Australia is “behind the eight ball” in trying to prevent an outbreak of foot and mouth disease, following the “decimation” of government-funded animal health programs in the past 20 years.
That’s the assessment of Michael Perich, one of the country’s biggest dairy farmers, agribusiness banker David Williams, and former Victorian premier and livestock vet Denis Napthine.
The trio fear Indonesia’s outbreak of foot and mouth disease will quickly spread to Australia as thousands of tourists return from holidays in Bali.
Mr Perich – who farms 30,000 head of cattle at Leppington Pastoral in western Sydney and is chief executive of ASX-listed food and supplement company Noumi – is particularly concerned about the ability of schools with cows, pigs, alpacas and other cloven-hoof animals to detect and contain an outbreak.
Mr Perich – who says he has not seen a government-funded livestock vet on his farm in years – said unlike the varroa mite outbreak that had been contained around Newcastle, it would only take one animal infected with foot and mouth disease to shut down Australia’s multibillion-dollar meat and dairy exports.
“There are a lot of countries that are either foot and mouth disease-free or are in what’s known as a controlled state … and they only buy from foot and mouth disease-free countries,” Mr Perich said. “A lot of them would shut their trading doors (to Australia).”
Shares in Australia’s biggest cattle producer – ASX-listed AACo, which owns about 1 per cent of Australia’s land mass – have fallen more than 18 per cent in the past month to $1.84 a share.
While the company regained some ground on Monday, rising 2.2 per cent, investors are concerned about what an outbreak would do to red meat supply and prices.
Meanwhile, shares in Elders – which hiked its interim dividend this year by 40 per cent to 28c a share, thanks in part to strong livestock pricing – has fallen about 5 per cent in the past week.
Mr Perich has written to the NSW Education Department to request a ban on student contact with school-based agriculture programs that have farm animals onsite. “We work with schools allowing visits to our farms, plus we donate calves for programs focused around raising dairy calves,” he wrote. “At our farms we implemented last week a 7-day isolation program for any employee or visitor to our farm that has travelled internationally.
“With schools returning back today (Monday), a number of schools have susceptible animals – cattle, buffalo, camels, sheep, goats, deer and pigs – we wanted to ensure that schools are aware of the risk to the $80bn agriculture industry and extreme caution should be taken with any international traveller.”
Dr Napthine – who before entering politics was a government veterinarian who worked on disease eradication programs – said such state-funded animal health programs “virtually don’t exist anymore”.
“The animal health side of the Department of Agriculture has been decimated in the past 20 years. There just isn’t that network of people on the ground,” Dr Napthine said.
“We have got to be absolutely vigilant about preventing it (foot and mouth disease) getting into the country, and the second thing is we’ve got to be absolutely ready to respond immediately if it does get in. On both cases, we’re both behind the eight ball.”
Dr Napthine said the rise of hobby farmers also put the country at risk of a potential outbreak.
Mr Williams, who advises a host of Australia’s biggest agribusinesses, said more government veterinarians were needed.
“And if they are not available then manufacture a solution using vets from private practice, eg from Apiam, one of Australia’s biggest veterinary practices, which is listed on the ASX,” he said.
But he said companies also needed to take responsibility.
“Good corporate governance requires food and ag companies to rate the risks to their businesses. Biosecurity should be one, two and three on that list but rarely are.”
Agriculture Minister Murray Watt announced a $14m fund to ward off the disease, which has reached Indonesia and East Timor.
Canadian aquaculture giant Cooke has swallowed a 5.4 per cent slice of ASX-listed salmon producer Tassal, and is ready to gobble up more chunks of the Tasmanian-based company.
Cooke was revealed as the mystery buyer of a parcel of Tassal shares on Monday after a 10-day spending spree, buying at prices ranging from $3.42 to $3.85 a share and ending speculation that investment banker David Williams was returning for another bite at the company.
Mr Williams bought Tassal from receivership in 2003 before floating the company.
He has brokered some of the biggest Australian agribusiness deals, including turning around the fortunes of almond producer Select Harvests and returning Vegemite to Australian ownership after convincing Bega Cheese to buy the spread from confectionary titan Mondelez.
While Mr Williams was buying Tassal shares last week under Amore Foods – a private company he launched in 2004 – a substantial shareholder notice lodged on the ASX reveals he was purchasing on behalf of Cooke.
Cooke cast a line on Tassal in 2010 before walking home with an empty catch. It later tossed a lure at rival Huon, with Mr Williams advising them on the bid.
Cooke has turnover of some $2.7bn, salmon farms in Canada, US, Chile and Scotland, and has 10,000 employees. It is understood to be wanting to increase its geographic diversification further to help reduce the risks such as adverse weather and disease.
Tassal shares surged 3.1 per cent to $3.97 – a two-year high.
It is understood that Cooke is still active in the market, given Monday’s share jump.
JBS Australia managing director Brent Eastwood said at The Australian’s Global Food Forum this month that salmon farming was a “misunderstood business” and was an efficient way to help meet surging demand for protein.
“At the end of the day the planet we live on, the surface is 70 per cent water. But the protein we consume today is only 7 per cent fish,” Mr Eastwood said. “In many parts of the world there is overfishing of the available natural wild species of fish. But (salmon farming) is a very sustainable business. It’s very energy efficient and doesn’t use much land.”
Tassal chief executive Mark Ryan said at the company’s latest financial results in February that it was now “experiencing the benefits of scale” after completing its investment in salmon biomass growth.
“Together with the investments in and growth of our prawn business, where we achieve more attractive capital and working capital cycles, Tassal is focused on growing cashflow and optimising returns. We have delivered a stepchange in cash generation and believe Tassal is well positioned to deliver further improvements in cash flow and cash conversion going forward,” Mr Ryan said.
“We are now at scale delivering a sustainable annual salmon harvest of around 40,000 hog tonnes, and optimising sales mix through branded product development in retail leveraging Tassal’s No.1 salmon and protein brand position, strategically balancing contract unbranded sales, and capitalising on the strong recovery in global pricing and the commencement of pricing recovery in the domestic market.”
Cooke is being advised by investment banker David Williams, who bought Tassal from receivership in 2003 before floating it on the ASX.
Mr Williams has brokered some of the biggest Australian agribusiness deals, including turning around the fortunes of almond producer Select Harvests and returning Vegemite to Australian ownership after convincing Bega Cheese to buy the spread from confectionary titan Mondelez.
He has been buying Tassal shares in the past two weeks under Amore Foods – a private company he launched in 2004 – on behalf of Cooke at prices ranging from $3.42 to $3.85 a share.
Its shares surged 3.1 per cent to $3.97 – a two-year high – after Cooke’s stake in the company was revealed on Monday. Tassal is being advised by Goldman Sachs as its financial advisor and Herbert Smith Freehills as its legal advisor.
It is the middle of Melbourne’s fourth Covid lockdown and the streets of the city’s once-thriving business heart are deserted.
Offices are empty, shops and restaurants are closed and the corporate world is, en masse, working from home.
Except for David Williams.
The ebullient head of his own boutique agribusiness investment firm, Kidder Williams, can still be found in his Collins Street fourth-floor headquarters, eating takeaway from his favourite multi-starred restaurant, The Flower Drum, on the boardroom table, surrounded by a stunning collection of contemporary art and poring over paperwork as he plots his next move.
There is not enough time in Williams’ hectic life for the interruption of a global pandemic.
Not when there are deals to be done, people to talk to, projects to be planned and investments to be made. Even if the networking and schmoozing has to be via Zoom, fuelled with high-end Chinese out of plastic containers.
The much-admired, energetic and quick-thinking Williams, 67, has sat at the heart of many of Australia’s biggest transactions involving food and agribusiness companies for the past 35 years.
As a trusted corporate adviser, he has rescued leading Tasmanian salmon company Tassal from receivership, helped turn around the fortunes of almond grower Select Harvests, steered Bega Cheese from being a farmer-owned regional business to become a major national food company, convinced global giant Mondelez to sell the iconic Vegemite brand back into Australian hands, and advised governments and farmer co-operatives on how to amalgamate many of Australia’s small statutory authorities, state grain boards and floundering commodity co-operatives into bigger, viable and ultimately saleable businesses.
“I love what I do and I love this industry; I’m passionate about it,” says Williams, who is so omnipresent in his specialist sphere he is often called Mr Agribusiness.
“I absolutely believe in the food and agriculture growth story – and in the aquaculture story – and I’ve been doing this since the 1980s … I sit at this unique intersection of knowledge with capital.
“I know everybody in ag and food, I know their industries, I have the experience and I hear things; if you are a bit of a lateral thinker and have vision, you can then think about what might go with what and put the pieces together before anyone else does.”
And the deals keep coming. Just this year, Williams was central to Bega Cheese’s $560 million acquisition of the Lion Dairy group from Japan’s Kirin, doubling the size and diversification of ASX-listed Bega – which Williams has advised for more than 20 years – to become a $3 billion corporation in one leap.
In 2019 he helped grower-owned Mackay Sugar successfully sell 70 per cent of its shares to German sugar giant Nordzucker for $120 million, and Coca-Cola Amatil divest itself of Shepparton fruit cannery SPC for $40 million.
There has also been advisory work, capital raising and quiet deal wrangling in the aquaculture, timber, nut, sugar and horticultural spaces, with other clients including Select Harvests, Maggie Beer, the Costa Group, Premier Fruits Group and Incitec Pivot.
Just how the colourful, ruddy-faced Williams – a regular raconteur on the business conference circuit where he is jointly wooed and feared for his unpredictable flamboyancy and politically incorrect theatrics – became such a dominant figure in the food and agricultural sector is a fascinating story.
“I don’t have any rural background at all,” admits Williams, with his boyish grin and boundless energy. “I’ve never been a farmer and didn’t come from a farming family.
“But a lot of (food and agricultural) people have paid me a lot of money over the years to learn about their businesses – there’s not a food product I haven’t worked on – so I do know what happens at the back end pretty well.”
Williams’ own upbringing could not be further from that of the traditional Melbourne-based rural company director, who commonly grew up in a wealthy Western District wool squattocracy, boarded at Geelong Grammar, returned home to “the land”, and somehow ended up on the board of Elders, the Wool Corporation or even BHP.
Instead Williams’ father, John, was a “ten-quid Pom” post-World War II immigrant. He fled the slums of a gloomy Glasgow as a 21-year-old, after glimpsing an alluring travel poster advertising the blue seas and bikini clad girls of Australia on a sleeting Scottish day.
John Williams worked as a tram driver in Melbourne most of his life. He met Williams’ mother, Olive, a young girl from Mackay working as a conductress at the tramways social club dance. “I like to think I was conceived on a tram,” jokes their son, who was born in 1953, the oldest of six children.
The family grew up in a new cream brick veneer house on a gravel road in Melbourne’s then-outskirts of Ferntree Gully. There were kangaroos, gum trees and galahs. But no car, no holidays and not much money.
School for Williams was Ferntree Gully primary and Boronia High. A bright boy, he didn’t realise his family was hard up until he was chosen to go on a week-long camp at the beach as the poorest kid in class.
“We never felt poor; we had shoes, we ate, and we had our own house,” recalls Williams.
“Dad had a second job as a delivery driver as well as driving trams and Mother wasn’t working until she got a job at the Tupperware factory. But that was our life. I didn’t even know Melbourne Grammar existed in those days.”
Williams’ dad wanted him to quit school at 15, to become a plumber or electrician. Instead Williams chose university; first studying business at Swinburne Tech and then transferring to fledgling La Trobe University, then a hot bed for radicalism – and sex too according to Williams – in the ’70s, where he completed his finance degree, a masters degree in transport economics and got his first job as a tutor.
Few in Australia’s agricultural world know Williams was then employed as a bright up-and-coming lecturer at the University of Sydney, teaching finance and economics, running marathons and practising rugby union for Sydney Uni alongside Australian great Nick Farr Jones.
It was there his connection with agriculture began. He became fascinated by the psychology of companies, and began a PhD study about the capital efficiency of rural co-operatives.
“I looked at why the smallest of co-ops had the lowest labour costs and less bad credit than the big banks and it all came back to psychology, because people in these small country communities knew each other and would know very quickly about any bad debts,” Williams says.
“I was fascinated, in a financial metrics way, about how this sense of community and member behaviour drives efficiency and better financial outcomes, and that led me to study how you harness the strength of a rural co-op to bolster the communities around them, increase the value of farms, and give financial strength to its farmer-members.”
Williams was soon popular on the speaker circuit – even then known for his forthright and funny speeches – as Australia’s co-operatives expert. He always argued that the principles of a pure member co-op should be valued and protected, in an era when many co-ops were financing expansion by selling shares or units to outside investors.
Williams believed the inherent conflict in these arrangements was effectively lighting the fuse to blow them up. It’s an irony not lost on the merchant banker who has watched, and sometimes been part of, the privatisation of some of Australia’s largest farmer co-ops such as Murray Goulburn, Bonlac and Bega Cheese.
But in true Williams-larrikin style, it was an address to the staid World Conference of Finance in Canberra in 1983, supposedly about behavioural economics within companies and co-operatives, that changed his life.
In the midst of a sea of dry economic presentations, Williams’ provocatively titled paper “Male Sexual Arousal and Men’s Model Behaviour” caused something of a stir.
At the end of his talk, the head of Arthur Andersen Australia out of the blue offered Williams, then 29, a job heading the company’s new mergers and acquisitions national division.
Williams had thought his lecturer salary of $38,000 a year was pretty good. The offer of $75,000 a year and an exciting new job in Melbourne was a quantum leap into the corporate world that the boy from the Gully could never have imagined. A decade later he was earning $250,000 plus bonuses.
“And guess what my first job was? The merger of SPC and Ardmona, both co-operatives, in 1984,” laughs Williams. “And 35 years later, here I am demerging SPC from Coke, in between listing it and selling it. It has gone the full circle; the gift that keeps on giving.”
Since then, deals big and small have flowed Williams’ way, following him through successive jobs at ANZ McCaughan Dyson, Hambros, Societe Generale, Challenger and, for the past 15 years, in his own Kidder Williams business.
He has bought state electricity assets worth $1.7 billion for the Americans, worked hand in glove with the Victorian Kennett government in the ’90s in its privatisation of statutory authorities and state-owned assets, helped small rural outfits such as the Geraldton Fishermen’s Co-op survive and go global in its rock lobster sales, worked with multinational companies and kept his regular clients such as Bega Cheese, Select Harvests and Tassal growing and thriving.
Many of his Kidder Williams jobs are simple transactions; cashed-up investors knocking on his door wanting to buy or sell something in food or pharmaceuticals.
But the most rewarding other part of his work is envisaging what deals and strategies, however far-fetched, might be possible and good for his clients.
After conceiving the idea, and convincing his clients and their boards of its potential merits, a passionate Williams – the ultimate rainmaker – then sets out to make the deal happen, including finding the finance to fund it all.
This is when his vaunted “people skills”, bulging contact book, media friends and ferocious networking are invaluable.
“I am good with people … a lot of that comes from being a lecturer,” says Williams. “But being good with people also goes back to having a father who was tram driver, and working after school in a milk bar; you learn how to talk to anyone whether its kids wanting lollies, young mums buying tampons, old Italian ladies, drunks and broken families. And you learn how to serve because they’re your customers.
“It’s like investment banking where you have to be a bit of a chameleon and get on with everyone … The only difference is that, in the Gully, no one ever asked you what school you went to.”
Among the proudest deals he has helped engineer, Williams ranks the popular “bringing-Vegemite-home” plan in 2017. It saw Bega Cheese buy the famous Vegemite brand and other grocery products including peanut butter for $460 million from global Mondelez.
Williams dreamed up the brainwave with Bega’s executive chairman, and his closest friend of more than 20 years, Barry Irvin. “Barry still thinks it was his idea,” smiles Williams fondly, who then organised the $401 million capital raising to fund the big buy.
In the 30 food and ag deals he does every year, most are mid-market $100-$500 million, often private or family companies.
“Many of these businesses are not listed but built by the most inspiring entrepreneurial types; clients who I respect and love so much I would do the work for free,” he says.
David Williams is standing in his blue flannel shirt in the mist, trying to avoid the cold sheeting rain as he peers over the 2000 hectares of rolling farmland near Wallan, north of Melbourne, he bought four years ago.
Grazing his hills are prized black Wagyu cattle, owned by the well-known Blackmore family who lease the farm and have been tireless in revegetating the land, improving its soils, fencing off the 11km of Boyd Creek that runs through the farm and planting more than 28,000 trees.
Not that Williams aspires to turn the Wallan farm into his plush country pad or spend his retirement years drenching cattle. It’s a consequence of having acquired more wealth than he knows what to do with and his unshakeable belief in the bright future of agriculture and food.
“I’m a simple man, but I’m not really a farmer; I just like the idea of owning land especially when it’s the biggest single piece of land within a 50km radius of Melbourne,” muses Williams.
“It’s not lost on me they are subdividing (new housing estates) five kilometres from here but return on investment is not everything; I just like what Ben and David (Blackmore) are doing with their cattle and their Wagyu business.”
Besides the fees he makes from his corporate clients, Williams has also turned investor himself. It started in 2003 when Williams was advising Tassal before its receivership and no one wanted to buy the failing Tasmanian salmon farming business with its $42.5 million debt owed to ANZ.
“I knew the business so well I said I would buy it myself,” Williams says. “I couldn’t afford it but I wrote a contract (with receivers Korda Mentha) that I would pay the money subject to funding.
“So I wrote a prospectus and in three days, 60 institutions in Melbourne and Sydney I approached had pledged over $100 million; so we floated it but only offered [investors] 80 per cent of Tassal for the $42.5 million. The other 20 per cent was mine; I got it for free.”
Williams, who became Tassal’s chairman and put the new board together with Mark Ryan as its chief executive – he’s still there today – eventually sold his slice for a tidy profit. The company is now valued on the ASX at more than $800 million.
Wallan is not the only farm Williams owns. Earlier this year he pounced on 700 hectares of land for sale for $3 million on the banks of the Derwent River upstream of Hobart. He told The Mercury he had bought the Sorell Creek property – without even visiting because of Covid restrictions – because it might be a good landbank.
He has also invested in rural water in Tasmania, laughing that he is now branded a “water baron” by the media (although in true Williams-style, he has been known to turn up at farmer meetings discussing water ownership dressed in a big black hat and with pistols on his thick belt).
Reflecting on his future, Williams says he now wants to play a bigger direct role, pursuing passion projects of his own, pulling contacts together for greater collaboration, and offering free counsel to community groups.
These priorities include encouraging aboriginal groups in northern Australia through the Indigenous Land Council to seize the opportunity to develop and better value their own food brands.
“I think barramundi produced in the Tiwi Islands could be sold to Coles and Woolies, with the extra $1 a kilogram charged to customers going back to communities to build social equity and skills,” he says. “And their brands have an extra value too.” Williams would love to help join the dots.
Another passion plan is to raise $100-$200 million in funds from investors – and his own cash – to plant large scale pecan, macadamia and pistachio tree plantations in northern Australia and the Kimberley, irrigated using the latest water-saving technology from Israel.
Or going full circle and helping farmers set up small producer-led co-ops with a common vision and purpose.
“I know people who’ve got access to land, or to money or the technology and if I put them together I can help make these projects happen; investors are crying out for big scale food projects,” says an enthusiastic Williams.
“We have so many emerging industries and an undeveloped North, but there are just not enough visionaries in agriculture and food in Australia. But one thing I am really good at is selling the dream.”
CLOSE FRIENDS MEAN A LOT TO WILLIAMS.
Paul Thompson, the chief executive of Select Harvests almonds has worked closely with Williams for nine years and counts him as friend.
“He’s gregarious, a born raconteur and likes to be the centre of attention which sometimes makes people think twice about him. But behind all that is a very good operator … a lot of high-net worth individuals hold his counsel in very high regard,” Thompson says.
Probably his best-known friendship is with Barry Irvin, the Bega NSW dairy farmer and Bega Cheese boss who he met in 1995. In the past two years they have grown even closer as Irvin has battled, and survived cancer.
Irvin calls his trusted adviser and close mate an unlikely “lifesaver” as he lay in hospital and suffered intense chemotherapy treatments.
“David never let me push him away. He never rang and said, ‘So sorry to hear about your condition,” Irvin told The Australian last year. “Rather he would ring and say ‘What are you doing, you malingering bastard? I am coming to Sydney next week, do you want to have lunch or dinner?’.
“And I would say ‘OK’ because that allowed me to feel normal. It was a means of escape.”
Williams says his insistent invites to Irvin were all about psychological positivity. “My attitude was to continually force him to think he is coming back.”
Contemporary art is Williams’ other deep passion beside his work and his family (he has two adult sons). He says it’s not really an investment – he buys what he likes.
His Melbourne office where his 10 staff work is jam-packed with big colourful artworks.
“I like to pick artists early before they are known – people like Graham Sydney and Roche – and support them,” says Williams, as he excitedly highlights his collection of risqué Chinese cartoon art, aboriginal burial poles, mesmerising red-eyed New Guinea mudmen and his newest painting by Mexican artist Francesco Toledo, which he just bought for $1.3 million.
Then there’s the notorious mating cow sculpture by John Kelly at the reception desk, made famous on national TV when Williams suggested the front black-and-white cow represented Australian dairy farmers and the back cow was Woolworths. (The artwork is no longer featured on Kidder Williams’ website after staff at a major client questioned which symbolised them).
If work, family and art are Williams’ public obsessions, his generosity to artistic institutions such as the National Gallery of Victoria and the Australian Ballet is less well known. So too is his family’s quiet support for more than a dozen charities, his favourite being IMPACT which supports women and children escaping domestic violence.
FORECASTING FOOD’S FUTURE
One of the reasons David Williams is so respected within Australia’s food and agribusiness industry is that he has an uncanny knack for predicting the future; for seeing the shape of things to come before anyone else.
It has made his annual, and often contentious, predictions delivered at the close of the prestigious annual Global Food Forum an unmissable event.
Investors, chief executives, bankers and board members of some of Australia’s biggest agribusinesses and listed food companies hang on his every colourful word.
This year was no different. Although Melbourne-based Williams was absent from the Sydney 2021 GFF event in early June because of a snap Victorian Covid lockdown, his prescient observations were published in The Australian the following day and attracted their usual chorus of admirers and devotees, keen to pass on his words of wisdom to their own board of directors and executive teams.
Williams warns that the food and ag industry we knew in 2019 is gone and is never coming back.
“Try as companies might to recreate the success of years past, there is a new normal, and it has changed the industry forever. Think QR codes, think distancing, think vaccines. Many companies have not acknowledged a permanent change and are unprepared,” he says.
“Take an example of a farmer, how will he pick his produce if international travel continues to be limited; the fruit on the vine over several seasons will be well and truly spoiled by the time backpacker labourer return.
“If we could have planned (for a pandemic), we would have thought increased mechanisation, new varieties, protected cropping, new geographies, and new labour models.
“But we didn’t see the need for planning and I fear many still do not. Yet the benefits in planning, instead of just responding, have been highlighted, both in government and in the way we run our businesses.
“There needs to be a new way forged, and company boards need to understand why we are never going back and then embrace what has just happened and a new future.”
Recognised as one of the most influential figures in Australian agribusiness, David Williams is the force behind some of the industry’s most profitable deals.
He is the man who helped transform Bega Cheese into a national food heavyweight; the one who rescued Tassal salmon from receivership; and the saviour who reversed the fortunes of once-flailing almond grower Select Harvests.
How he built this enviable position – as the ultimate rainmaker who can see what the future holds for food and drink before anyone else – is a story as entertaining as the man himself.
Find out how Williams cemented his reputation as Australia’s Mr Agribusiness in AgJournal, free with The Weekly Times next week.
Another would-be buyer for Huon has emerged, Canadian aquaculture player Cooke, and it’s understood the company is yet to give up hope of buying the Australian salmon farmer, despite the $3.85 price being beyond its appetite.
Cooke, which sources suggested was in the data room for Huon and lobbed its own bid for the company, is still circling, holding on to the possibility Brazilian meat processing giant JBS’ bid for Huon could be rejected by the Foreign Investment Review Board.
Sources said investment banker David Williams’ firm Kidder Williams was acting for Cooke.
“Right now, Huon and Tasmania need a safe pair of hands. Someone who knows how to run a Salmon farm,” Williams, a previous owner of Tassal who is well-acquainted with the industry, said.
“Would JBS get a gaming licence for Crown/Star or Wrest Point Casino in Hobart, and if not, would the government trust them to be the custodian of the pristine waters of Tasmania and a chunk of the Tasmanian economy?”
Cooke employs 10,000 people and has a $C2.4 billion turnover.
The comments from Williams come as JBS played its trump card on Friday night, announcing it would pursue an off-market takeover bid for Huon at $3.85 per share, with a minimum acceptance condition of 50.1 per cent. This bid runs in parallel to its other $3.85 per share offer, which the company is running through a scheme of arrangement, but needed 75 per cent shareholder approval.
JBS has also found itself in hot water recently with US authorities, with Pilgrim’s Pride (majority owned by JBS) pleading guilty to conspiring to increase chicken prices and pass the costs on to consumers, and agreed to pay a $US107.9 million fine.
That said, the group did defend itself as a good corporate citizen last week, saying it has an “uncompromising global commitment to sustainability and animal welfare”, and we expect it will continue to do so.
South Australia’s Golden North is looking like the cream of the crop, as M&A activity in the dairy products industry sparks up again.
It is understood M&A advisory shop Kidder Williams has started testing trade and strategic buyer appetite in the privately-owned ice cream, after the company received an approach.
While sources said the soundings had only recently started, and the approach was unsolicited, Golden North’s owners are believed to be willing to part with the company at the right price.
The business, whose origins date back to 1880 and has been making ice cream since 1923 out of Laura (240 kilometres from Adelaide), has changed hands numerous times in its 141-year history.
In 1983 the original owners, the Bowker family, sold the business to Farmer’s Union, which ended up being more focused on its Pura Milk and Yoplait brands and sold Golden North to a group of four South Australian businessmen in 2001.
In 2008 it was again up for sale, but to keep the business local Golden North managers Trevor Pomery, Dimitros Kyriazis, Peter Adamo and Rocco Galluccio bought out most of the previous owners and joined existing shareholder Ken Smith and his wife Helen as co-owners.
The manufacturer is understood to be turning over around $25 million per annum, which puts Golden North alongside businesses such as Everest Ice Cream and Harry & Larry’s in the local market.
The biggest players are Peters Ice Cream – bought by Pacific Equity partners in 2012 before being sold on to current owner Froneri (the result of a joint venture between R&R Ice Cream and Nestlé) – and Streets, which is owned by Unilever. The third largest player, Bulla Dairy Foods, remains locally owned.
The food industry we knew in 2019 is gone and is never coming back.
Try as companies might to recreate the success of years past, there is a new normal and it has changed the industry forever – think QR codes, think distancing, think vaccines.
Many companies have not acknowledged a permanent change and are unprepared.
Take farmers, for example. How will they pick their produce if international travel continues to be limited? The fruit on the vine over several seasons will be well and truly spoiled by the time backpacker labourers return.
If we could have planned we would have thought increased mechanisation, new varieties, protected cropping, new geographies, and new labour models.
We didn’t see the need for planning and I fear many still do not.
There needs to be a new way forged; company boards need to understand why we are never going back, then embrace what has happened and a new future.
It sounds perverse, but many good things have come out of the pandemic and have changed food and agriculture forever, not least the impact it has had on consumer preferences, buying habits and technical competence.
Most people now see that:
JobKeeper has proved that everyone needs a living wage for a vibrant economy;
universal health care is good for the whole community if for no other reason than to protect ourselves;
we must trust science and need it to help plan ahead, such as new research on multiple and mixing jabs;
there are benefits in planning instead of just responding – in government and in running our businesses;
technology can help us – we need more automatisation, digitisation and artificial intelligence;
we need a better appreciation of the benefits of human interaction – the euphoria of being at home has worn off and we need others so we can interact and get better work outcomes;
we need to help our own and neighbouring countries even if we don’t like their politics, because we are all interdependent.These new ways of looking at the world are here to stay and Covid’s continued threat will reinforce them – the gate back to 2019 is slammed shut and it can’t be forced open.
Covid-19 has delivered the good, the bad and the ugly for food and agriculture. Companies need to recognise this and then embrace the future. Here is my road map:
Collaboration like never before has brought multiple vaccines to market in record time. This is proof for the food industry that there are advantages to collaborating with companies and researchers for efficiency, gut health, waste and food distribution.
Long-term permanent lifestyle changes need to be catered for, such as the re-emergence of breakfast leading to new cereals, and new product development for at-home dining for all meals.
The improved digital fluency of the population – not just QR codes – means a proliferation of online opportunities even with the aged. Shopping from home and new ways of engaging with customers have given a significant shot in the arm for domestic and overseas sales and opportunities.
“Buy now, pay later”, and other iterations, allow customers the flexibility they want for their monthly budget management and does not require a credit card, making online direct consumer sales easier to generate.
Privacy is out the window with tracking apps and the like, while data security has and will become a major issue.
Tech companies aren’t the only bad boys, so, too, are governments and all sorts of corporations.
While we accept this intrusion for the moment, we need to watch it doesn’t become permanent.
This is a double-edged sword for food companies keen to tap the online market and build an online presence using data analytics.
Food service, hotels, pubs and clubs are down, which means waste is now more prominent in homes, so packaging will be a major issue for food companies.
Boards need to focus on protecting the workforce with things such as air filtration, physical barriers and the reconfiguring of facilities for distancing.
Boards should consider getting staff vaccinated now and incentivising them to do so.
We will continue to see hybrid work-from-home models. This is an area that has generated the most discussion and care needs to be taken to stop “goofing off” and deteriorating performance.
Many jobs can’t be done from home, while others need interaction with colleagues on an ad hoc basis.
Supply chain challenges for out of stock and new markets have been found wanting. This is more complex than out of stock on shelves, it is a problem as FMCG companies go to food service or direct to customer.
Where to from here
Redesign factories and offices for air filtration and social distancing. Workplaces will need to be made more inviting and work from home properly analysed.
Promote and increase mechanisation and make labour more efficient, from fruit harvesting to manufacturing.
Look at collaboration opportunities with other companies, research houses and universities. Get more relaxed about sharing intellectual property.
Consider promoting online and artificial intelligence to get to new markets and customers.
Refigure the supply chain for retail/ food service or direct to customer, alone or in collaboration.
If you can put all this on the next board agenda, you will be well on the way to planning for the next wave and acknowledging the food world has changed forever.
David Williams is founder of corporate advisory firm Kidder Williams.
Friday’s vote by shareholders of Coca-Cola Amatil to accept Coca-Cola European Partners’ $9.8bn takeover will mark the end of an era, as yet another Australia-based food business is bought by a foreign company.
But in this case, as the company’s former chief executive Terry Davis points out, the deal may also help the local business by putting it together with a much larger European Coca-Cola affiliate, the London-based Coca-Cola European Partners.
Once one of the top 10 ASX listed companies, the company can trace its roots back to 1904 when it was founded as the British Tobacco company.
It expanded into the drinks business, steadily buying up local Coca-Cola bottlers, starting in 1964 when it bought Coca-Cola Bottlers (Perth). It listed on the ASX in 1972.
Over time, it expanded further into soft drinks, buying up more local Coca-Cola bottling groups and expanding as far as Europe and then into Asia and the Pacific.
In 1989 it sold what was then the WD & HO Wills tobacco business to British American Tobacco, concentrating purely on the food and drink business.
Around the same time, the Atlanta-based Coke bought its 30 per cent stake in the company.
The local group’s sometimes ambitious overseas expansion plans have had a chequered history, always sounding logical at the time, but never delivering the hoped for returns.
At one stage, in the 90s, the Australian company had Coca-Cola bottling operations in some 17 different countries, including Poland, Austria, Switzerland, Serbia and other parts of Europe.
But over time most of these were either spun off or sold, always proving much harder to make profitable and largely too much of a management challenge for an Australian-based company.
New & improved business newsletter. Get the edge with AM and PM briefings, plus breaking news alerts in your inbox.Sign up
That said, the company is now roughly the world’s fifth-largest Coca-Cola bottlers group, with a turnover of some $5bn and a portfolio of household drink brands with operations in Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Samoa.
But in recent years its local shareholders have faced constant challenges for growth. The company has sold out of its operations in South Korea and the Philippines and in more recent times, under Alison Watkins, has sold down its interests in Indonesia.
Davis’s bold plans to expand into fruit and fruit juice with the $700m bid for SPC Ardmona, aimed at expanding its footprint in healthier products, proved disastrous, with the business sold off for a fraction of the price to private investors in 2019.
Observers have always sensed there has been an institutional tension, with Atlanta-based Coke wanting a strong focus on selling its products, while the Australian company was keen to diversify into products such as alcohol, fruit, fruit juice and coffee as it looked for expansion.
Some say Atlanta has never been comfortable with the combination of soft drinks and alcohol although Davis disputes this, saying that there are other soft drink groups around the world which also sell alcoholic drinks.
He also argues that there are many similar customers for both soft drinks and alcoholic drinks.
But there are institutional limits to what management can do with any diversification plans.
And some argue that, looking ahead, “ESG” pressure may see the Coke business look at more separation from alcohol.
While moves made by the local company ad to be approved by Atlanta, the relationship where the US company held just over 30 per cent allowed it to have a strong say in its growth plans.
Concerns about sugar-based soft drinks, given the global worries about obesity, and a fiercely competitive local market, had created constant headwinds for whoever is leading the company.
Its growth in Australia has been slow, with analysts not seeing a major upside as a listed ASX company.
There is a view that Atlanta, at the least, has been a strong supporter of the bid, which will see two off its major offshore distributor arms come together.
Some believe that its desire to have more of a say in how the Australian operations were run may have been a factor behind the deal going ahead on the first place.
The CEO of Coca-Cola European Partners, Irishman Damian Gammell, is a veteran of the offshore Coca-Cola business.
He started in the Irish business in 1991, before moving to Russia, where he was CEO of operations until 2004. He then moved to Sydney and later back to Europe, running the Coke business in Germany for five years.
The company he now runs was formed from a merger of the three main Coca-Cola bottling companies in Western Europe in 2016, and was listed in London in 2019.
In short, Gammell is a veteran of the business with a long history of combining the challenges of dealing with Atlanta and representing local bottling interests.
The deal represents another major step in the consolidation of the global Coca-Cola brand.
As the Australian Shareholders Association’s Roger Ashley points out, Atlanta’s strong support for the deal means that Australian shareholders have little option but to accept the offer.
Investment banker and agribusiness specialist David Williams said the deal was part of a global trend for internationalisation of the food and drinks business.
“In some way, it makes sense for the Coke business to be under a larger umbrella,” he said.
But he worries that as businesses globalise, the keenness to invest in local food will reduce.
Global companies, as he says, look for global brands to promote and are less interested in little known local brands.
He wonders what might happen to some of CCA’s more local brands under its new ownership.
There has been speculation, which has been denied, that Pepsi has also been looking to sell off some of its local businesses.
“We are seeing everywhere a push toward internationalising of brands and jettisoning of local brands,” he said of the industry.
“The consequence is not only the sale of local brands but a withdrawal of funds for business development on a local level.”
Further restructuring will no doubt be ahead once Gammell gets to oversee the Australian business. But for CCA shareholders it is the end of an era.