Under Chris Kelly's 12-year stewardship, government farmer Landcorp's value has mushroomed from $500 million to $1.6 billion and returned more than $450m to its Crown shareholders.
It has meant a massive shift in stock numbers, with cow numbers going from zero to 50,000, and in farming techniques, with 10,000 hectares of poor West Coast land flipped to reveal the good soil beneath and 25,000ha of forestry being felled to make way for dairy.
But Kelly, an avuncular leader whose unruffled demeanour hides an acute business brain, says that's "all right".
"But it couldn't be done without getting a core thing right first."
And that was the culture of the 122-farm business, which sprawls from Te Raite in the far north to Wilanda Downs in the deep south. Changing that culture - the working relationship within the business - wasn't easy, he recalls.
In 2001, Landcorp was a collection of marginal sheep and beef farms inherited from the Lands and Survey Department and a few dairy farms, whose cows were owned by sharemilkers.
When voters made it clear they were tired of asset sales, the Labour government changed its plan to sell the state-owned enterprise and gave Kelly the green light to turn it into a profitable business.
The management was made up of sheep and beef men who looked down on dairying and Kelly's plan for a move to milking cows came as a shock. "If they'd had their way, they would have marched me out the door and hung, drawn and quartered me," he says.
The company was fragmented. The farms ran as individual units, with no contact between them. The North Island farms were run from Rotorua and the South Island ones from Christchurch. The Wellington headquarters ran property investments.
Previous chief executives were money men, but Kelly, a farm animal veterinary surgeon who had ended up as a Dairy Board manager, knew his way around a farm.
First, he had to get out of Wellington. He told his farm manager he would like to see some of the farms. "He said 'Nah, the CEO never visits a farm. You stay in the office, boy. I'll look after the place'," Kelly says, and adds with a smile, "He said it very nicely."
A week later, the North Island branch was holding a conference at Rotorua and Kelly tried again. "I said to the regional manager, 'I'll see you at the conference'.
" 'Oh, no, the CEO never comes to the conference, you can stay away', was the reply."
He can laugh about it now, but it rankled at the time.
He dealt with this setup for three years, but then moved to close the two regional offices and move out of the Lambton Quay office into a building where everyone was on an open-plan floor.
Now, Landcorp is one big family of 670 staff, with only 75 of them in Wellington. Kelly describes it as one farm with 122 paddocks.
An example is the North Island lamb business. Hill-country farms in Northern Hawke's Bay and the King Country, which previously had sold their underweight lambs at store sales, now pass them on to a big finishing farm near Feilding where Landcorp grows them for French and British supermarket contracts.
It has also meant Landcorp is more drought-resistant, able to move stock from dry areas to more clement weather, such as in 2008 when 600 cows were shifted from Northland to the West Coast. This year's widespread drought, however, defeated the company, which found few places to hide.
Communication is the key to the new culture, Kelly says.
"I visit farms as often as I can and have a cup of tea or dinner with the family. And I go to regional meetings of our farmers, where we talk about us and our performance incentives."
Staff are on performance bonuses linked to how their efforts show up on the company's balance sheet. Farm managers are encouraged to treat the farm as if it is their own, but also to see their role as part of a team.
Kelly points to the recent "gypsy weekend", when dairy staff around the country changed jobs.
"We had 200 people leave and 200 join our Shanghai Pengxin complex. That requires teamwork. You can't do it if you farm in isolation." He hopes that this collaborative culture will be his legacy at Landcorp.
He describes himself as a change manager who stuck around. "Anyone can sit in an office and dream up things on a whiteboard. It's a lot harder to actually do it. So I was very committed to making sure we saw it through, so it was working in real time."
Now it is time to move on.
"I don't care who you are or how good you are. There's a time when fresh eyes are needed to look at a company."
He says he is not retiring at 67, just "moving in a new direction". That will mean taking more directorships. He is pro-chancellor of Massey University and chairs a Massey-Lincoln joint venture, chairs Kahne, a manufacturer of animal health monitoring systems, and is on the board of a new crown irrigation investment company. He expects to remain as an adviser to the Shanghai Pengxin joint venture, running 16 farms.
He sees regional irrigation initiatives still on the drawing board, as the key to New Zealand's future prosperity.
"They will do more to boost New Zealand's gross domestic product than a dozen Taits or a dozen Rakons," he says and quotes the predicted gains from irrigating the dairy farms that are appearing as forests are cut down in Landcorp's Wairakei joint venture.
"Without irrigation, we grow 800 to 850 kilograms of milksolids per hectare. With irrigation, we can get up to 1400kg quite easily. It's huge."
Amplifying this will be technology that measures the performance of individual animals.
"We're finding incredible things like cows that look absolutely normal, but are milking half the volume of their cohorts, or lambs in the same mob growing at 50 grams a day and others at 500g.
"As we adopt these technological advances, our ability to lift productivity is going to take an exponential curve."
Modestly, he describes the timing of his arrival at Landcorp with the Government's decision to give the company its head as "rather fortuitous".
"I came in. We needed to change the culture, needed a new strategy to get out there and be up front.
"I'm not sure I could add much more value if I stayed on."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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