10 Aug 2018

Fonterra shareholders 'frustrated' and concerned

7:46 pm on 10 August 2018

The Fonterra Shareholders' Council says the dairy company's decision to not pay a dividend for the rest of the year is unacceptable.

Fonterra milk truck picking up Simon Mackle's milk.

Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

The co-operative suspended trading yesterday to adjust its forecast for what farmers will get for their milk and shareholders will earn from their shares.

The co-operative has lowered the farmgate milk price paid to farmers by five cents to $6.70 a kilo of milk solids and there's nothing more coming for shareholders this year.

That's caused shareholders to question whether those running the company are doing a good enough job.

The group representing shareholders today expressed its "absolute disappointment" at what it called an "unacceptable solution".

Fonterra Shareholders' Council chairman Duncan Coull said the feelings of farmers he had spoken to ranged from anger to genuine concern about the state of the co-op.

"Just really frustrating to be brutally honest, you know farmers get up every day and do all they can to do their bit for the co-op and supplying high quality milk and they expect the same of board and management at the other end."

Mr Coull said he would be having some "very challenging discussions" with Fonterra's board in the coming weeks.

Fonterra management is largely blaming the high cost of milk.

Chief financial officer Marc Rivers said because it was so expensive, the co-operative was earning less money from every final product it sold at shop counters.

But the Shareholders' Association said it was unfair that Fonterra had held back on paying farmers to improve the balance sheet of the business.

Farmers knew the co-op had had a tough year - losing hundreds of millions on the troubled chinese Beingmate venture - and having to pay out millions more because of its 2013 botulism scare, Mr Coull said.

But he said Fonterra had some work to do to restore the confidence of shareholders.

Economist Cameron Bagrie said the amount farmers would earn for their milk was still strong and the five cent reduction was merely the loss of a little of the cream off the top.

It was the dividend that was the real worry, he said.

Shareholders had already earned 10 cents per share and were expecting more, but Fonterra has now said that would not be happening.

Mr Bagrie said there was only so much they could blame on the price of milk.

"I think there's now going to be a few serious questions asked in regard to whether that pressure in margins is coming through costs or whether it's just a failure to execute on the strategy.

"Of course we'd like to see that dividend payment number going up over time and what we've seen over the past few years if anything the trend has been downward as opposed to upward."

He said as one of the few truly big New Zealand companies, Fonterra's fortune was not just important to farmers and shareholders, because if Fonterra does well then that filters through to the broader economy.

Fonterra said it would release the final payments and the full details of its earning on 13 September.

Before then, the Shareholders' Association said those running the co-op could look forward to some challenging questions about the direction of the co-op.

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