Jonathan Milne is a former reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

Supermarket boss: 'I don't deserve attacks'

Woolworths boss rejects 'outrageous' slurs on his reputation, and complains of Aussie-bashing

Ralph Waters.
Ralph Waters.

Kiwis have jumped on an "anti-Australian bandwagon", according to the chairman of the huge Sydney-based supermarket chain at the centre of bullying allegations.

Woolworths chairman Ralph Waters, who employs 200,000 people in Australia, New Zealand and around the world, spoke exclusively to the Herald on Sunday yesterday. He was furious at allegations his company had boycotted New Zealand products, and that its Kiwi subsidiary Countdown had demanded retrospective payments from suppliers under threat of being taken off the shelves. "I am concerned about the unnecessary and unworthy impact of this on Countdown and our 3000 New Zealand employees, and I am very disturbed about how quickly it slips into anti-Australian rhetoric. It comes too often in New Zealand ... it is unhealthy.

"Three to four months after my wife arrived in New Zealand, she said she couldn't watch the news at night because it was just so full of belting up Australia. And it comes in waves."

He rejected Labour MP Shane Jones' claim, made under parliamentary privilege, that he had rung suppliers telling them to not co-operate with a pending Commerce Commission inquiry or Woolworths would drop their products from Australian shelves.

"I don't deserve to be personally crucified," he said. "This is the most outrageous thing to say. Does somebody think I got to be where I am and do something as stupid as that? I mean, seriously, what a statement to make about somebody with my bloody reputation and history. I'm absolutely irate - he's basically accusing me of flagrantly breaking the law.

Waters said he would not be suing Jones or the Food and Grocery Council boss Katherine Rich - "I'm not in the business of suing anyone" - but he was annoyed at
the "personal mud'' thrown at him.

"This is bigger than Ben Hur, for something that never even happened. All of my advice from Woolworths is just to bloody say nothing and let it go past. But I can't do that any more, since he's personalised it."

"It begs two questions: as to whether it was just dreamed up, or if he relied on somebody telling him, he ought to questions the value of that source."

He said Woolworths Australia had bought $310.5 million worth of New Zealand products in the past 12 months, and was in negotiations with a local company for a big new supply contract.

"So that's a black ban on New Zealand suppliers? We are a $300m customer to New Zealand and are being treated like this."

A senior manager at a multinational, who deals with Progressives, told the Herald on Sunday there had been warnings in November that trading terms were going to be reviewed. "We were warned they were asking for this out of Australia, and someone was brought in from Australia with the skillset to do it. Suddenly you get invited into a windowless room at Favona Rd and you get ambushed.

"The industry has seen this rapid cultural change in the past 12 weeks, and everyone is really uncomfortable. People are nervous. People are nervous about getting that phone call inviting them to that windowless room."

Waters would not comment on the allegations of retrospective payment demands, under investigation by the Commerce Commission, but he did say Kiwi shoppers were better off for of Countdown's "robust" negotiations with suppliers.

"New Zealand consumers, and the economy generally, would not have benefited from the deflation in grocery prices over the last several years without us having very robust buying conversations with our suppliers - and especially when the prices for many of these products that New Zealand consumers are paying is more than people elsewhere round the world pay for the same products. You can put that on the record."

Progressives boss Dave Chambers has denied the company denied retrospective cash payments from suppliers.

Jones said yesterday that Waters was entitled to his view of New Zealand and New Zealanders.

"The average Kiwi just wants a decent shot," he said. "Ralph is a tough critter and knows Kiwis will always defend their corner."

- Herald on Sunday

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