He wasn't a man to mince his words or sugarcoat his message, and making headlines in the South Canterbury Finance receivership and on a dirty dairying charge was not a good look for a Fonterra director. But Colin Armer was "co-operatively minded" and now he's gone from the board of New Zealand's biggest company in a sudden exit that will further rattle a farmer-shareholder base already spooked by the share trading among farmers (Taf) turmoil. His "I quit" announcement yesterday after six years was apparently a bolt out of the blue for Fonterra head office and offered no reason. But coming days after Waikato farmer John Wilson was declared chairman-elect to succeed Sir Henry van der Heyden in December, it seems to confirm rumours that Armer and Wilson had faced off for the job with van der Heyden's choice of successor narrowly winning the day. While debate over any board's leadership should be robust and dairy industry politics have never been for the faint-hearted, Armer's exit will cause unease among farmers coming on the heels of a divisive and unconvincing shareholder vote in support of Taf, which will expose the farmer-owned company to NZX unit investors.
Armer, a rich-lister with extensive dairying interests, apparently related well to farmers and was considered a "farmers' director" with strong co-operative principles. Wilson, most often described as smart and very bright is more associated with deal making and number crunching than dairy shed camaraderie.
Taf opponents were quick to lament Armer's departure as further evidence the co-operative spirit is on a slippery slope around Fonterra's top table, which they suspect of being hellbent on publicly listing the $20 billion company built with the equity of generations of dairy farmers.
An Armer farm's recent $72,000 fine for unlawful discharge of dairy effluent and his involvement last year as a shareholder of Dairy Holdings, the country's largest corporate farmer and a South Canterbury Finance subsidiary, in a court skirmish with SCF receivers over an alleged related party loan, could have provided handy ammunition against him for the pro-Wilson camp.
But for Fonterra farmers up to their armpits in mud and calving, such public confirmation there is division among their directors as well as their fellow-shareholders is another uncertainty they did not need.
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