Fran O'Sullivan

A columnist for the NZ Herald

ASB sees the future with a Latin beat

Prime Minister John Key and Minister for Primary Industries Nathan Guy meet the locals in Chile.
Prime Minister John Key and Minister for Primary Industries Nathan Guy meet the locals in Chile.

ASB is more generally known for its technological prowess and customer service but now it is pushing into the agribusiness space, taking rural corporate customers to China and focusing them on burgeoning opportunities in Latin America.

Steve Jurkovich, executive general manager of ASB's commercial and rural division, says it has been a deliberate strategy which - judging by an expected 1 per cent gain in rural market share in the year to June 30 - is paying dividends. "That takes us to very close to our all-time high."

He credits the major reason for the shift as the bank's marketing strategy around its environmental compliance loan, particularly with the dairy sector. "It's been popular and enabled us to be part of the conversation."

"It's a really nice, virtuous cycle. Money gets spent on farms to assist the farmers to deal with a problem. Local developers put in ponds. It all contributes to local growth and also improves customer satisfaction."

Jurkovich concedes that when people think about ASB they normally think about technology and customer service; areas where the bank has traditionally been strong. "That's the challenge for us: to make sure that customer leading reputation is more well known in the market and for us, the best opportunity we have seen is in the rural corporate customer base."

He explains that five years ago the bank decided it would specialise in having bankers solely focused on rural corporate customers. "They sort of have their own unique needs compared to the general rural base. They have generally made a decision to have pretty robust governance. So, often, external third parties at the very least; regular structured meetings and a strategic plan they are operating to.

"They've made a commitment to their financial information and they are much more forward-looking in terms of their forecasts, business cases and I think overall the whole industry has moved away from a piece of paper on the kitchen table to a lot more sophistication. This makes sense given the on-farm technology and the on-farm science is very significant ... when I think about rural versus commercial the financial sophistication is catching up really fast."

Jurkovich says it is very like the corporate space, with a similar focus on vision, culture and achieving goals. "It's very common to go to a larger-style farmer and see a vision statement and to be able to talk to the on-farm team and for them to be able to articulate in their own words what they are trying to achieve and what their goals are.

"It's probably not a fair comparison but when I think about my parents farming a long time ago, a lot has changed around that."

Though balancing productivity and sustainability is a priority for rural corporate customers, there are also significant issues about getting talent. "We've just been going through graduate recruitment with Massey and Lincoln; considering our place in the world for agricultural leadership, I think we are significantly under-weighted in attracting graduates to that."

Jurkovich maintains the NZ agribusiness industry has not done a great job talking up job opportunities.

"There's a huge bow-wave of owners in that 60-65 age group... the thing that makes it a little bit different to the commercial world is the willingness of the farmers to stay engaged to a longer age. It's not uncommon to see 70-year-old farmers."

Larger-scale farms usually have professional infrastructure in place such as farm managers. But Jurkovich questions whether enough interest is being generated to get sufficient contract milkers and share-milkers who will later be able to transfer into ownership. "That is a quite a significant issue for the industry. but the cost of getting in is pretty high and even with reasonably low interest rates, owning your own farm is pretty significant."

In this environment it is not surprising that the bank is focusing on the opportunities for rural corporate customers to set up new farming operations offshore - particularly in Latin America. The metrics - especially for dairying - are compelling.

Compared to New Zealand, growth rates for those Latin American countries where the dairy industry is also on a roll, are surging. Chile and Brazil are rocketing along on 6 per cent and 8 per cent growth rates respectively. Their population growth rates are similar to New Zealand at 1 per cent. Chile has 17 million people, Brazil - 200 million. In both countries the middle-class numbers are growing and with that, a taste for dairy and proteins.

When ASB held its rural corporate conference in Queenstown in May, it looked at a comparison on investment returns for dairying in Chile, New Zealand and Brazil.

"The returns if everything goes well were really significant," says Jurkovich. "But we also did a good job highlighting the risks and the isolation. It can be a five-hour drive to get somewhere."

He said the transformation in dairying productivity in those markets after NZ practices have been introduced has been astounding.

"It comes down to the heart of New Zealand's competitive advantage which is such a strength in that pastoral farming expertise."

Those who are participating in the markets tend to be sensitive about giving away "knowhow" as they have done the hard yards.

Brazil is already the world's fourth largest milk-producing country (32 billion tonnes annually); New Zealand is in eighth place (18 billion tonnes). Chile with 3000 tonnes doesn't make the top 10. But Fonterra owns the biggest dairy brand in Chile - Soprole.

Both Chile and Brazil are seen as having developed robust economies and can now boast political stability.

There are challenges around the depth of quality dairy genetics and disease. Training staff in the "Kiwi way" can sometimes be a trial, and infrastructure in rural areas can be underdone.

But it is a growth industry and the entry price and returns for those that get it right can be rewarding.

- NZ Herald

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