GrainCorp's Spurway takes the helm to chart new growth agenda

GrainCorp's Spurway takes the helm with new growth agenda as seasonal hopes rise

Agribusiness
Fresh from New Zealand's dairy giant Fonterra, new GrainCorp managing director Robert Spurway home alone at his new Sydney office.

Fresh from New Zealand's dairy giant Fonterra, new GrainCorp managing director Robert Spurway home alone at his new Sydney office.

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Locked down in GrainCorp's empty head office, Robert Spurway has started assessing the agribusiness' rain-revived opportunities and strategic growth initiatives

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After spinning off its highly successful global malt business to focus on grain handling, marketing and oilseed processing, slimmed down GrainCorp is weighing up how to beef itself up again.

The prospect of a far better winter cropping season in eastern Australia and revived global grain markets have stimulated extra confidence in the agribusiness' prospects as new managing director Robert Spurway runs a ruler over potential offshore and local growth options.

"I'll be working with the board in the next quarter to define what our strategic growth initiatives look like," said the former Fonterra boss who landed in his new job fresh from New Zealand just as the coronavirus lockdown took hold.

"It's too early to be drawn on the specifics of what our growth strategy will look like, but we are assessing all bits of the business.

"In general, our growth will be in areas we're already involved in, or adjacent supply chain areas.

"An international focus will still be very important to GrainCorp."

He would not, however, speculate on future GrainCorp relationships with big West Australian rival CBH, or comment on ongoing speculation about potential for the two grain giants to eventually merge.

Locked down

Mr Spurway's return to Australia (he was born in Sydney and previously spent 12 years working in NSW, South Australia and Queensland) has become a slightly surreal experience.

GrainCorp's Sydney head office has been eerily devoid of staff for at least a month, while any opportunity to get acquainted first hand with the company's grain receival and export sites or its grainbelt employees and customers was scuttled by the COVID-19 emergency's travel bans imposed just after he arrived.

His wife and two of their three (Australian-born) daughters remain stranded on the other side of the Tasman.

The isolation has been frustrating, but Mr Spurway said it had enabled him to "roll up his sleeves" and dedicate plenty of time to focusing on GrainCorp's reset business agenda following the March 24 demerger and listing of its United Malt Group subsidiary on the Australian Securities Exchange.

We've had good customer demand and a good level of outloads since the COVID restrictions have come into place. - Robert Spurway, GrainCorp

"I'm doing a lot of video conference meetings and even virtual tours of some of our facilities," he said.

"It's been different, but still a nice way to meet people, including farmer representatives from GrainGrowers, NFF and Victorian Farmers Federation.

"And I am still delighted to be working at GrainCorp regardless of the current awkward situation," he said.

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Conveniently, like many food companies, GrainCorp's drought-battered business has enjoyed a surge of activity since the worldwide pandemic triggered panic in the global grain trade and on domestic food markets.

"One of the great things about being in the food industry is people have to eat, and we've been proven to have an extraordinarily resilient team doing a great job keeping the supply chains open," he said.

"I'm impressed by the way our people have adapted and worked in this difficult environment, keeping up with demand, keeping their social distancing and keeping safe.

"We've had good customer demand and a good level of outloads since the COVID restrictions have come into place."

GrainCorp will release half-year profit results on Thursday where more detail on its grain, oilseed and spreads markets should be revealed.

The 104-year-old company's new boss - the fifth chief executive since former farmer-owned GrainCorp listed publicly in 1998 - began his career as a chemical engineer in NZ's dairy processing sector.

In 1999 he joined the baking and milling business of Goodman Fielder in Australia, which coincidentally sold its significant flour milling assets to a GrainCorp-Cargill partnership three years later, to be known as Allied Mills, Australia's largest supplier of flour and bakery pre-mixes.

Mr Spurway also spent four years in the fresh retail salad and ready-made meal sector before returning to NZ to join Fonterra, eventually becoming chief operating officer.

Resilient agriculture

"I've learnt just how entwined the Australian and NZ food and agribusiness sectors are," he said.

"It's a big village, and it's resilient."

"We also feel very privileged to be rated as an essential service and able to operate at a time when many other businesses and workers are in very difficult circumstances."

Although more accustomed to NZ agriculture's generously rainy weather patterns, Mr Spurway was confident Australia's recently improved rainfall trends would substantially reward the company and farmer resilience after a run of savage seasons in many eastern grainbelt regions.

A big turnaround in yields and income offered the chance to demonstrate the full benefits of GrainCorp's five-year, $200 million-plus investment in infrastructure "regeneration" and other supply chain efficiency gains.

One of our main reasons for our existence is to provide growers with efficient grain management options for their businesses, which means we must continuously improve the efficiency of our network, - Robert Spurway

Silo site spending and upgrades initially focused on southern NSW and Victoria, but more recently included southern Queensland and the nearly completed Yamala depot in Central Queensland.

"There's no doubt grain receival assets are extremely valuable to GrainCorp and growers, and all the work done in recent years provides a real degree of confidence within the company, and the chance to demonstrate the benefits of the past few years' initiatives and investment," he said.

Customers first

"One of the main reasons for our existence is to provide growers with efficient grain management options for their businesses, which means we must continuously improve the efficiency of our network, including the services we offer in good years.

"We have to make sure we are absolutely providing growers with a valuable offering and a compelling reason to work with GrainCorp.

"The prices we offer customers, the ease of doing business, transparency and the competitive and efficient nature of our network must all be an ongoing focus."

However, he acknowledged recent drought years "won't be the last", so pressure was still on to adjust GrainCorp operations and brace for more tough times, which meant it was hard to foresee or guarantee how the silo network would look in the longer term.

Fortunately, GrainCorp had built itself a significant cash flow safety net for tough years, via a 10-year crop protection deal with global insurer Aon, which pays out up to $80m if the total NSW, Queensland and Victorian winter crop yield slips below 15.3m tonnes.

New rail freight contracts had also substantially reduced fixed costs and improved grain logistics flexibility, while integrating the company's oilseed processing and grain handling and marketing businesses had created a more efficient business platform.

The oils business, based in Melbourne, with crushing sites in northern Victoria and WA, had first class assets which received significant investment in recent years and now had every opportunity to demonstrate strong earnings capacity, especially in good seasons.

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The story GrainCorp's Spurway takes the helm to chart new growth agenda first appeared on Farm Online.

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