Fonterra chairman John Wilson was quick to extinguish the suggestion that the co-operative's troubles in China were the reason behind chief executive Theo Spierings decision to leave New Zealand's top job, while Spierings himself said he was parting with no regrets.

Wilson said an announcement on Spierings' impending departure was to have been made in April but that the process to replace him had reached a short-list stage, so the announcement was made early to avoid information leaking out into the public domain.

Asked at a news conference if Fonterra's $405 million writedown of its 18.8 per cent holding in Beingmate - bought in 2015 for $755m - was connected to Spierings decision to move on, Wilson said: "No. We don't react to one-off things."

The Beingmate writedown, coupled with Fonterra's already-announced $183m legal settlement with French food group Danone, took Fonterra to a bottom-line loss of $348m for the six months to January 31.


Wilson said the co-operative needed to ensure that a good job was made of the transition process.

Discussions with Spierings about a succession plan began late last year, and Spierings himself said that when he took up the job, the normal tenure was seen as being five to seven years.

Under Fonterra's rules, directors need to be re-elected after three years.

Wilson and directors Ashley Waugh and Nicola Shadbolt are due to retire by rotation, but it will be up to them as to whether they stand again in the Co-operative's director elections later this year.

At the news conference, Wilson said Spierings had delivered "extraordinarily good service" to the co-operative.

"His legacy is significant but life is always about timing. That [Beingmate] is kind of interesting but it's certainly not he reason," Wilson said.

Spierings caused controversy last year when it was revealed he was the highest-paid executive when compared to publicly listed companies, pulling in $8.32m.

Fonterra chief executive Theo Spierings and chairman John Wilson at today's news conference. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Fonterra chief executive Theo Spierings and chairman John Wilson at today's news conference. Photo / Jason Oxenham

In an interview with the Herald, Spierings said he had no regrets during his time in the top job, which included the disastrous WPC80 whey protein scare, which caused the co-operative to lose key customer Danone.

Then there came problems with Beingmate, which started almost from day one.

Spierings has also weathered extreme volatility in the commodities cycle when the farmgate milk price hit a record $8.40/kg in 2013/14, only to slump to $4.40/kg in 2014/15, and then to $3.90/kg in 2015/16.

In response to the price slump, Fonterra put together a package of soft loans, which most farmers enthusiastically took up.

Spierings joined Fonterra in late 2011, bringing with him a strategy of growing milk pools around to the world to offset what he saw were looming constraints on New Zealand production, and then on adding value.

"What we have done extremely well is drive a massive amount of milk into value," he said.

Asked if he had any regrets, he said: "No, but I have learnings."

Some of his "learnings" came from complex offshore markets such as South America, where Fonterra has substantial operations.

"I had to learn to be patient," he said.

Spierings said investing in a China-listed entity such as Beingmate was far more difficult than anticipated.

He said he was also slow to acclimatise to his role at Fonterra and to fully understand the company's importance to the New Zealand economy.

In a statement, Fonterra said the board "was committed to a high-quality transition to a new CEO and when we have more information in regards to timing we will let our farmers and the wider market know.

"Until then it is business as usual with the focus on driving returns to our farmers and unit holders."

Spierings took over from Canadian Andrew Ferrier, beating internal candidates for the job.

He previously led Dutch dairy co-operative Royal Friesland Foods in its 2008 merger with Campina and has more than 30 years' experience in the dairy industry.