Tag Archives: Gary Helou

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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Filed under Farm, Fonterra, milk price, Murray Goulburn

Helou tells the Senate he’s a hero

While he might not have used the word “hero” exactly, former Murray Goulburn managing director Gary Helou was in complete denial when he fronted the Senate inquiry today.

Helou told senators he had the right plan, a plan that had delivered for two-and-a-half years. “The strategy was working and we were getting the right results,” he railed. Only one “unforeseeable” thing had derailed MG’s plans. That thing?

Not the global dairy commodity prices that had been falling steadily for month after month or the inattention of the board to the reportedly growing alarm of senior management. It was a Chinese regulatory change regarding cross-border trade via e-commerce. I gather this is code for selling milk powder and UHT milk on the equivalent of eBay into China.

As Gary explained it, he and the board were aware of the falling global commodity prices but selling these dairy foods – which he described as “our biggest sellers” – had been mitigating those losses.

The Chinese seemed to be tightening up on that, err, “cross-border e-commerce” and MG made two ASX announcements in response to media reports, the first on April 12, followed by this update on April 18.

mgcasxapril18

Both announcements concluded that the regulation did “not have a material impact on MG’s business”. Totally in contradiction to everything Gary Helou said today.

Just four days later, MG entered a trading halt. When it emerged from that trading halt on April 27, here’s what the announcement said about those big sellers:

asxmgcapril27

MG was still saying the Chinese announcement had no material impact on MG’s business. So, where does the truth lie?

With MG facing at least one class action, the Senate inquiry and under investigation by both the ACCC and ASIC, farmers have been hopeful of finding answers to the debacle that cost some their livelihoods.

But asked twice by senators whether he had been questioned by authorities investigating if MG had misled investors, Gary Helou said “no”. Both times he paused for several seconds before answering that one very simple question and, incredibly, each time it was an unequivocal “no”.

This is one witness to the Senate Inquiry who raised more questions than were answered.

United Dairy Farmers of Victoria president, Adam Jenkins summed up the sense of disbelief that followed perfectly. If it was possible, the ACCC farmer consultation forums that roll into town over the next couple of weeks just got that bit more important to attend.

adamjenkinsheloutweet

 

 

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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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Filed under Farm, Fonterra, milk price, Murray Goulburn

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).

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Filed under Dairy Products, Farm, Murray Goulburn

Bittersweet as Devondale milk reaches Coles shelves

Photo: The Weekly Times


Three men in suits – a prime minister, supermarket supremo and the MD of a dairy processor – stood drinking glasses of frothy cold milk on the steps of the first MG Co-op factory dedicated to supplying fresh Devondale-branded and private label milk to Coles. Beneath the froth, however, doubt among the very dairy farmers sponsoring the opening celebrations continues to simmer and bubble.

Ever since the Coles deal was announced, there have been skeptics. Plenty question whether it is possible to make money supplying milk that retails at a dollar a litre and the concept alone that milk could be priced cheaper than water offends many dairy farmers.

The speculation and anger reached new heights this week, however, after a scathing opinion piece in the Australian Financial Review that says MG managing director, “Helou ‘in a hurry’ has a reputation at MG, as he did at SunRice, for being hell bent on revenue over margins.”

The AFR also writes, “MG’s margins are non-existent and its deal has locked the whole industry into $1 milk for a whole, punishing decade, structurally squeezing the profit pool.”

All that gloom follows the journalist’s derisory comments about the Sydney factory being at least one month late, $30 million over budget and the trigger for contractual penalties that can only be imagined. And, yes, when the deal was announced, MG’s farmer shareholders were promised the factories would cost “just” $120 million. MG now puts that figure at $160 million, hinting at a cost blow-out of staggering proportions.

To top it all off, Coles ads pimping our cherished, premium Devondale-branded milk at just 75 cents per litre sent shockwaves through the Australian dairy community on Twitter yesterday.

This ad went viral on Twitter for all the wrong reasons

This ad went viral on Twitter for all the wrong reasons

So, I sent a list of questions off to MG’s executive general manager shareholder relations, Robert Poole, who to his great credit offered these explanations:

Q. What are the actual costs of the two factories?
A. Following our initial cost estimates for the two factories we decided to invest in additional capability and capacity to maximise efficiencies through automation and layout. This brought the total investment in our Melbourne and Sydney facilities to approximately $160 million. This provided for future operational cost savings.

Q. Has MG been unable to supply milk to Coles on time?
A. We have had some shortfalls, however contingency plans were promptly enacted . Laverton is ramping up towards its full capacity and at the moment is servicing Coles requirements in Victoria plus the Devondale Brand both in Victoria and NSW. Our NSW plant remains scheduled to commence production in early August, at which time MG expects to be able to be supplying all of Coles requirements in Victoria and NSW

Q. If so, what are the penalties?
A. This is a contractual matter between MG and Coles.

Q. Does MG have adequate raw milk supply for the Sydney factory now?
A. In New South Wales, we have already sourced more than 180 million litres of milk. This is more than enough to cover our initial requirements of approximately 100 million litres per annum in this market and allows for future growth.

Q. When do you expect the Sydney facility to be supplying milk Coles with its full requirement of milk?
A. The site is being commissioned through July with production scheduled to commence early August, reaching full capacity by the end of August.

Q. When will the investment break even?
A. Both sites are forecast to add positively to MG’s farmgate price from year 1.

If the Murray Goulburn deal with Coles can withstand a 33% cost-overrun and Coles’ penalties while adding to the milk price from year one, this must be an extraordinarily lucrative contract indeed. Who would have thought the Down, Down, Down folks could be so generous?

While you’re chewing that over, take a minute to look at the new Devondale ads via my fellow dairy blogger Lynne Strong, who tells me her post discussing the commercials has gone viral attracting around 1500 views in 24 hours. MG cannot be accused of being boring!

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Filed under Farm, Murray Goulburn, supermarket war and $1 milk

“Bring on the cows” demands a new routine

“Bring on the cows” trumpets The Australian, headlining a story about MG Co-op managing director, Gary Helou. In response to rumours that the co-op might purchase a large Tasmanian dairy farm, Mr Helou reportedly says:

“We are not farmers; MG is a global dairy food processing and milk company, and we will not be buying farms directly; that is not our business,” Helou says adamantly.

“The only way to get extra cows and milk is to up the farm gate price enough that farmers will want to invest (in more cows) themselves. So that’s what I have set out to do, maximise the farm gate price and reduce the cost of processing and the supply chain and then efficient production will follow.”

Here’s the problem: MG is not a global dairy food processing and milk company. It is a co-operative of Australian dairy farmers who are members because they expect MG to, first and foremost, maximise their profitability. Not by investing in a processor (they could just buy ASX shares if that was what it was all about) but by looking after farmers directly.

They don’t just supply MG, it’s not just their MG, farmers ARE MG.

Am I being hopelessly idealistic? I don’t think so. This focus on being a processor has flowed through to the co-operative’s milk price system.

The final milk price only tells half the story. The quoted “average weighted” milk price is skewed to favour farms with flat production curves (mirroring those of the processor) at the cost of farms whose milk supply matches the natural ebb and flow of cow and pasture. For the vast majority of Australian dairy farmers, the way our co-operative pays us is at odds with efficient milk production.

MG must remember what being a cooperative really means before its farmers will be ready to “bring on the cows”.

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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.

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Filed under Farm, Murray Goulburn