Overseas investment in meat exporter will need approval but fundamentally it is a choice for shareholders

The future ownership of New Zealand's biggest meat processor, Silver Fern Farms, is a matter for its farmer shareholders to determine, says Finance Minister Bill English.

Silver Fern is going through a capital raising process, which media reports have suggested will involve an investor from China - the company's biggest market - spending up to $100 million on taking a stake in the company.

Any overseas investor would have to go through the Overseas Investment Act processes to get there, English said.

"But fundamentally that is a choice for the shareholders of the company. So the owners who are the farmer shareholders have had quite some time to look at the issue, various attempts to raise the capital.

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"The New Zealand farmers who are shareholders have total control over that business now, and it is in their power to keep control over it, so we can't really force them to own a business if they don't want to own it."

English said some of the company's owners believed the business was a strategic asset and one that should remain in New Zealand hands, but for that to happen the necessary capital needed to be found.

"The real test is not whether people have an opinion, it is whether they are willing to put the money up."

Separately, Labour leader Andrew Little said Silver Fern's capital structure would be a matter for Silver Fern's shareholders to decide.

"My position on foreign direct investment is that adding jobs, adding investment and creating new value for New Zealand - that's a good thing. If it doesn't achieve that, then it's something that we should be concerned about."

Silver Fern last year enlisted Goldman Sachs to advise on its options as it looked at raising $100 million to retire debt. The company, which is a "hybrid" co-operative owned by farmers and outside shareholders, has held meetings with farmers on the condition that they sign confidentiality agreements. The Dunedin-based company has declined to comment.

Pressure groups within Silver Fern and Invercargill-based Alliance Group have called for the two companies, which together account for just over half of New Zealand's meat production, to have a serious look at merging before bringing in outside shareholders.

Silver Fern has repaid about $100 million in the year to last September. The company had two years of losses - $42.3 million in 2011-12 and $36.5 million in 2012-13 - as it worked its inventory down. It turned in a small profit of $500,000 in the year to September 2014. For this financial year, it has said it is on track to deliver earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation of between $75 million and $85 million. It also wants to accelerate its value-added strategy.

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Silver Fern rebranded in 2008 and went down the value-added route, supplying Silver Fern-branded venison, beef and lamb.

The meat industry has for several years struggled with issues of overcapacity and competition for stock - made worse by a dwindling sheep population.

Chinese interests are already involved in meat processing around the country.

Last year, China's Lianhua Trading Group went to majority control of the relatively small Invercargill meat processor, Prime Range Meats.