Our top 10 primary sector leaders

Over many decades a number of great New Zealanders have helped put the country’s primary industries on the global map. Today, the challenges are more complex and the competition greater, but the best leaders continue to be more than up to the job. As judged by Jacqueline Rowarth, Hamish Gow, and Vincent Heeringa, here are Primary’s Top 10 agribusiness leaders,

Madam Chair, Alison Patterson

Recently found to be one of the country’s most influential business directors, and otherwise considered one of the best chairpeople in the country, Alison Paterson¹s huge contribution to both business and agribusiness is beyond question.

Alison was the first woman appointed to the board of a publicly listed NZ company and, in the intervening 23 years and has added stints on numerous company boards. Amongst her agribusiness achievements have been chair of Auckland University’s National Research Centre for Growth and Development, Landcorp Farming (1991-1994, 1999-2006, including seven years as chair), Wrightson (1993-2004) and District Health Boards New Zealand (2000-2001, as chair).

She has also been on Massey University’s council for many years, and serves as the institution’s pro-chancellor.

Alison herself says her stints on the Landcorp board were among the highlights of her career. “The CEO and management, backed by the board, created a strong company which has generated significant wealth for NZ and in addition has ‘given back’ much to the farming community in terms of knowledge shared,” she says.

“My current role as chair of Farm IQ [a PGP] is similarly an exciting challenge. We’re charged with adding $320m to the value of the red meat sector by 2017 - and $1.1b by 2025.”

In awarding the Chairperson of the Year in the Deloitte/Management magazine Top 200 Awards in 2010, judges praised Alison¹s chairmanship. “She operates her boards by consensus and encourages everyone to speak freely and openly and actively challenge ideas and explore options. However, she is clear on the fine line between management responsibility and governance and once a direction is chosen she will defend that decision to the hilt with a will of steel ... and in a game of blink, she wins!”

Alison agrees she is a consensus chair’ and endeavors to build a team in which everyone has the opportunity to contribute. “It is essential though that the chair does lead – you need to be tough when necessary.”

The free-trade advocate Tim Groser

Politicians aren’t always top of the pops with the public but the country’s primary sector certainly owes a vote of thanks to Minister of Trade Tim Groser, according to our judging panel.

The 62-year-old Minister, just back from the World Export Development Forum in Jakarta and trade talks in South Korea, is hard-working and long-travelling, and has doggedly stuck to his guns about how valuable free-trade agreements are to the country in the face of both local and international opposition.

The Minister has been particularly bullish on the prospects of a Russia-New Zealand free-trade agreement recently, working hard to win over Russian farmers, who are apparently worried by the competitive advantage we have in dairy. Information sharing and training are just a few of the sweeteners that the Government hopes will pave the way to a fruitful relationship between the two countries.

Mr Groser – a trade negotiator long before he became a minister – is unbowed by the battle to see New Zealand join the Trans-Pacific Partnership along with the US, Australia, Singapore and five other countries. He sharpened his appetite for big, bold free-trade agreements with the China/NZ Free-Trade Agreement, which he feels allowed New Zealand to ride out the Global Financial Crisis; it was an agreement that was China’s first, and still only, FTA with a developed country.

As a result, exports to China have trebled in the last four years, with New Zealand now exporting to China in about six hours what we exported in the whole of 1972, when diplomatic relations between the two countries were first established. There’s more upside to come as well, says Mr Groser.

“Since we have been first movers in a number of these markets, our FTAs give us a competitive advantage by allowing our exporters, through facing lower costs, to gain market share and form enduring relationships,” he says.

“Beyond reducing tariffs, inbuilt work programmes with our FTA partners give us the ability to tackle difficult ‘behind-the-border’ barriers to trade, such as different regulatory requirements in various different markets and reducing the compliance burden faced by NZ exporters.”

Mr Groser has thrown his hat into the ring to become Director General of the World Trade Organisation when current head Pascal Lamy leaves in August next year.

The champion of land stewardship, Jim Cotman

North Waikato dairy farmer and long-time industry advocate Jim Cotman has a passionate attachment to profitable, sustainable farming, and is an advocate for having a “stewardship ethic” about the land one farms.

The ethic comes about by developing “a relationship with the land that matures over time, it could start with flirtation, move on to a bit more steamy romance and finally settle into a long-term state of satisfaction,” he says, displaying a wry sense of humour that’s been noted by more than one colleague.

As well as being a member of numerous Government taskforces and teams, Jim has walked the talk in promoting sustainability, devoting a non-productive section of his farm to planting native trees, and being a key figure in the formative years of NZ Landcare Trust and the Farm Environment Awards for many years.

He has just retired from the chairmanship of the Farm Environment Trust in October after six years at the helm, where, he says, he was “blown away” by the things farmers were doing to promote sustainability for future generations on their lands. He is happy to see such efforts rewarded in forums like the Ballance Farm Environment Awards.

With sustainable management, a farm’s landscape “no doubt will be altered by our intervention and use, but almost always is more productive,” he says. “This productivity of course can show up in many different ways. It may be that our soils have been better managed, perhaps by managing their fertility needs or perhaps by finding effective ways to stabilise and slow the inevitable erosion process.

In many cases though, it is seen in the variety of different management efforts that are made to minimise any adverse impact on the resources we must use.”

For Jim, the effort to keep a farm sustainably managed for future generations is not just political, but personal. Currently a son, Bruce, who owns an adjoining property, share-milks the home property leaving 

Jim and wife Raewyn time to manage the young-stock and dairy-support blocks.

“For sure, we can’t take the land with us when we die but, perhaps, we can leave happy, knowing that we have done our little bit to protect or add value to a key asset that belongs to all New Zealanders.”

The distinguished farmer-director, Jim van der Poel

Fonterra director Jim van der Poel is the only farmer-elected director appointed to the new Fonterra Shareholder’s Fund.

Jim’s appointment to the board amongst a group of independent, commerically “heavy-hitting” board members is just the latest in a long line of achievements for this Waikato farmer and agri-business entrepreneur.

Jim comes to his latest position after serving on the TAF due diligence committee. Trading among Farmers is due to begin in November - involve offering the public NZX-listed, dividend-carrying units in farmer-held Fonterra shares - and the complexities of the scheme are emerging, causing some consternation within the farmer-shareholder community. Jim’s appointment indicates that those most familiar with the scheme have confidence in his ability to explain the benefits to the shareholders and potential investors.

Jim has been a dairy company director since 1999 and was elected to the board of Fonterra in 2002. He is known to work well with outgoing Fonterra chair Sir Henry ven der Hayden and is popular with farmer shareholders of the co-operative; he was at one point tipped as an outside candidate to replace Sir Henry when he retired during 2012.

Jim presently serves on the cooperative’s Fair Value Share Review Committee, the Shareholder Committee, and the Milk Price Working Group. He is chairman of the Spectrum Group, the International Farming Ventures Group, director of a number private companies in which he is a shareholder and a trustee of the Asia NZ Foundation.

For Jim, the issue of Fonterra’s leadership role within New Zealand is an important one. “Most New Zealanders and the dairy industry know that we contribute a lot to the New Zealand economy; our opportunity is to been seen to be good custodians and good corporate citizens,” he says.

“Dairy farmers have a natural instinct to be good custodians of the land and we are working hard to get good industry standards formulated and applied. We are already on the right path with things like Fonterra Milk for Schools and the Clean Streams Accord but we know we need to do more and get closer to our communities. We want New Zealanders to be proud of Fonterra and we need to work together so that we can make Fonterra and New Zealand stronger.”

Jim and his family live and farm at Ohaupo in the Waikato but also have farming interests in the South Island. He has won a number of farming awards including Sharemilker of the Year, the AC Cameron Award, the Dairy Exporter Primary Performer Award and a 2002 Nuffield Scholarship to study the capital structures of co-operatives.

The agri-tech advocate, Mike Dunbier

Mike Dunbier believes that New Zealand agriculture faces a conundrum: while adopting a cautious approach to Genetically Modified (GM) pastures, the technology has been found elsewhere to improve environmental sustainability through, for example, requiring the use of much less fertliser.

Dr Dunbier, a research scientist by training, is an expert in genetics and plant breeding. He is a former director of DSIR Crop Research and founding chief executive of Crop & Food Research, an organisation he grew into a scientific powerhouse perfectly placed to see both sides of the GM debate, even if the country at large isn’t quite there yet.

And that, he says, is what being a leader in the scientific sphere is all about: “in science, leadership requires the ability to see a bit further over the horizon than others do, to convince others that what you are seeing is not a mirage, to make links that others may not see and to enable colleagues to innovate in their research to an extent they didn¹t think they were capable.”

Dr Dunbier chairs the Boards of the BioProtection Centre of Research Excellence, Pastoral Genomics Consortium – a group funded by FoRST and pastoral agricultural industry organisations in the dairy, meat and velvet industries to pursue new forage cultivars – and HorticultureNZ Vegetable Research & Innovation Board, amongst many other high-level involvements.

With his great involvement in agricultural biotech locally, Dr Dunbier is well placed to assess the country’s leadership or otherwise in this vital area of modern primary production. He points to two areas where New Zealand research has led the world; endophytes in grasses, which protect against pests while remaining harmless to grazing animals and microbial biocontrol agents, such as benevolent fungi to protect plants against harmful fungi.

New Zealand works within a “gold-standard” regulatory regime that was drafted to address the situation in the mid 1990s, even though the science and its applications have advanced dramatically since then,” he says. “Extremely promising ryegrass lines that have improved productivity, and reduced the environmental footprint, are being tested overseas because our regulatory regime makes it too difficult to test them under our conditions.

Dr Dunbier points out our competitors are making great use of gene technology, and that as with everything on the frontier of science, the debate about “possible benefits and real risks” needs to occur.

“This technology has the potential to create a step-change in the productivity and environmental sustainability of NZ agriculture; our pastoral industries in particular.”

The depth builder, Andy Macfarlane

Building the skills of young professionals entering agriculture is a key concern of South Island farm management consultant, farmer and company director Andy Macfarlane.

As well being one of eight full time consultants at MRB, Andy is a director of ANZCO,Chairman of DINZ, and a member of the Lincoln University Council, and has been president of the NZ Institute of Primary Industry Management, the organisation charged with building the skills of primary industry professionals.

As well as a hugely busy roster including numerous Canterbury water strategy meetings and hearings, Andy and his wife Tricia farm irrigated land near Ashburton - mainly dairy but also arable, sheep, deer, and beef.

As a result of his long involvement in almost all industry-related issues, Andy is someone who is credited with providing sage advice and sound reasoning, as well as having an inspiring overview of how New Zealand can make a bigger splash in offshore markets.

Bringing through the leaders that can lead the sector – and the country – to a better future is critical to that goal.

Andy feels that the country has ‘upped its game’ considerably in terms of nurturing leaders in the sector, pointing to programmes such as those run by NZPIM, the Kelloggs Leadership course, the revitalised Nuffield Scholar programme, and the AgriWomen’s Development Trust as increasing overall opportunity.

These opportunities are starting to counter a hole that was created in the 1990s when a generation of those in the primary industries were discouraged by the sector outlook and saw fewer opportunities.

Now, with revitalized organisations and a different outlook, Andy says the situation is very different.

“Leadership is about skills times experience times confidence. If we do not create opportunities to gain those things, agriculture’s voice will be under-represented in national discussions.”

The red meat man, Bill Falconer

Bill Falconer’s long career in corporate governance has seen him latterly put his name to the strategy that aims to drive the red meat sector to “enduring profitability” – but heading up the Meat Industry Association board is just the last in a long line of leadership achievements.

He currently chairs the investment advisory panel of the Primary Growth Partnership, a government-industry initiative that will invest in significant programmes of research and innovation to boost the economic growth and sustainability of New Zealand’s primary, forestry and food sectors. The initiative has a budget of $70 million this year.

Bill is also a Fellow of The University of Auckland, mainly as a result of his work as the founding chair of the university’s Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery. Vice-Chancellor Professor Stuart McCutcheon paid tribute to Bill’s efforts by saying that “at the time of [Bill]’s appointment to what was then the Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery, there was little guidance as to how such Centres of Research Excellence – a new Government initiative – should be managed. The situation required wise and thoughtful guidance to allow the Centre to develop in a way that gave the investigators room to pursue goals of scientific excellence, while at the same time maintaining a strategic eye on changing Government priorities and societal expectations.”

Mr Falconer’s back catalogue of achievements has also included chairing Maui Development Ltd, the Natural Gas Corporation, Southern Petroleum, St Lukes Group, the Accident Compensation Corporation, The Environmental Risk Management Authority, Hellaby Holdings and Restaurant Brands.

The kiwifruit captain, John Loughlin

New Zealand’s kiwifruit sector has had many challenging years; the 2011/12 year, where much of the industry battled to contain the PSA-V crisis, being just one of those.

But the board of national kiwifruit exporter Zespri, under the experienced guidance of chairman John Loughlin, was able to triumph after all, selling a bumper crop in challenging offshore markets and providing record returns to the company’s embattled growers.

John has been credited with playing a pivotal role in Zespri’s ongoing success since joining the board in 2002. His appointment to chair of the board in 2008 was considered a bold move at the time; while having a plethora of business experience, he was initially considered an industry ‘outsider’ – but it was a time of consolidation, particularly in the post-harvest sector, and more complex, over-arching skills were called for.

John has garnered years of experience in the primary sector through a number of appointments. He served as Chief Executive and Chief Financial Officer of meat marketer and processor Richmond Ltd, and prior to this was an institutional fund manager. Alongside Zespri, John also chairs Firstlight Foods and Tru-Test Corporation and holds several other directorships.

His stewardship of the PSA-V crisis in particular has earned Zespri kudos. Kiwifruit was already en route to international buyers when the virus was discovered, and the company took the approach of full and frank communication with buyers, stressing the outbreak destroyed vines, not fruit. The whole industry was urged to get involved in aggressively eradicating the problem, with the wholesale removal of affected vines on some orchards.

As well as contributing to the success of many New Zealand businesses over the course of his career, John and his wife have spent the last 16 years developing a vineyard and the award-winning Askerne winery business in Hawke’s Bay.

The fearless civil servant, Dr Jan Wright

Dr Jan Wright can sometimes find herself walking a fine line between opposing forces – the pro-business, who would like to see New Zealand exploit more of its natural resources, and the pro-naturalist, who would like to see the environment protected at any cost.

Inevitably, Jan comes down on the side of science. She concluded 1080 was fine, that fracking should be investigated further (with a report out soon), and that the Government’s changes to its ETS obligations were a “farce”. No wonder she was called the “fearless civil servant” by the Herald.

Despite her candour, she was sworn in as Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment for a second five-year term in 2012.

Jan has a multidisciplinary background with a Physics degree from Canterbury, a Masters in Energy and Resources from Berkeley in California, and a PhD in Public Policy from Harvard. Prior to her current role, Jan worked as an independent policy and economic consultant for government agencies and as a member of various Crown Entity Boards.

She says while some issues, such as 1080, see agriculture and the environment in accord, others can not be agreed upon so harmoniously. “For example, water quality is a matter where environment and agriculture do come into conflict. Fortunately we have the Land and Water Forum hard at work on this issue and I’m looking forward to reading their next report - and I’ll be releasing another report on water quality in the first half of next year.”

So, can the country exploit its natural resources for economic gain while remaining ‘clean and green’ – the eternal question?

“I’m not one for crystal ball-gazing but I do know that our clean green image is our vital point of difference in the international marketplace,” she says. “We need to shift to a low-carbon economy to maintain our credibility and ensure we maintain our wealth in a future carbon-constrained world. That’s why I’m so concerned about the potential development of Southland lignite and about the weakening of our Emissions Trading Scheme. We should not be investing in supporting old, dirty, technologies.”

The conciliator, Bruce Wills

If Federated Farmers previously had, let’s say, a less that conciliatory attitude to city-slickers and their perceptions of the rural community, the same can not be said for the organisation under the leadership of Bruce Wills.

The 28th president of the Feds, who began the job mid-2011 after being chair of the Fed Farmers Meat & Fibre division, was tipped to take the organisation in a new direction and has done precisely that. 

Bruce grew up on a farm and graduated from Lincoln University in 1982 with a Bachelor of Commerce majoring in Agriculture, but after a banking career, returned to his family sheep and beef farm around 10 years ago. His farm Trellinoe, run with his brother, features an internationally-recognised woodland garden and Bruce has been heavily involved with the NZ Poplar and Willow Research Trust. Trellinoe won the rural category at the 2007 Hawke’s Bay Environmental Awards.

While some criticised Bruce’s quick rise up the Fed Farmers ranks - he had been at the Meat & Fibre division for just three years before becoming president - he has certainly proven doubters wrong, never missing an opportunity in meetings around the country and speaking to media to champion the rural point of view and advocate for more understanding. Getting New Zealanders to understand how essential agriculture is to the national economy is another challenge Bruce has taken up with gusto.

A keen conservationist, Bruce believes some farmers need to up their game in that area but that most do right by the environment. He is keen to see more trees on farms and is behind efforts to reward best practice in this and any other areas. Always available for comment, and friendly to boot – regardless of who is asking the question – Bruce is a man who has changed perceptions for the better.