Fonterra's outgoing chief executive Theo Spierings acknowledges that there have been hits and misses during his seven-year tenure in New Zealand's top corporate job, but he remains confident he will be leaving the dairy co-operative in better shape than he found it.

Chairman John Wilson this week announced that Spierings would be moving on, just after the company announced a $348 million bottom-line loss for the six months to January, mostly arising from a $183m legal settlement with Danone and a $405m writedown from its investment in Chinese infant formula company Beingmate.

In a wide-ranging interview after Fonterra's first-half result, Spierings said there had been hits and misses since he started at Fonterra in 2011.

He said he underestimated the complications arising from investing in a China-listed entity - Beingmate - and acknowledged that Fonterra had been slow to recognise the value in the alternative milk company a2 Milk - which is now New Zealand's biggest listed company.


But there had been significant wins also, among them a return to profitability for Fonterra's substantial European and US operations.

In Australia, which has long been a problem, there had been a big turnaround in profitability.

In Europe, thanks in part to partnerships with Dutch dairy company A-ware, there had been a quick turnaround.

"Europe is now a massively profitable business whereas at the time it was losing a lot of money," Spierings said.

In South America - where Fonterra has a substantial presence - the co-op's operations have been thoroughly restructured.

All up, he said the co-operative was "highly placed" compared with the competition in other parts of the world.

"Offshore, people talk about us being the envy of the dairy world," he said.

"Everybody looks at us as being a highly successful New Zealand enterprise and, in all the milk pools around the world people are really on their toes right now."


"It's been a complete turnaround in Australia - where it has been financially bleeding $100m a year - to making more than $100m a year."

Fonterra's Chinese operations have mushroomed out to an enterprise value of $5 billion.

On the misses side, Spierings said Fonterra had been slow to recognise the potential of a2 Milk.

"We co-owned the intellectual property 15 years ago so, and in my view we should have had 50 per cent of the company at that point," he said.

Another opportunity arose in 2013 to get involved with a2 Milk but management were too deeply involved in the WPC80 whey protein scare and product recall to consider it.

"I have always believed in the value of a2, so in that sense we have a partnership now that has multiple touch points," he said.

The a2 Milk deal gives Fonterra the right to make a2 butter, cheese and liquid milk in New Zealand.

"There is massive potential, but if you are asking me: should we have been involved a2 earlier, then the answer is yes," he said.