Flugge vows to bat on

28 Mar, 2002 07:00 PM
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WHEN Trevor Flugge walked out of the recent AWB Annual General Meeting, it was the first time as a non-board member since 1984.

He freely concedes his long tenure at the helm of Australia's monopoly wheat exporter contributed to his downfall as an A-class director for WA.

His electoral opponent, Chris Moffet, clearly campaigned along the lines tested by Gough Whitlam when he was in opposition in the early 1970s, telling WA graingrowers it was 'time' for a change.

In doing so, Mr Moffet won the battle with nearly 74pc of the shareholder vote. It was a crushing electoral victory in what shall be remembered as a watershed mark for the Australian wheat industry.

But Mr Flugge, the married father of three who began his agripolitical career as a raw school leaver in the dusty town halls of outback WA, has vowed to continue his long and distinguished career in the industry.

That's not to say growers should expect to see him running for election to the AWB board again any time soon.

However, the determination that saw him leave school and build a successful family business after the unexpected death of his father at the humble age of 16, will not be lost to the industry.

"Probably I would have been one of the best in Australia in terms of my knowledge and experience that's available," Mr Flugge said of his electoral chances.

"I still stand by that."

But he was not so committal when it came to future job prospects, except to say his allegiance remained with AWB.

There appears to be no bitterness from the Flugge camp after the stresses of an electoral loss and emotional final AGM. Throughout, he has remained steadfast in his support of the company, its board, and the single desk selling structure for wheat exports.

But it is clear he felt the electoral issues that dominated this final campaign were muddied by certain sectors of the industry.

"I'm not bitter," Mr Flugge said.

"I am disappointed that ... growers felt that because we (the AWB board) got good performance, we were actually neglecting the sale of their wheat.

"In other words (that) we were putting share value ahead of getting the best possible value for their wheat.

"And that's just not true.

"There's no question in my mind that the board and the management, particularly (chief executive) Andrew Lindberg, were clearly focused on the issue of ensuring growers' returns were maximised.

"AWB just doesn't get money out of the pool now unless we perform. The focus was clearly there. And I was very disappointed that there were a lot of suggestions during this campaign that this wasn't the case."

And he pointed to the company's performance over the past few years to illustrate the point.

"I mean we (Australian growers) have increased production by five million tonnes in the last five years," he said.

"Most of that has been exported into a market that is absolutely and completely over supplied.

"We have been able to increase our exports on average by about four or five million tonnes in that period (five years) and still maintain values probably equal to, or better than, anyone else in the world.

"If that is not maximising growers' returns I don't know what is."

Nevertheless, Mr Flugge remains confident in the personnel and business structure he has left behind at AWB headquarters in Melbourne.

The tensions bound to exist after Mr Moffet's victory against the company chairman and endorsed candidate would not detract from future company performance, Mr Flugge said.

"There are a number of practical and personal issues (on the board), but I am actually very confident the board will resolve those because there is a lot of common sense siting around that board table."

But there is so much more to the Flugge legacy than just a functional board.

Primary among these is the transformation of AWB from a statutory authority to a publicly listed company on the Australian Stock Exchange with market capitilisation of more than $1.2 billion.

"The old statutory authority built up an enormous value in terms of its reputation around the world, and in terms of its opportunities," he said.

"On a number of occasions I said 'we are going to give this back to you, and it's going to be in your hands. We are going to get out of the government'.

"Everything that I promised in about 1995-6 has come to fruition."

It has been Mr Flugge's proudest achievement.

But there are challenges for the future ‹ and disappointments from the past.

"The negotiations for the current AWB constitution went on for far too long," he said.

"They were extended for political reasons, and they actually damaged ... the internal structure of AWB.

"In any company or organisation you are either going forward or you are going backwards.

"In our case, because of the uncertainties that were out there during 1998 before the constitution was done, I think we drifted backwards."

That drift has not been helped by the creation of the Wheat Export Authority (WEA), he said.

"Well of course it's the government again meddling in the bloody business quite frankly."

"I never agreed with it. I thought it was always a bloody nonsense.

"I know that the Prime Minister of the time (John Howard) didn't want another statutory authority, but it was forced on him. And unfortunately that statutory authority will be a thorn in the side of the industry for many years to come."

But for Mr Flugge, who shall continue with his many other varied interests and pursuits, neither the WEA or the delays in forming the AWB constitution could detract from the pleasure he has gained in working in the Australian wheat industry.

In his final speech to AWB shareholders, Mr Flugge said the company had been a big part of his life for a very long time.

He just wishes it could have been a little longer.

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