Posts Tagged ‘MIE’

Just what the doctor ordered, no way or only a matter of time?

August 20, 2014

There are three possible responses to the prospect of an overseas, probably Chinese, investor buying seriously into the New Zealand meat industry: bring it on, not on your life or it’s inevitable.

 

So far Chinese interests have recently bought a minority stake in Blue Sky Meats and an application to buy Prime Range Meats is with the Overseas Investment Office; ANZCO is just under 75% Japanese owned with New Zealand management and staff holding the balance. ANZCO’s ownership structure has remained like this for over 25 years bringing positive benefits to the company, its suppliers and New Zealand as a whole.

 

This year rumours have been rife of Chinese interests looking seriously at buying one of the remaining large meat companies. There aren’t too many likely candidates for sale, although Keith Cooper, CEO of the rumoured target, Silver Fern Farms, laughed when I asked him the question and said he had heard the rumours too. However he denied there was any truth in them.

 

If we apply the old adage ‘where there’s smoke, there’s fire,’ there are at least three compellingly relevant issues here: first whether the farmer shareholders would be willing to sell, second how much a buyer would be prepared to pay for the assets which are substantially funded by bank debt and third the OIO’s criteria at the time.

 

In light of Shanghai Pengxin’s $70 million deal to buy Lochinver Station, currently subject to OIO approval, and the political uproar it has created, it seems like a good time to assess the merits of selling all or part of a meat processor and exporter to overseas interests. The ownership structure of ANZCO clearly establishes a precedent, but my instincts suggest it could attract a different response today, especially if there is a change of government in September.

 

I asked Minister of Agriculture, Nathan Guy, for his comments, but his one line reply indicated unwillingness to speculate or comment on a private sale matter. However Damien O’Connor, Labour’s spokesperson, was happy to give me his thoughts on the issue. He agreed any application would almost inevitably meet the OIO’s present criteria for approving an acquisition. However he was very concerned at the potential loss of control of the whole value chain which would condemn New Zealand farmers to taking the price at the farm gate without the potential to benefit from adding value. He would support a change in the Overseas Investment Act, although it isn’t clear what form this would take.

 

O’Connor’s concern at losing the value chain was echoed by Rick Powdrell, Federated Farmers’ Meat and Fibre Chair, and MIE’s John McCarthy, but as McCarthy said, it will be up to farmers to determine the ownership stake in the industry they desire.

 

Overseas investment does not necessarily imply total ownership, as ANZCO’s shareholding shows. But the debate about foreign ownership is in danger of becoming polarised; broader, more relevant questions would be about sources of capital, whether local or overseas, the degree of ownership and the structure of any partnership. More important than any of these is the alignment of an investor’s values and objectives with those of the company.

 

The sale of productive agricultural land seems to be an especially emotive issue. The concern about overseas, specifically Chinese, ownership of farmland is driven by fear of one country becoming too dominant. The fast rise of China to be the biggest buyer of sheepmeat by volume and whole milk powder makes us nervous. However it’s worth remembering the hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest that were sold earlier this century in the central North Island without much objection.

 

Although overseas ownership of our meat industry is not a new development (remember the Vesteys), it is appropriate to reassess how we should react to the prospect of one of our meat companies being the subject of a takeover offer from a Chinese investor, most particularly what sort of criteria we would expect the OIO to impose on a prospective buyer to retain some control of the value chain.

 

In the event the target actually happens to be Silver Fern Farms, its status as a modified farmer owned cooperative and the amount of bank debt on its balance sheet are two relevant factors. If any investor tried to buy 100% of the company, it would be a complicated exercise, but more significantly it would risk alienating a large number of suppliers. They might take the money and run, no doubt many of them to the south.

 

Therefore a wise investor, Chinese or otherwise, would attempt to find an investment structure which preserves the loyalty of the existing shareholder suppliers and delivers value to all parties. An investment also needs to offer a return which has not always been easy to achieve in New Zealand’s meat industry.

 

One thing is certain. The election has already provided a platform for some political parties to play the foreign ownership card as a means of attracting votes. If there is a change, the motley collection of parties forming the next government will have the challenge of agreeing their position on foreign investment. To see how they honour their various election promises while maintaining New Zealand’s international trade commitments will be interesting to say the least.

Red Meat Sector in good heart at Conference

August 6, 2014

It’s wonderful what a bit of buoyancy in the market for beef and sheepmeat will do for morale, especially when it coincides with a solid drop in the predicted dairy payout. It isn’t just about absolute price returns, but also a reduction in the gap which has opened up this year between red meat and dairy prices. (more…)

Behaviour is the root cause of meat industry’s problems

June 29, 2014

I am not completely sure why we spend so much time and effort complaining about the meat industry or which problems we are trying to solve. However in the interests of encouraging progress and stimulating debate, I will try to define the problem: this appears to be that the meat processing and export sector is not profitable enough, whether in absolute terms or in comparison to dairy. Both may be true.

 

It is worth stating the unique challenges of the red meat sector up front. First, there is a market at both ends of the chain, procurement and sale of the products; second, New Zealand exports a higher percentage of its production than any other country which must travel further to reach its markets, not all of them equally buoyant; third, sheep and beef must be disassembled into multiple cuts of meat as well as many co-products, all of which are sold into a wide range of markets for variable returns; fourth the climate dictates when the grass will grow and livestock will be ready for slaughter; and last, but not least, the producer can choose when and where to send the livestock for slaughter except in a drought.

 

Statistics and financial reports show that only a minority of participants in the industry are making much if any consistent profit, whether farmers or processors. So the conclusion must be that everybody, except for a few good farmers or companies with a niche market, would be happier with a more profitable industry.

 

Everybody keeps blaming everybody else, but nothing seems to change, because individually the parties must attempt to survive at the expense of others. That is the fundamental reason for the state of the meat industry. It may seem obvious to outside observers that cooperation is the way to make progress, but the complex nature of the red meat industry poses a difficult dilemma. The answers are extremely hard to find; otherwise some genius would have found them already.

 

MIAG thought they had found the answer – merge the two cooperatives – and MIE, after promising not to make the same mistakes as MIAG, seem to be taking the same path. In 2008 Owen Poole, Alliance Group Chairman at the time, tried to achieve an industry grouping with 80% of processing capacity, as the minimum required to create a robust business model, but this foundered on lack of agreement between the larger processors.

 

When preparing the Red Meat Sector Strategy, Alasdair Macleod of Deloitte started out from the premise that Zespri and Fonterra were the models for the meat industry. But he soon realised that the meat industry’s characteristics and complexity made it different.

 

In the 1980s Pappas Carter proposed the concept of Tradable Slaughter Rights as the best way to bring about industry rationalisation; this was raised again last year as an option by me and with greater publicity by retiring Beef + Lamb NZ chairman Mike Petersen.

 

Three of the major processors, the cooperatives and ANZCO, with just over 60% market share took this idea to government, which rejected it, unless 80% of farmers and processors were in favour. While seductively attractive at first sight, on reflection TSRs only suit some players, because they will reduce farm gate competition, while protecting less efficient processors.

 

In any case it seems to be impossible to achieve the agreement of such a high percentage of either farmers or processors. There are still enough farmers who want to maintain their traditional livestock supply methods and stock agent relationships to make such uniform behaviour unachievable.

 

There are also quite a few highly efficient farmers out there who are profitable, based on high lambing and calving percentages, good pasture management, intelligent use of technology and constructive relationships with their processor of choice. Equally there are several privately owned, efficient and profitable processors who would be seriously disadvantaged by the introduction of tradable rights.

 

Farmer ownership is touted as the answer to the challenge of controlling the value chain, because in good times there should be bigger profits and farmer ownership would mean farmers would keep these higher profits, which is not necessarily true. It is often forgotten that meat companies, like all processing businesses, must invest in modernisation and new technology, or they will become steadily less competitive. Profits must be reinvested in maintenance, new plants, new technology and people, not just paid out to shareholders.

 

It will be interesting to see how the successful MIE backed board candidates find life on the boards of Alliance and Silver Fern Farms. The realities of the meat industry, especially cash flow, balance sheets and banking covenants, will concentrate their minds on these critical aspects at the expense of more idealistic ambitions.

 

Ownership carries risk. Therefore farmer ownership of both ends of the value chain entails double the risk of losses, when world markets collapse, unless payments to suppliers suffer correspondingly. The present exporters, both privately owned and cooperative, have the expertise to move between 85% and 90% of New Zealand produced red meat and co-products which is a far more complicated exercise than exporting 90% of dairy exports in the case of Fonterra.

 

Obviously processing over capacity contributes to loss of value in the industry, while it also affects behaviour – both forcing processors to pay more than is economically sensible for livestock and encouraging cash flow generating sale of inventory at less than optimum prices at certain times.

 

However it is wrong to blame the structure of the industry for lack of farming profitability. If there were a perfect balance between supply and demand (impossible to achieve in a seasonal industry), processors would pay a consistent price at all times, neither too much nor too little. Overall, farmers would still receive a fair, but possibly lower, average price for their livestock than under the present system.

 

It is the companies’ shareholders that lose from the present competitive environment with excess capacity and those shareholders may either be farmers or corporate owners. In the long run those companies losing the most money, which are by definition the least efficient, will have to go out of business.

 

The losers will be the shareholders and the banks, as well as the suppliers who have livestock at risk at the time of receivership. Merging the two cooperatives will involve a huge write-off of surplus assets with no guarantee of long term survival.

 

I am not trying to pretend that all is right with the present industry model with no improvements possible, but, judging by the reaction from the farmers who attended MIE meetings in the first half of 2013, I sense many of them have an unrealistic expectation of the potential improvements.

 

It also seems that farmers think it is all the fault of the processors and exporters and, if somebody waves a magic wand to merge the coops and enforce farmer ownership of the industry, it will all come right. But life isn’t like that!

 

For a start red meat does not have a premium position in global markets that guarantees all New Zealand production a top price. Those markets are there, but they are comparatively small; however meat exporters are adept at shifting all types of product into different markets at a whole range of price points. Occasionally they have too much inventory and prices drop which leads to accusations of weak selling.

 

When one combines that scenario with procurement competition, some farmers do well, but there is an impression of a dysfunctional industry. So the question is what can be done to correct it. The usual solutions proposed are rationalise capacity and move to single desk selling.

 

The first one costs money and is hard to achieve in a free market except through receivership or voluntary plant closure; the second one is naïve and will never work. Ultimately farmers must get on and do what they are best at, except they must use more logic and do it better.

 

Logic dictates that, unless farmers have very deep pockets, they cannot lead and pay for industry restructure; but what they can do is adopt farming practices which will lift them up the curve and bring in higher profits, by using the technology and information available from, among others, Farm IQ, Beef + Lamb NZ and Primary Growth Partnership investments.

 

The next piece of logic could equally be termed common sense. Work with your processor of choice to ensure that you are producing livestock to the required specification and delivery for which you receive a transparently fair price. If you aren’t happy with your relationship, either because your processor isn’t transparent, fails to accept stock when agreed, uses third parties for procurement or doesn’t convince you of their payment security, then change your processor.

 

The way farmers and processors behave in their dealings with each other will have the greatest impact on the future of the meat industry because greater trust will enable both parties to get on with what they are good at. Global market prices will fluctuate as they always have, but there remains solid demand and eventually profitability will improve.

Common sense and willingness to compromise would help meat industry

May 15, 2014

All the predictions of imminent doom for the red meat sector suggest it is a basket case with little hope of redemption. Dairy gets all the favourable headlines and this is fully deserved in the light of its performance since the early years of this century. But it ignores the meat industry’s $8 billion contribution to exports and the substantial farm profitability improvement over the same period, especially taking Beef + Lamb’s improved prediction for this season. (more…)

Challenge of creating a strong red meat sector

April 12, 2014

I am obviously not alone in trying to work out ways of creating a strong red meat sector with profits being shared equitably between the participants. But it is an elusive model which nobody has yet succeeded in identifying. It makes me wonder if it is an impossible dream, but there are a number of determined dreamers who are still intent on finding the solution.

 

Recently I have had an exchange of emails, not always amicable, with John McCarthy, chairman of MIE, who is committed to achieving consensus among farmers about a future industry structure which will get away from the price taker model.

 

He takes me to task, quite legitimately, for seeing things from the companies’ perspective which, he says, focuses on making a profit for shareholders. But this doesn’t satisfy farmers’ objectives of being sustainably profitable which is the only way a strong red meat sector will emerge. He agrees the top farmers are performing satisfactorily, but in his view these only comprise 20-25% of farmers.

 

McCarthy says what he would like to see as part of MIE’s push for reform is a credible analysis of the sector’s risks and rewards. Questions to be answered include whether we can grow the pie through a NZ Inc approach, if committed supply will give bankers certainty and allow for a more sustainable model. He would also like to know whether the companies can be transparent and share the marketplace, if there is an advantage and how to gain it.

 

These are the questions which the summit proposed by MIE would attempt to answer.

 

I agree wholeheartedly with McCarthy on the need to improve the present red meat sector model, because clearly the present model is not working equally for all participants. The traditional way it works is for meat processors to have control when livestock supply is plentiful, particularly in drought conditions, whereas farmers are in the driving seat when grass is plentiful.

 

However market demand and the exchange rate determine the final size of the pie, while the way the pie is shared depends on the flow of livestock. From one year to the next farmers make decisions about their farming enterprises and over the last decade this has seen a dramatic reduction in sheep and to a lesser extent prime beef numbers, primarily because of the improved economics of dairy farming in relation to red meat.

 

There are other factors such as farmers’ age profile and the increased influence of corporate farm ownership, but above all the cause of the change has been the relative discrepancy of earnings from dairy in comparison to sheep and beef.

 

This discrepancy is not the result of the formation of Fonterra, although the timing is coincidental. But earnings from dairy have been underpinned by a combination of growing global demand for dairy based commodity products and the growth of trade with China, especially whole milk powder and infant formula.

 

Conversely sheepmeat and prime beef are premium products being sold into high value, lower volume end uses; the red meat sector’s predominant mass market product is lean beef for the fast food trade which is provided ironically by dairy and bull beef.

 

So the key questions to be answered are how to grow the size of the pie and how it can be shared to all parties’ satisfaction.

 

I am not convinced there is much more the exporters can do to increase the value of sales apart from applying the principles of continuous improvement, because the industry has made, and continues to make, enormous gains in products and markets in spite of the strength of the exchange rate. Government and industry are working together to conduct research into new and better ways of doing things. The NZ Inc approach is also essential for the negotiation of market access and tariff agreements, but would not necessarily grow sales and profits in more generic ways.

 

In contrast the processing part of the sector has too much capacity which is capable of processing total throughput in a little over 20 weeks. This would not be possible in drought induced peaks, but nevertheless this overcapacity is a charge on the sector which reduces the amount of profit to be shared. However the location and ownership of the surplus capacity is not evenly spread across either country or companies.

 

The meat exporters have attempted several times in recent years to find a common solution to this problem without success. I don’t believe a summit would be any more effective because of the conflicting interests of the different companies’ shareholders and bankers.

 

The Rabobank Agriculture in Focus 2014 report identifies a lack of capital investment in infrastructure and productivity improvement as a serious handicap to the development of the sheepmeat sector, stating that new capital could be either local or international. Chinese investment in Blue Sky Meats may be the first such development.

 

Therefore it comes back to trying to achieve the achievable. Without wanting to incur John McCarthy’s annoyance again, I don’t believe farmers can make many gains, unless they can unite under a common banner. MIE faces a big challenge to organise a meaningful pan-industry summit with any hope of an agreed and constructive outcome.

MIE seeks funds from B+LNZ

March 5, 2014

MIE Chairman John McCarthy put out a press release on Tuesday pressing Beef + Lamb NZ to put its weight behind the remit to the AGM in March which asks “that Beef + Lamb New Zealand provide funding support to the Meat Industry Excellence Group to secure red meat sector reform.” (more…)

Strange rumblings from the deep south

February 6, 2014

The appointment of an independent director should normally be an uncontroversial exercise, but Alliance Group has run into some public relations problems, as it seeks to find a successor to its previous chairman, Owen Poole. (more…)

Meat industry looks interesting for 2014

December 20, 2013

Normal
0

false
false
false

MicrosoftInternetExplorer4

st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) }

/* Style Definitions */
table.MsoNormalTable
{mso-style-name:”Table Normal”;
mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;
mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;
mso-style-noshow:yes;
mso-style-parent:””;
mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt;
mso-para-margin:0cm;
mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;
mso-pagination:widow-orphan;
font-size:10.0pt;
font-family:”Times New Roman”;
mso-ansi-language:#0400;
mso-fareast-language:#0400;
mso-bidi-language:#0400;}

Next year will be an interesting one for the red meat sector with highlights predicted to include improved sheepmeat prices compared with last season, the probability of a procurement battle for fewer lambs and prime cattle, continuing work with research funding and the efforts of new MIE sympathetic directors on the boards of SFF and Alliance. (more…)