forever change it from being 100% farmer-owned to “farmer-controlled”. It’s one of the biggest changes in the co-op’s history.

It might well be wonderful but what’s certain is that the ramifications are complex. It’ll take time for us to:

  • understand why we really need to raise half a billion dollars of external capital
  • understand the proposal
  • tease out the pros and cons
  • consider the alternatives and
  • debate it.

Our Kiwi counterparts took five years to make such an important decision about their co-op. We seem hell-bent on doing it in weeks. Why?

The co-op does a deal with the devil and keeps its soul

I never thought I’d say this but some of my milk will be sold on Coles’ shelves in both homebrand and Devondale cartons from next year. And I’m pleased.

You see, the co-op we supply, Murray Goulburn, is a giant too. It processes around 35 per cent of Australia’s milk and earns $1.17 billion in exports, making MG one of the largest container exporters from the Port of Melbourne. In other words, it doesn’t have to sell to Coles and Woolies, giving it much greater leverage with the supermarket duopoly. It also has the scale needed to be an efficient processor. Most importantly, its number one goal as a 100% farmer owned co-op is to maintain the profitability of its farmers.

All the same, it is confronting when “our” co-op does a deal with the devil. Has it sold out on us?

I asked dairy analyst, Jon Hauser of Xcheque for his thoughts. “My view is the news is very, very positive,” he said. “This is one of the few things that has the potential to lift the returns for farmers by maybe two or three cents per litre and, perhaps more importantly, it can reduce the volatility of farm gate prices.”

The thing is, while Murray Goulburn exports around half of its milk, reducing our reliance on the supermarkets, that exposure to international commodity prices and the exchange rate can be painful, too. International commodity prices rise and fall like a cork in a bottle and the average Aussie dairy farmer loses about $9,000 (according to my back of the envelope sums) with every cent the Australian dollar rises against the US dollar. Of course, it’s at record highs right now and not looking like falling below parity any time soon. The uncertainty that comes with that volatility makes it very hard for farmers to attract finance and invest with confidence in their businesses.

On the other hand, I wondered why Murray Goulburn could make a profitable $1 milk deal with Coles when Lion, the company currently processing Coles’ homebrand milk, cannot. Jon Hauser thinks it’s largely an issue of supply chain efficiency.

“Leaving aside the aberration of $1.00 discount milk, branded milk retails at about $1.60 per litre and supermarket private label at about $1.20 per litre,” Hauser says.

“Farmers are getting 25 – 35 % of the consumer dollar. In the UK and the US farmer share is closer to 50%. Direct supply by a farmer co-op removes the middleman that is adding cost in marketing and collecting additional value from their brands.

“It is true that the supermarkets will become ‘the brand’ but the farmer co-op should also able to retrieve some of this value. In the case of the Coles/MG deal, MG will get part of that return from the ranging of their own Devondale brand.

“What is most critical in maintaining a balance of commercial power is the ability of farmers to sell their milk to a range of alternate customers. Murray Goulburn has the diversity of product and markets to do that and can now genuinely claim that they have a balanced portfolio of domestic and export sales”.

It all sounds very positive for existing Victorian Murray Goulburn dairy farmers like me. But what about for farmers near Sydney, who have been supplying Lion and Parmalat and who traditionally get so much more for their milk than we do yet depend almost exclusively on supermarkets?

Mike Logan, the head of Dairy Connect, which represents the NSW dairy sector, describes today’s announcement as a “game changer” and in a letter to farmers, had this to say:

“We have three big changes on the table at once;
1. The manufacturing milk price rise
2. The drop in production so that NSW and Qld are now short of fresh milk
3. New models of supply to the supermarkets

“This all adds up to change.

“For the NSW dairy industry it may mean:
1. Investment in new processing capacity
2. A new pricing model for the whole fresh milk industry
3. Re-energising brands such as Devondale and Norco
4. Relocation of a large number of farmer dairy suppliers from one supplier to another
5. Changing role of the processors and processing capacity
6. A risk for the milk vendors as the processing sector changes.

“…the supermarkets have been true to their word and have been looking for new ways to create a sustainable future for the NSW dairy industry. We have to look past the $1/litre milk and build a new future.”

“However, these changes will be at considerable cost to some people. We need to be careful and respectful of the impact of these changes. We do not want to create a situation of winners and losers.”

The reality is, though, that there will be losers. Commenting on the future of the current processor of Coles’ milk, Lion, prominent NSW dairy farmer, Lynne Strong (@CHDairies) said on Twitter that “They have lost QLD plus NSW Coles contracts Cant see them surviving this one #sadbutrue”.

Lion is almost certainly not going to be the only loser in what all agree will be massive upheaval in New South Wales. But there will be winners and maybe, just maybe, represented by an increasingly powerful co-operative, dairy farmers will claw back a little dignity. And you, dear milk drinker, will soon be able to buy 100 per cent farmer-owned fresh milk knowing that all the profits stay right here in Australia.

Putting ourselves in the best position

In the lead up to the Australian Dairy Conference later this month, I’ve invited a few fellow speakers to do guest posts on Milk Maid Marian. One of them, Steve Spencer of the Freshlogic consultancy, issued this challenge to dairy farmers.

Steve Spencer

Steve Spencer


The world has changed in the last 5 years and with that so have the prospects for dairy producers. If you read the views of the global food gurus, we’re riding on the cusp of an ever-tightening world food shortage that puts the dairy industry in a great position. We’ll have plenty of competitors going after that future prize, and in the last decade dominated by the effects of drought, other exporters have emerged. But at the same time, decades of protectionism by major economies is steady evaporating, as governments admit they can’t afford to fund the high walls built around agriculture.

As we’ve seen in the past couple of years, the variables affecting our farmgate milk prices in Australia have become more complex, and the volatility in the future world that affects those prices, grain costs and weather will only increase.

As we step into the future, it has never been more important to make sure our industry is structured in the best possible way to make sure we optimise the flows from the market back onto farms. It isn’t something that we should steadily work on for a few years – this pressure now urgent!

I will be presenting a paper at the Australian Dairy Conference at Warragul, Vic (which is being held on 22-23 February) that will aim to stir up the debate on the agenda for getting that going. It will look at precisely what can be done to improve returns, and it should be no surprise to anyone to recognise that most of the things that can be done are within our own control.

So my paper will tour:
• How farmers do or can engage with the dairy market
• The value of the co-operative as a channel to that market
• How they perform in different industries
• What changes others are making and why
• What changes are most important in the Australian market
• How those can happen

We’ll discuss the elephant in the room. Murray Goulburn is the largest farmer-owned processor of milk in southern Australia, accountable to their shareholder-suppliers for performance through farmgate milk prices and dividends. In a highly competitive farmgate environment, prices paid by foreign-owned, privately owned or listed competitors will be set at or above MG’s price – others will only pay what they have to in order to get a secure milk flow. They are accountable to shareholders who may not be dairy farmers purely on their performance as a business.

It will be up to the co-op’s farmer shareholders to determine if the company is properly structured and managed to maximise performance, and the opportunities and risks of change.
Whether dairy farmers supply and own shares in MG or not and no matter where they farm, the performance of that largest co-op is an issue relevant to all Australian dairy farmers, as milk values are set by MG’s payment performance.

Like Australia’s competitors in the US and Europe will find as they embrace deregulation in the years to come, clinging to tradition is probably the worst thing farmers can do for the future of the industry.

I urge dairy farmers, their advisers and investors to attend the conference and get involved.