OPINION: Theo Spierings’ resignation is a chance for Fonterra to recruit someone who can not only talk the business talk but better connect with the urban public.
Much has been made of Spierings and the board’s ongoing issues around Fonterra’s troubles with Beingmate and his eye-watering salary when news broke that he was stepping down some time this year.
Personally, I didn’t have too much of a problem with Spierings’ pay. When you’re in charge of a global company that employs 20,000 people, he should be well paid.
Federated Farmers deputy and Fonterra shareholder Andrew Hoggard said Spierings did not connect much with farmers.
It goes further than that because he never really connected with the public and here is the opportunity for Fonterra to change that. Spierings’ replacement has to be strong communicator.
If the co-operative finds someone who can tick that box, it would go a long way to improving the dairy industry’s image with the public. There have been a few names bandied around over the past month as potential replacements including former finance minister Bill English.
I would add to that list Theland Farm Group’s Justine Kidd and former Tatua Co-operative Dairy Company chief executive Paul McGilvary as two others that could do the job with aplomb.
This industry still suffers from image problems with the public that all of Richie McCaw’s televised milk deliveries won’t change.
It’s a pity because, by and large, Fonterra takes its corporate responsibility role seriously and does a lot of good in the community.
Spierings gets flak for his low profile, but this was one legacy he should be proud of.
All this gets lost in the fog and there are many reasons for this. Criticism about the industry’s environmental footprint and the co-op’s well-documented struggles in the China market are two that obviously spring to mind.
They will take time to fix, but one of the problems that can be easily rectified is its communications strategy.
Like it or not, the chief executive along with the chairman is the face of the company and that means fronting up to the public – as well as the fourth estate.
That is the price to pay when you’re the country’s biggest company executive and are as influential as Fonterra is when it comes to the economy.
The solution is simple: One of the first acts the new chief executive should do is add into the company’s value manifesto or mission statement that all New Zealanders – not just its suppliers – are its shareholders.
This is obviously in principle only, but this simple mindset change should become a cornerstone value.
The easiest way to achieve this is overhauling its communications strategy and dial back the at times obsessive media micro managing.
A good place to start are the shareholder meetings. Here’s a radical idea: make them open to the public and the media.
Before an angry farmer jumps in and remonstrates that “what goes on behind those closed doors is none of my business”, let me point out that, I’m sorry buddy, but the economic performance of your co-operative has a huge effect on the national economy and that makes it my business and everybody else’s.
Another wasted opportunity is their global dairy updates. They are released quarterly and provide a snapshot about how the dairying season is tracking along as well as a brief market update.
Why not get chairman John Wilson, or the new chief executive, or one of their senior executives to make themselves available during that day. They could do a five minute presentation and then open the floor to the media.
It will go a long way in turning into a company all New Zealanders would be proud of, not just the dairy industry.
By: GERALD PIDDOCK