Business leader of the year

By Liam Dann

Henry van der Heyden is fresh off the campaign trail.

Last week Fonterra held more than 100 farmers meetings around the country. Van der Heyden attended 14 in person, three each day except for Friday when the company only does two sessions.

"Nobody wants to go to a Fonterra meeting on Friday night," he says in typically pragmatic style.

Van der Heyden is not campaigning for his job, of course. Dairy farmers overwhelming confirmed his position as chairman of Fonterra at the AGM in October.

What he's selling is his vision for the future of dairying in this country. A plan that could see Fonterra listed on the stock exchange, with 20 per cent sold off to non-farmers.

If Van der Heyden is exhausted after his whirlwind tour of the middle North Island he's not letting it show.

The only obvious sign that he's been so deep in the political quagmire is the speed at which he reels off that vision.

Here's the abridged version.

There's one thing at which New Zealand is the undisputed champion of the world.

"It's food production, from pastoral agriculture. Outside of New Zealand - chicken, pork, beef, eggs - it's all grain feed. We feed our animals grass.

"It's sustainable and that's something we should leverage. We will make sure it is sustainable.

"That's the intellectual property that we will develop and keep on leveraging whether in South America, China or Eastern Europe."

While New Zealand has a limited amount of land left for new farms it has a virtually unlimited amount of talent and expertise in dairy production.

"Then you can take those skills and spread your tentacles globally."

It's a compelling vision. Although the idea that Fonterra might need to list on the stock exchange to reach its goals would have got him lynched if if he'd pitched it five years ago.

Van der Heyden is well aware that in politics, timing is everything.

"If you'd said 15 years ago when I started that we should remove the single-seller legislation I don't believe the director would have been able to get out of the country hall alive," he says. "Ever since we formed Fonterra in 2001 it doesn't get talked about any more. Farmers will listen to common sense and logic."

He says he never feels uncomfortable taking board room ideas back to farmers.

That's despite the fact that Fonterra meetings are not always civil affairs. Farmers might respect van der Heyden for what he's achieved in the past six years but that doesn't mean he gets special treatment. Stand-up stoushes between the directors and upset farmers are not uncommon.

"It's not always a pleasant place to be. Farmers expect a lot and they don't hold back."

But van der Heyden doesn't lose sleep over it.

"If you worried about all the negative phone calls you got you might start to wonder what the general farmer thinks."

Luckily van der Heyden has natural charisma and political talent that leaves most of the Beehive mob for dead.

He's a master at handling tough questions and turning the answers around to support his message.

"Hey, great question," he'll say with cheeky grin. "And I'm going to answer it this way ... "

"This way" invariably leads back to his passion for New Zealand farmers.

It's not a bad angle to take when you're standing at the front of the Tokoroa town hall.

"I think our farmers are the smartest farmers in the world," he tells the Herald. "That's in the DNA. Over 20 per cent of the milk supply in Tasmania comes from New Zealand owned farms. I could give you a myriad of farmers names that are investing in South America from Chile to Argentina to Uruguay, Brazil."

No doubt its flattering stuff for farmers to hear but it's not just political schtick.

Van der Heyden has dairy farming in the blood.

He might have his own office in a corporate tower, with its view across the Waitemata, but he has the latest issue of industry mag Straight Furrow open on his desk when the Herald visits.

And after the interview he takes the time to show off an online computer system that lets him check the daily productivity of his farm and those of his family.

"It's the first thing I do every morning," he says.

Van der Heyden's parents left their home in Holland in the 1950s looking for a better life in New Zealand.

"They saw the opportunity at the time to become dairy farmers to grow businesses and to grow a business that is worth more year on year. That's the same DNA that runs right through the evolution of the industry right back to when farmers formed the first co-operatives back in 1881."

And he is away again.

Van der Heyden has an infectious enthusiasm that could sell cars, or real estate or a political party. Luckily for New Zealand he's dedicated to selling a vision of a more prosperous nation.

"New Zealand is blinkin' important to me," he says. "I want New Zealand to be successful. Why do I want it to be successful because both Jocelyn and I ultimately want our grandchildren to live in New Zealand and I want a future for them.

"But for New Zealand to be successful it has got to integrate into the global economy and it's got to seek its place in the sun."

There is one thing making it easier for van der Heyden to sell his vision to farmers right now.

For the last 18 months Fonterra has been in clover. World dairy prices have doubled to record levels. Payouts have never been higher.

"This time last year, when the payout forecast was $4.05, I'd get a couple of faxes and a couple of telephone calls every day reading me my pedigree and telling me what's wrong with me and what's wrong with Fonterra. Compare that with now and it's like night and day."

He is the first to admit that money talks.

"When we're getting paid $4 per kg of milksolids then the cash flow is tight.

"So the mood is on the negative side of neutral.

"But when you're at $6 plus everyone is more positive.

"So the mood is driven by what farmers' cashflows are and what's happening in the back pocket. And we don't kid ourselves."

But whatever happens van der Heyden will remain committed to New Zealand, committed to dairying, committed to farming and committed to building a better New Zealand.

Fonterra chairman

* Aged 50.

* The son of Dutch immigrant dairy farmers. Married to Jocelyn - with four adult children.

* Engineering degree, with honours from Canterbury University, graduated 1980.

* Started dairying as a 50:50 sharemilker before going on to buy his own farm.

* A 1990 meeting with former industry leader Sir James Graham - who was Dairy Board chairman between 1982 and 1989 - started van der Heyden on the political path.

* Graham told van der Heyden that he and his family had got a lot out of dairying and it was time to put something back in.

* Based in Hamilton but has a dairy farm at Putaruru in south Waikato.

Visionary thinking carries the day

It's been Fonterra's year to shine. While the rest of the economy has slowed on the back of the high dollar and the US credit crunch, Fonterra has ensured the nation remains flush with cash.

Thus, the choice was about whether chief executive Andrew Ferrier or chairman Henry van der Heyden should take the title.

The corporate giant - which accounts for more than 20 per cent of the nation's income - is doing what it was set up to do: it's bringing in the cash - efficiently and with an eye on the future.

Van der Heyden gets the top award because he also leads more than 10,000 of the nation's finest entrepreneurs: the dairy farmers themselves. He's the first to admit that Fonterra is in a sweet spot as far as the global market is concerned. Fonterra is now well positioned to cash in on a global boom.

The past 10 years have also seen the biggest telecommunications boom in history, yet Telecom, unlike Fonterra, has struggled to hold its own in 2007.

Van der Heyden has stuck his neck out to promote listing on the stock exchange. But it is his ability to juggle the forces of pragmatism and short-term profit with visionary thinking for which he has earned the title, New Zealand Herald Business Leader of the Year. Liam Dann

THE STANDOUTS

Andrew Ferrier, Fonterra CEO

Andrew Ferrier is responsible for implementing strategy at New Zealand's biggest company and last year he delivered - with a little help from a commodity boom.

Revenue was up a whopping $881 million at diary giant Fonterra to $13.9 billion, and the forecast payout to farmers this season is a record $6.90 per kilogram of milk solids, up from $4.46 last season.

Ferrier has captained Fonterra since 2003 during which time the company has begun flexing its international investment muscles.

Fonterra's board is asking farmers to support a capital structure change to ensure access to resources for future global growth.

If farmers back the board then Ferrier will have what he needs to build a global powerhouse.

A future Business Leader of the Year? It's on the cards.

Jonathan Ling, Fletcher Building chief executive

Jonathan Ling is a leader with huge responsibilities, heading the second-largest listed business after Telecom.

In May, he completed the $1 billion purchase of United States laminate company Formica, taking Fletcher to the world No 1 spot in laminates production and sales.

By August, he was reporting a 28 per cent rise in net after-tax profit to $484 million.

The plain-talking and highly dependable Ralph Waters was a hard act for Ling to follow.

But this fellow Australian doesn't appear to have put a foot wrong since assuming the helm a year ago.

From the industrial heartland of Penrose's Great South Rd, Ling keeps a tight hold of his empire and if the building market here flattens, his ambition to reduce Fletcher's New Zealand earnings exposure to below 50 per cent will have proved the right strategy.

This latest man from the Lucky Country appears to be like Waters: having good fortune on his side. Long may it last.

Michael Hill, chairman of Michael Hill International

Michael Hill International is ending 2007 as the top performing share on the NZX, delivering investors a return of 56 per cent for the year to date.

After a recent 10 for 1 share split, the company closed yesterday at $1.03 compared to what would have been 66c on January 9.

New Zealand's highest profile retailer promotes himself in TV commercials as "Michael Hill golfer" and his daughter Emma is perceived as an heir apparent. Hill is a backer for the New Zealand Golf Open.

But he and family interests control the company and he is still actively guiding it. Hill has succeeded in expanding cautiously into Australia, branching into Canada and looking beyond to Britain. In his most ambitious move he is edging stores away from budget jewellery to more mid-range fare and diamonds with higher margins as well as developing an own-brand of watches. Hill also plays a good game of golf. But he hasn't revealed any serious handicaps as one of our top businesspeople.

Rick Fala, Methven chief executive

Rick Fala has overseen a strategy at the showerware and tap maker designed to combine the best of New Zealand with Asia - making use of manufacturing opportunities in China but maintaining a Kiwi base for design, testing and pilot production.

The company continued to expand internationally buying british firm Deva Tap Company for $59 million.

The funding for the deal included a $15 million institutional placement, which was almost three times oversubscribed.

Revenue grew by more than a fifth last year but the British acquisition was expected to boost it by about a further 75 per cent to almost $124 million.

The latest half-year financial result was ahead of guidance, with continued growth in the profitability of Australian shower and tapware business, although the US underperformed.

Jan White, ACC chief executive

Proving the brain drain flows both ways, Aussie expat Jan White has made a name for herself as a disciplined, pragmatic chief executive in her two years at ACC.

The former medical practitioner took over the reins of the crown entity in October 2005, after six years as chief executive of the Waikato District Health Board. As DHB boss, her determination to break even made the Waikato board one of only a few in the country to remain consistently in the black.

This year ACC introduced a new electronic claims management system and its reserve portfolio grew from $7.9 billion last year to $9.2 billion at the end of June, helping the corporation towards its goal of fully funding all outstanding claims by 2014.

White's efficient style has won praise. Business NZ chief executive Phil O'Reilly said she ran a tight ship and had built strong relationships with key stakeholders.

Rob Fyfe, Air New Zealand CEO

Rob Fyfe this year delivered a whopper profit and has positioned the airline well to weather tougher times ahead.

In March, when world stock markets were plunging, shares in Air New Zealand hit their highest level since 2001. In a testament to the work Fyfe and Ralph Norris before him have done in turning the airline around, the airline had such a healthy balance sheet that it was able to return capital to shareholders by way of a 10c special dividend.

Air New Zealand went on to make a $214 million profit - double that of the previous year - and with hedging and the fat cut from its operational budget it is well prepared to cope with ongoing high fuel prices, increased domestic competition and prospects of softening international tourism.

Fyfe, 46, has been in the top job for just over two years after joining the airline four years ago and has a reputation as a nimble, decisive operator. On the home front, Fyfe championed the restoration of much better services for higher-paying domestic business travellers and the airline's entrenched Grabaseat discounts gave it a natural defence against newcomer Pacific Blue in the leisure market.

And anyone who heads an airline which scrapped a national institution - the free cookie on domestic flights - and is still at the top of his game at the end of the year is clearly a force on the New Zealand business scene.

Mark Weldon, NZX chief executive

While it has been an inauspicious year for equity markets around the world, Mark Weldon's leadership of New Zealand Exchange has seen the company progress in diversifying and building the business.

What the resulting equity market retreats have shown is the NZX and Weldon have successfully uncoupled the company's fortunes from market gyrations.

The introduction of KiwiSaver was always going to be good news for the exchange, but while it could have sat back and watched the cash roll in to its markets, Weldon and the NZX have made some very smart moves. These include the acquisition of managed funds research firm Fundsource and a stake in managed funds services outfit Appello.

But NZX's bid to grab a slice of the ASX's business with alternative trading platform AXE ECN was delayed this year, largely due to regulatory issues.

While Weldon often has to swim against a current of criticism over a dearth of major new listings and departures from the market, that has arguably been an effect of the easy credit conditions which prevailed over the past five years. The credit crunch may well have put the brakes on the private equity activity which was a big contributor to that.

With his low-key demeanour and slightly fractured jargonese, Weldon is no showboat, but NZX's suite of smart new initiatives shows he is a thoughtful, innovative leader.

Lloyd Morrison, Infratil CEO

Last year's winner has been in thick of the business news again this year.

While Infratil's earnings growth has slowed, the stock remains one of a handful of NZX heavyweights set to end the year in the black.

And that's without a takeover premium propping it up.

Morrison has taken a high-profile role as a director of Auckland international Airport. He has been vocal in his opposition to bids by Canada Pension Plan and Dubai Aerospace, and unafraid to take a political stance on an issue which he sees as crucial to future generations of New Zealanders. He has plenty of supporters and plenty of detractors but there are few investors who don't have a view on the smartly dressed Wellingtonian.

John Bongard, F&P Appliances CEO

Foreign exchange rates have been hammering earnings at Fisher & Paykel Appliances, but the whiteware maker still managed to get a rise in its latest half-year profit.

Tough times call for tough decisions and Bongard this year announced the move of laundry and electronic manufacturing from Auckland to Thailand at the cost of about 446 jobs.

He has also warned that every facility - whether in Italy, the US, Australia or New Zealand - was under constant review.

The company's share price is down about 15 per cent on its 12-month high of $3.97 but the market has taken some comfort from the fact that Bongard is making the hard, and sometimes publicly unpopular, decisions to ensure a more profitable future.

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