When Fonterra pulled two rabbits out of its hat during its darkest days late last year, the one that drew the most applause from a jaded NZ Inc. was the appointment of Fraser Whineray to its top management.
The other - a simplified, back-to-basics business strategy - took a little of the sting out of the $605 million loss declared for the 2019 full year, on asset writedowns of more than $800m. But news that the respected chief executive of Mercury Energy was to join New Zealand's embattled biggest company was something tangible to grasp when the rest could prove to be just another magic light show.
Whineray himself is jumping out of his skin to start next month in the newly created role of chief operating officer at the world's 4th largest dairy company.
He shares no such uncharitable thoughts about Fonterra's reform aspirations - probably because, suggests Joan Withers, Mercury's chair until last year, the "highly intelligent" Whineray has done his usual thorough due diligence on a move which will circle him back to his career roots.
While the new job is "a big step up for me" - at Fonterra Whineray will lead more than 10,000 staff; at Mercury he had just under 1000 - the dairy industry is an old friend.
Whineray's first job was as a graduate of the then-NZ Dairy Board's technical training programme and he has worked at some of the country's biggest manufacturing sites and in southeast Asia. Along the way, he has run Puhoi Cheese for Graeme Hart's Rank subsidiary NZ Dairy Foods.
"I was pleasantly surprised at the open reception to me coming back into the dairy sector," he says. "That first announcement went well, which was good because you don't get a second chance to make a first impression. I got the impression from media and social media feeds that some people were pleased to see someone who understood a bucket of milk."
He acknowledges that his decision to leave the listed Mercury for Fonterra was "a bit of a surprise" to some people.
"I acknowledge the present chair Prue Flacks because I resigned about two weeks into her [time in the job]. That wasn't the funnest of times for me to communicate that, but Prue has been fantastically supportive.
"The more natural timing would have been when [Mercury's] New Zealand's largest windfarm was complete, probably about another year away. But I'm close to six years as chief executive and close to 12 years with the company so it's been a pretty solid innings."
The windfarm at Turitea near Palmerston North is New Zealand's first major generation development since 2014.
Flacks, noting Mercury's many achievements during Whineray's time in charge,
says he "simplified" the company.
Whineray likes to keep things simple, and says he was attracted by that philosophy in Fonterra's new business strategy.
"Miles [Hurrell, chief executive] is making some great changes there - simplifying and really focused on the basics. I've spent a bit of time at Mercury over 11 years simplifying and getting the basics going well here too.
"That is a strategy I can get in behind and believe in. These jobs are too intense to wonder why you're getting up in the morning and getting home late at night. You have to believe in it."
Withers says Whineray "would not be turned by the size of a pay packet or the flattery of a title".
"I think he's incredibly well-suited to the Fonterra challenge and Fonterra is incredibly important to New Zealand.
"He is a superb leader. He has all the attributes I regard as critically important. He has honesty, he has integrity and he's highly intelligent. He has an 'always learning' attitude and he's never arrogant. He's a brilliant communicator.
"He can galvanise troops and people do look up to him as a leader. He had great loyalty at Mercury and I'm sure he'll get the same loyalty at Fonterra as well. He cares passionately about the people who work for him and he's incredibly customer-centric."
So, just what will his job be at the $20b revenue dairy co-operative, which has disappointed so far when it comes to being New Zealand's export champion, as touted when it was created in 2001?
"That's a tough question," laughs Whineray, who was last year's Deloitte/Service Now CEO of the Year.
"I'd probably describe it like this: in the leadership team there are three in-market chief executives [for] China, Asia Pacific New Zealand, and the rest of the world.
"In New Zealand we have supplier services, corporate affairs, HR and finance, and the rest of the bit in the middle which is manufacturing logistics, sustainability, sales and operations planning, category strategies, all of the IT systems, scientists.
"That's mine. That's the bit I'm supposed to look after. It's quite a diverse team."
Another responsibility will be food safety.
"It'll be kind of like when I came into what was then Mighty River Power (now Mercury) looking after generation and wholesale markets and commercial industrial sales and the operational role. I sat in the middle trying to pull things together."
Whineray hopes the job will involve plenty of contact with Fonterra's farmer-owners, and he'll be heading to the lower South Island before his official start day to attend some shareholder meetings.
Which of his skills - his finance nous was honed at Credit Suisse - does he think will be most useful in the new job?
"Having a tremendous team that works for me, otherwise it's all unsustainable. The alignment and performance of teams across a diverse range of sometimes competing interests [means] creating and managing a great team is the most important thing.
"I've had an executive team which has been together for three and a half years and we have chopped a lot of wood."
It'll also be useful that he understands how the co-operative business model works. And Fonterra's a particular "oddball" co-operative, as Craigs Investment Partners' Mark Lister puts it, because it's a hybrid, with listed non-voting, dividend-carrying units in farmers' shares.
"The corporate thing came later for me," says Whineray. "[My] first thing was the New Zealand Dairy Board which was a co-op which had co-ops owning it and I spent a lot of time on sites."
Credit Suisse enlisted him to help with the dairy co-op mergers that eventually led to the 2001 creation of Fonterra from a massive industry merger, though he was at Cambridge University doing an MBA when that happened.
"I could talk their language. I knew how to split a bucket of milk. I can talk in kilograms of milk solids, I got a dairy diploma from Massey and I understand how that structure works."
However, that was then, and Whineray says he has a lot to catch up on.
"Fonterra's a more complex animal than I was exposed to then. But [the dairy industry's] where I started my career and I'm passionate about it ... and when I think of everything I've learned over the last 30 years since I sat down for my first chemical engineering lecture at Canterbury University, I'm keen to get in behind the many great people there."
He won't be drawn on Fonterra's performance, but says "let's remember Air New Zealand went bankrupt over Ansett, the Warehouse blew up the Red Sheds and Carter Holt Harvey lost a lot of money in Australia".
He says all sectors "get their day in the sun" and business has its cycles, though he acknowledges Fonterra "is the big exporter" and critical to provincial economies.
He sees parallels between the dairy and electricity sectors.
New Zealand, he says, is very good at both, and both are economic cornerstones.
"The electricity sector is one of New Zealand's greatest achievements. After 100 years of achievements it is world-leading and a lot of people make a big deal out of it, whether it's the government or trade officials when they are talking overseas, but those same voices struggle to say the same words here.
"But it is world-leading in terms of balancing reliability, renewability and price. Many other markets, Australia, Germany and the UK, have really got themselves in a pickle mostly because of misguided, short term interventions when you're trying to manage long-dated infrastructure which has to be built in advance.
"New Zealand is very good at that. When I came into the role of CEO, I couldn't believe something that was so great for New Zealand was getting so maligned. It's been quite a journey to work through the narrative there."
The electrification of transport has been a great opportunity for New Zealanders to finally understand how electricity is priced - in cents per litre - says Whineray.
Withers makes the point that Whineray loves New Zealand. A deep feeling for his country goes some way to answering why he agreed to join Fonterra, warts and all.
"I'm really very passionate about New Zealand doing its best," he says. "There are a lot of great people in that company and dairy goes back more than a century. It's really important that it's doing the best it can. Exports are so fundamental to New Zealand."
Whineray is "a good operator" who will bring a lot of skills to Fonterra, says Craig Stent, executive director, head of equities at Harbour Asset Management.
"He's a pretty straight up guy, a no nonsense type," says Stent, who was a little surprised at Whineray's move, but "it's a bigger role and more opportunity for him and he's been at Mercury a significant period of time".
"He might see himself as a future CEO of Fonterra."
Whineray suspects the warm reception for his Fonterra appointment may have been partly because, like Hurrell, he's a Kiwi. Fonterra's last two chief executives were recruited from overseas. Hurrell's predecessor, Dutchman Theo Spierings, left the company in August 2018. Last year Fonterra disclosed that he pocketed an incentive payment of $4.67m on departure, despite the co-operative's huge financial losses. The payment took his total pay in seven years in the job to $43m.
"I think New Zealanders like to see New Zealanders running their companies," says Whineray.
"I got a lot of good feeling when I was appointed chief executive of Mighty River Power in 2014. But like this time, I wasn't sure if they were pleased it was me or pleased it was a Kiwi.
"Part of the reason is New Zealanders like to see people have a contract with their country, which is more valuable than a contract with a company."
Kiwis expect Kiwi appointees to make good, long-term decisions in the interests of New Zealand, and then not head offshore, he says.
"For a lot of stakeholders, particularly when I was appointed to Mighty River Power, that was really, really important to them. It's like they're saying 'you want to stay living in New Zealand with your family, you'd better not muck us around'."
BE (chem,hons) Canterbury; MBA Cambridge; dairy science Massey.
NZ Dairy Board, Rank subsidiaries CHH and NZ Dairy Foods, Opus, Credit Suisse.