Protecting farmers from ourselves

Apparently farmers cannot be trusted with anything. Not even to want the highest farm gate milk price for ourselves.

Bega has just sold its stake in Warrnambool Cheese & Butter to Saputo, putting the Canadian billionaire on the brink of controlling WCB even though a higher price was on offer from Aussie farmer co-op, MG.

This happened because our co-op hasn’t been allowed to bid during the bidding period.

Australian farmers who want to invest in their own futures and who are willing to pay the highest price for WCB have been stymied by a government artifice in the name of protecting…you guessed it…farmers from themselves. Apparently, another processor that thrives on a low farmgate milk price is better for us farmers than having an efficient farmer-owned co-op.

This Aussie dairy farmer will never forgive Joe Hockey for sitting by and watching.

So, where to now? That, my fellow source of low-cost milk, is up to us, for although Saputo can buy WCB’s stainless steel, it cannot buy our future. Only Australia’s dairy farmers decide where our milk flows and our fortunes lie.

Australian dairy: does it matter if it’s sold to China?

Worth saving?

Worth saving?

Does Australian milk matter? We have to decide.

It seems two of Australia’s milk processors, United Dairy Power and Warrnambool Cheese and Butter, are about to be sold to China. Firms backed by the Chinese government are having unofficial talks that would put the price of WCB at a staggering $10 per share.  Meanwhile, the ruthless but charming Canadians continue to acquire a bigger stake of WCB.

Here, close to home, another Chinese firm has already purchased a formerly decommissioned factory and is repackaging milk powder to send back to China. (It’s been a debacle, with outraged and distraught workers regularly featured in the local papers desperate to be paid.)

It’s not limited to the dairy processing sector, either. The Chinese have been buying up our breeding stock for years and now, they want our farms, as Brett Cole reports in the Business Spectator:

“For more than a year, China Investment Corporation has contemplated acquiring Van Diemen’s Land Co, which owns and operates 25 dairy farms with 30,000 dairy stock. Other Chinese companies have moved decisively amid concerns about their nation’s safety standards.”

All this while our Australian farmer co-op, currently the highest bidder for WCB, languishes in the competition tribunal as it ponders – for months – whether we are allowed to bid at all.

Do you care? If you’re a dairy farmer, hell yes, you should. No foreign company cares about your future like you do or your co-op does. Perhaps worse still, once these assets are sold, the fragmentation and inefficiency of our processing sector is locked in, forever limiting the price farmers are paid for our milk.

If you’re not a farmer but an Aussie, there’s an awful lot to be lost. These international companies and governments so keen to pay more than twice the value of WCB are not irrational. They want control of their food. Does that matter to you?

Nine tricky questions for MG, answered

Today, Murray Goulburn Co-op stepped up its offer for Warrnambool Cheese and Butter again, to a staggering $9.50 per share. In a year where most dairy farmers are still playing catch-up from a horror stretch, it’s no surprise that some of us are getting nervous about how the deal stacks up.

I wanted to put the top nine the questions I’ve heard from farmers to one of MG’s most senior people, general manager shareholder relations Robert Poole. His responses have just arrived. Let me know what you think!

1.    Where is the money for the bid coming from?

Murray Goulburn has committed financing facilities available from its existing lenders to fund the Offer.  A further $350 million of new facilities have been provided by National Australia Bank (NAB), Australia and New Zealand Banking Group (ANZ) and Westpac Banking Corporation (WBC) in order to finance the transaction and assume Warrnambool’s facilities to the extent required.  The support of the financiers in providing these facilities re-enforces Murray Goulburn’s views that the rationale and financial metrics implied by the offer are sensible.

It also confirms MG management and the Board’s view that the level of leverage in the business is appropriate for a co-operative structure particularly in its current phase of significant growth and investment.

2.    MG’s balance sheet is described by commentators as “over-stretched”. Gary Helou countered by saying cooperatives are different. In what way?

Our offer is financially prudent and has been well considered. Our gearing will increase to around 57.2% – a level that our Board is comfortable with taking into account that we are a 100% farmer controlled cooperative with a range of options. At the financial year just ended our gearing was 43%. Based on a successful transaction, our FY14 gearing is estimated to be around 57%.

Co-ops are generally well supported by banks and this is the case with MG. Our bid for WCB is fully funded by NAB, Westpac and ANZ. Co-ops are not listed and are backed by their farmer suppliers. The capacity of the co-op model to sustain debt is well established and is evidenced by offshore examples most recently and notably Fonterra prior to their raising of non-voting equity capital. Co-ops traditionally have a higher level of debt. For example, Fonterra reached gearing levels of over 60% during growth phases.

3.    How can you justify paying so much more than WCB’s stated “fair value”?

MG has carefully assessed the value of WCB, and our Offer is financially prudent and well considered. MG would NOT proceed with any bid unless the result added to the overall milk price and our analysis shows that a combination of WCB and MG will do just that.

This is an extremely complex and ever changing situation. However what is clear is that the industry needs consolidation to improve the efficiency of the supply chain and create a larger scale globally relevant Australian dairy food company, uniquely positioned to capture the unfolding long-term opportunity in international dairy markets. We believe it is vital that the co-operative has a central role to play in this – to build a strong farmer-owned business that can compete on a global scale against the other giant dairy co-operatives like Fonterra, Dairy Farmers of America, Friesland Campina and Arla – not to mention multi-national giants like Nestle and Kraft.  MG is the only partner for WCB that has the scale and co-op structure to invest, grow and maximise farmgate returns for farmers, and ultimately regional communities.  We remain committed to acquiring WCB, satisfying our conditions and delivering the benefits of the combination back to the farmgate.  This can only be good for local investment, jobs and communities.

4.    Can MG guarantee that its WCB bid will not damage the farm gate milk price? If so, how?

MG would NOT proceed with any bid unless the result added to the overall milk price and our analysis shows that a combination of WCB and MG will do just that. MG itself is entering an exciting phase of growth and has identified a series of strategic capital investments that will target a $1.00 per kilogram of milk solids lift underlying farmgate milk prices over a five year period from FY12 to F17.  MG will deliver these benefits to supplier shareholders including those WCB suppliers who join the co-operative regardless of the outcome of the WCB bids.

5.    Competition is often said to be healthy for businesses. Doesn’t a strong competitor for milk supply help to keep MG on its toes?

I would counter that it is MG that keeps competitors on their toes, as we traditionally lead the market on farmgate pricing.  As a 100% farmer controlled co-operative MG’s primary objective will always be to maximise farmgate returns for our supplier/shareholders. As opposed to competitors who have the primary objective of maximising profits to their shareholders.

MG is the only partner for WCB that has the scale and co-op structure to invest, grow and maximise farmgate returns for farmers, and ultimately regional communities.

The current structure has not served the industry well over the last decade. The Australian industry has gone backwards while Asian demand has grown significantly – Australia is now a less relevant player in the international markets than it was in 2002. This has coincided with the drought, deregulation of the dairy industry and investment by foreign players.

Increased participation by foreign players has not lead to a restructure of the processing industry – the processing structure remains extremely fragmented. While foreign players have been in Australia for some time, they have not driven growth for Australian dairy products in the international markets.

MG’s own strategic plans and the proposal for WCB will assist in leading the Australian dairy industry to recovery and growth over the longer term. Our proposal is the one that creates a larger-scale globally competitive Australian dairy company uniquely positioned to capture growth in international dairy markets. Our plans involve investing and growing the businesses to meet the opportunities.

6.    Why do you think farmers tend to be polarised in their attitudes towards MG?

I can’t comment on why. However, what I can say is that in recent years MG has been committed to improving and building relationships with dairy farmers and this has been underpinned by meaningful, in depth engagement and transparency. We believe this is yielding some very positive long term results for both the farmers and their co-operative.

We respect that people will have differing opinions however we welcome the opportunity to talk with any farmers to clarify questions, share our plans and our vision for the industry, as we did this week in Warrnambool and Mt Gambier.

We will continue to work hard to demonstrate to WCB and other dairy farmers the benefits and importance of becoming a supplier/shareholder of the co-operative. We believe we have a compelling story and look forward to talking to WCB dairy farmers about our offer and the opportunity for them to become part of the co-op.

7.    How has MG’s culture changed in the last few years?

Over the past few years MG has been on a journey to become a more efficient and effective co-operative that can return more, and contribute more to its supplier shareholders, their communities and the industry as a whole. There is no doubt this has been reflected in the culture of our business, while remaining true to the co-ops core objective of maximising total farmgate returns.  In addition, to a focus on improving and building relationships with dairy farmers, corporate governance has also been a priority, including developing Board and Committee Charters and formalising policies such as Public Disclosure, Risk Management and a Code of Conduct.  Over the past couple of years MG has also had Board renewal with a number of new supplier Directors being appointed, appointing two specialist Directors; as well as the appointment of a new executive management team, including Managing Director, Gary Helou.

8.    How differently do you expect to run the Allansford factory? Can its workers feel secure?

Foremost our bid is about investing and growing the MG/WCB business to increase scale and maximise farmgate returns. We see significant potential and this can only be good for local investment, jobs and communities. Both the MG and WCB processing facilities are already operating at or near capacity and they are making different products which makes them complementary. Down the track, we may identify operating efficiencies and if we do, these will flow through to the farmgate price and ultimately to farmers and their communities. That said we believe there will be substantial opportunities for existing employees in an enlarged group with national and global reach.

Our proposal is the one that creates a larger-scale globally competitive Australian dairy company uniquely positioned to capture growth in international dairy markets. Our plans involve investing and growing the businesses to meet the opportunities.

9.    Aside from size, how would MGW compare to Fonterra?

Fonterra has become a highly successful global dairy giant and we believe that MG now has a similar opportunity before it. The combined business will be positioned to capture the unfolding long-term opportunity in international dairy markets. A combined MG/WCB would create one of the largest Australian owned food and beverage businesses, 100% controlled by dairy farmers, making us a top 20 global dairy producer.  To put it another way when combined we’ll have forecast revenues (FY14) of $3.2b and be one of Australia’s top 5 food and beverage businesses, behind Lion and Coca-Cola Amatil, Fonterra and JBS Australia.

The combination will give us the necessary scale, market reach and efficiencies, and like Fonterra, we will have far greater relevance in export markets to be able to grow the brands and products from each business.

The combined business will have over 3000 suppliers, approximately 4 billion litres of milk processed annually, a diverse product range and market reach, forecast revenue of $3.2 billion (2014), diverse operations and a strong production base in Australia’s best producing dairy regions.

So this is an historic opportunity for Murray Goulburn and WCB suppliers and shareholders to create a larger scale, globally competitive Australian dairy food company that they own and control.  Importantly, it will retain the primary objectives of a co-operative in maximising farmgate returns for farmer owners.  It will also support on-farm and industry investment, and in turn grow the Australian dairy industry for the benefit of regional communities.

 

Dear Joe, how will you be remembered?

Dear Joe,

Why have you betrayed me so cruelly?

You came to me in September with promises of fatherly love and affection. You described me as your pillar and that, after mining’s bloom had faded, I would be your everlasting rose. You said you needed me and that, without me, you would forever be insecure.

But now that my fate lays in your hands, you act swiftly to hasten the courtship of WCB by Saputo whilst locking me in the cellar, dressed in rags. I implore you to at least allow me to attend the ball so that I may win the hand of my beloved.

Your faithful Milkmaid

Okay, I never really fell for you, Joe, but here it is:

  • Before the election, you described agriculture as one of the five pillars of the economy and said that food security was important. I’ll hold you to that.
  • For Australia to have a dairy sector, it must be able to compete with the international goliaths. That means we need a big processor with scale.
  • Australia’s dairy farmers are sticking together and want to grow so we can be more resilient. We absolutely have to because we don’t have the subsidies, FTAs, cheap labour or government support enjoyed by most of our competitors.
  • Our 100% Australian farmer-owned cooperative exists to maximise farm gate prices and consolidation rather than competition is what’s needed. We are prepared to step up to the plate and invest in our futures.
  • You gave the giant, privately-owned, foreign Saputo a huge leg-up with swift clearance, declaring Australia “open for business” with a grin on your face.
  • Don’t hide behind the ACCC or the slow-as-a-snail tribunal. Where there’s a political will, there’s a way. Your Kiwi counterparts knew that doesn’t make sense and cast their equivalent aside to allow the much-admired Fonterra to take shape.
    To pin us to such a protracted process while ushering though our foreign competitor is to drive a stake through the heart of the co-op’s bid.
    You surely understand the irony of thwarting MG’s bid based on competition policy when it is Australian farmers themselves desperate to become more competitive who are driving this bid and, in turn, are being rendered non-competitive in this fight to keep WCB Australian-owned by you, our own government!
  • You are the biggest impediment to Australian farming families taking a greater stake in our own futures by keeping WCB Australian owned.
  • If you insist on holding us back, you will be remembered as the man who sold Australia’s dairy farmers down the river. And for what? The love of Lino?

Joe, it’s time you stepped out of the way and gave us a fair go.

Divided we fall: so where to from here?

After a nose dive

Don’t worry if you fall, just get back up again.

Wayne said the other day that the farm has taught him something about resilience: live in the moment when the sun is shining and, when the hail stings your skin, think of the big picture.

But the big picture right now is confusing for this Milk Maid. The WCB war has thrust the outlook for Australian dairy into the headlines and, with it, a lot of questions.

Our co-op has offered half a billion dollars for WCB, claiming that its loss to a global player would be “a tragedy”. In its statement to the ASX, MG Co-op said:

“The combination of MG and WCB is the only option available that delivers an Australian-owned and operated company with the scale, capacity, strength and momentum to service global growth opportunities, returning profits to dairy farmers and their communities.”

In the midst of all this, the UDV hosted a farmer forum on Monday where independent dairy analyst, Dr Jon Hauser, told farmers that supporting cooperatives is a “no brainer” but has also said the golden era of dairy in Asia was “largely rhetoric” and that real progress for Australian dairy would come through cost control and increased efficiencies at the farm and the factory.

He created a stir at the forum too, simply by saying that milk prices of 48 to 50 cents per litre could not be sustained. Not popular news.

So, now that Saputo is on the cusp of announcing a new offer, prompting WCB to ask for a suspension of trade, what if Helou’s tragedy does unfold? How will the General regroup?

MG will certainly have to work harder to woo those who harbour a co-operative spirit but supply other processors. And that, I’m afraid, is something the co-op has not done well to date, in my view. Perhaps the tide is beginning to turn, reading between the lines of Helou’s interview with The Weekly Times dairy writer, Simone Smith, headlined Divided we fall:

“There is nothing stopping our farmers rallying around a well-run farmer run company that is of scale and relevance.”

“There is no law in the land against that. That’s what we are advocating. This rally around the MG foundation to create a new farmer-owned business that is really relevant to the 21st century.

“The farmers will only benefit from direct ownership and direct influence in supply chain from the farm all the way to market.”

I guess we farmers are used to falling and getting back up again.

 

UPDATE: In response to a question asked below, Dr Hauser has kindly sent me this. I don’t know how to put it – complete with charts – in the comments section, so here it is instead:

Sorry Marian, It would take me a day to properly represent my position on the Asian growth story and even more to update my analysis to the most recent trade data.

Here is a snapshot of the important data:

JH1

This is the demand growth for the developing nations. This comes from the FAO

Most of this growth has been serviced by internal development of their dairy industries.

JH2

This the export growth from the key dairy traders – Europe, US, NZ, Argentina, Australia. The average is 2 – 3 billion litres / year. Even if this has been accelerating in the past few years it is unlikely that the opportunity is more than 4 – 5 billion litres / year. I believe the average growth opportunity for the global traders is 3 – 4 billion litres but I would need to review the more recent data to check this.

YOY Production milk production growth – Million Litres
JH3

This is the year on year growth that has come from the major traders. This chart shows 15 billion litres of growth from the EU, US, NZ and Argentina from July 2010 – June 2012. The total for the period from July 2009 – June 2012 is 12 billion. In other words we saw contraction in 2009 and 2012 and that is because the milk price was low. The US and Europe turn growth on or off according to commodity and milk price (New Zealand just keeps on trucking except when it doesn’t rain).

In summary:

  • The Asia growth story is not rhetoric but the suggestion that the hole can’t or won’t be filled is.
  • The US and Europe will turn on and off milk production according to demand and price. They had no difficulty growing supply at 5 billion litres / year in 2010 / 2011 and they are already gearing up to do it again in 2014.
  • No I don’t subscribe to the analysis that has been done for the Horizon 2020 report. I believe the “Supply Gap” analysis is a flawed way of assessing Australia’s future export opportunity.

 

Milk Maid in WCB wonderland as Saputo offers $8

Well, I wonder what MG will do now? And where will it end? Judging by the email I just got from MG, the co-op’s going to sit on its hands and hope the FIRB undermines Saputo’s bid.

“Murray Goulburn (MG) notes the revised conditional offer by Saputo for Warrnambool Cheese and Butter (WCB) announced today.”

“MG notes that Saputo’s offer continues to be subject to substantial conditionality. MG believes that resolution of the future ownership of WCB will be a long process and that WCB shareholders should not act prematurely in relation to giving up control of their shareholdings.

“MG remains committed to acquiring WCB and to satisfying all conditions associated with its offer as quickly as possible. MG presently owns 17.7% of WCB.

“MG believes it to be reasonable and in the national interest that Saputo’s Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB) application to acquire WCB is not resolved until the public benefits of MG’s proposed acquisition of WCB have been given full consideration – pursuant to MG’s application for authorisation to the Australian Competition Tribunal to acquire WCB.

“MG considers its offer will bring many benefits for WCB shareholders, WCB suppliers, the Warrnambool community and the Australian dairy industry.”

But if push comes to shove, will MG go higher than $8?

I do understand the reasoning behind the co-op’s drive to acquire WCB for all the reasons outlined by Gary Helou when interviewed by the Australian Financial Review the other day (the video is very, very interesting). The WCB bid is important because it allows MG to grow quickly and achieve efficiencies similar to that of its giant Kiwi rival, Fonterra. Those efficiencies should mean better margins, which the coop would pass back to farmers.

On the other hand, it does make me feel like Alice in Wonderland just a little. When MG last launched a takeover bid for WCB in 2010, the price was $4.35 and WCB hasn’t suddenly hit the jackpot – its profits have fallen.

On the farm, we are in recovery mode from a year when the average Gippsland dairy farmer lost a lot of money. As the Dairy Industry Farm Monitor results 2012-13 showed:

“In what was a difficult year for many Gippsland farmers, average return on assets fell to -0.2% with average whole farm earnings before interest and tax down 82% to $37,609.  The average return on equity for Gippsland farms was -6.2% with average net farm income across the region reported at -$58,784. This performance impacts on the decision making ability of farmers in 2013-14.” 

The difference, says Helou, is that demand for milk is growing by 6 per cent while supply is growing at 2 per cent. If this is more than just a blip and a long-term trend, why wasn’t this foreseen three years ago? Curiouser and curiouser. Please forgive me for being a little confused.

MG makes its move

I used to think of our co-op as a bit like the ABC: your favourite aunty. Comfortable, dowdy, trustworthy and a little quirky.

But Aunty MG has undergone a transformation.

Since it acquired a new CEO, Gary Helou, in October 2011, Murray Goulburn has embarked on lancing $100 million of costs, opened up in Dubai, restructured the way farmers are paid for milk, revamped its retail trading store network, developed assistance packages for the next generation of farmers and forged the spectacular Coles fresh milk deal. At least, these are the “headline acts” that come to mind.

Now, MG is making a $420 million bid for its rival, Warrnambool Cheese & Butter, gazumping Bega Cheese and Canadian dairy giant, Saputo.

According to MG, (if the bid is successful) the new Murray Goulburn Warrnambool:

“Creates a new 100% Australian farmer-controlled dairy food company with over 3,000 supplier shareholders delivering more than 4 billion litres of milk to nine processing sites annually. The business will be positioned for strong growth in both domestic and international dairy markets with forecast revenues in financial year 2014 of $3.2 billion including export sales of $1.4 billion to over 60 countries.”

This, Gary Helou wrote in a letter to MG’s farmer shareholders yesterday, would bring the coop, “…the necessary scale, market reach and competitive strength to capture the benefits of the historic growth opportunity resulting from the consumer affluence of developing Asian economies.”

MG’s triple-jump

The bid is in, it’s the most lucrative on offer and it’s Australian, yes, but there are three serious hurdles for MG:

1. A bidding war

What will Saputo and Bega do next? WCB traded higher yesterday, closing at $7.89, a sign that markets believe MG’s $7.50 isn’t enough to win the bidding war.

2. Shareholder seduction

WCB rejected a takeover offer from MG in 2010. At the time, there was quite a bit of anti-MG sentiment. It’ll be interesting to see if the reinvention of Aunty and a bigger bucket of cash will make a difference.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported Mr Helou said yesterday that farmers supplying WCB needed to consider the future of the Australian dairy industry when deciding on the take-over bid.

“For farmers generally, they are at a fork in the road today.”

“If they sell out to a private company, that they have no control over … they will be spectators.”

“What we are putting on the table is an offer for them to take a stake in every step in the value chain.”

“It’s a fundamental, philosophical different point of view.”

3. The competition watchdog

Back in 2010, the ACCC was loathe to allow MG to acquire WCB. As reported in the SMH at the time:

THE competition regulator says its preliminary view is to oppose Murray Goulburn’s proposed acquisition of Warrnambool Cheese & Butter on the grounds it would cut competition in some markets for raw milk.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission said yesterday it was concerned the proposed deal “would substantially lessen competition for the acquisition of raw milk from farmers in the relevant markets within South Australia and Victoria”.

“The potential effects in the relevant markets include a significant reduction in farm-gate prices paid to farmers for raw milk; and reduced competition in the offer of non-price terms such as finance, field advice services and discounted hardware and grain supplies.”

The irony of the ACCC’s 2010 statement is that Murray Goulburn’s mission, as a 100% farmer-owned co-operative, is precisely to return the maximum price to farmers — something to which the listed Bega Cheese nor the privately owned Canadian giant Saputo cannot lay claim.

I hope it takes a broader perspective this time. A serious exporter battling subsidies and tariffs around the world, MG needs scale so that its processing can be as efficient as its farmers. The Australian government does not afford our dairy farmers the protections enjoyed by most of our competitors. The least it can do is allow us to grow.

UPDATE: See this article and extended AFR interview with MG CEO Gary Helou: http://www.afr.com/p/national/the_battle_for_warrnambool_kxxm78XXLgfsAJ6y7ARaVJ