On the eve of presenting his first full-year financial results as the boss of an ASX 200 company, things appeared to be going well for Nufarm chief executive Greg Hunt. Net profit was up 15 per cent while revenue had firmed 4 per cent, defying lower agriculture commodity prices.
But after telling the good news to Nufarm's board on September 22, he received a text message which would eclipse his upbeat mood.
His father, a Western Australian farmer, had died. And the next 24 hours were about to become much tougher for Hunt.
Later that night, overseas in Austria, one of Nufarm's employees was killed after falling from a height of nine metres.
In the morning, Hunt, who spent more than three decades at rural service business Elders, fielded questions from investors, analysts, and the media.
"I had a lot of tough days at Elders but the toughest day was clearly September 22," Hunt says.
But he didn't show it, answering questions about the employee's death and financial result in a calm manner.
And the turmoil hasn't halted Nufarm's stellar recovery. The stock has surged more than 75 per cent in the past 12 months to about $8.35, the highest level in five years.
Hunt says he inherited a strong work ethic from his father and has big plans for Nufarm.
He was officially appointed the crop protection company's chief executive in May, replacing Doug Rathbone, who is known for growing Nufarm from a $20 million to $2 billion business during a 30-year period.
Part of his mandate is meeting an ambitious target of finding $100 million in savings, through cost cuts, product portfolio improvement and better customer service.
It is the customer service element that Hunt is particularly passionate about and his aim is to strip the layers between him and Nufarm's customers to as few as possible.
Lessons from e-commerce
He says the company can learn much from the e-commerce revolution. If you order a bottle of wine from the internet, Hunt says, you know when you order is received, dispatched and arrives on your doorstep.
"That's a simple example of the way that you can use technology to build your customer experience. If you're a channel partner for Nufarm, you want to know that if you order your product that you're going to get it, you are going to get it on time, it will be in your warehouse to supply the farmer," Hunt says.
"Then when you have an issue have around some technical advice, you want to know that Nufarm will have somebody on your customer's property within 24 hours or within a relatively short time.
"It those sorts of things that a relatively hard to put into a strategy document but they make a difference. It's about building a culture where almost everything you ask is: 'is this good for the customer?'"
Ensuring farmers are well serviced is a big part of making sure they are more productive and profitable, which in turn strengthens Australia's role in helping feed a growing global population which is expected to surge by 2 billion to 9 billion by 2050, according to the United Nations.
But Hunt says Nufarm's value proposition is shifting from not just helping farmers increase their yield.
He says the company's Nuseed business is helping farmers grow not only bigger crops but ones with added health and consumer benefits.
"One of the things that's very interesting in agriculture at the moment is when you think a lot about those technologies in last 15-20 years, they've been designed to help the farmer grow, to increase yields. Those things were largely called input traits.
"The next wave is going to come on output traits and that's where you see canola crops that are rich in omega 3, grain-based products that produce a flower that may have some other benefit such as gluten free."
In 2011, Nufarm partnered with the CSIRO and Grains Research and Development Council to develop a genetically modified canola that produced long-chain omega-3 oil at levels equal to that of wild fish.
"What's happening is the wild catch of the pilchards is reducing and the CSIRO were able to come up with this technology that allows you to grow canola crops, which are rich in long-chain omega 3.
"That's really exciting," Hunt says, adding it is expected to hit the market by 2018.
Genetically modified crops
Hunt acknowledges that genetically modified (GM) crops attract an emotional response. But he can't see how the world can feed 9 billion people without embracing the technology.
"The productivity of crops today is still impacted to the value of 20 to 40 per cent because of weeds, pests and diseases. I don't know what the number would be if you didn't have crop protection products, but it's clearly higher than that. It is a very emotional debate."
Indeed, the Business Council of Australia (BCA) says GM crops will play a crucial role in meeting a 77 per cent increase in demand for global food by 2050 and the federal government must allay community fears about the farming method.
"Every legitimate scientific and regulatory body that has examined the science-based evidence has concluded that approved GM crops are as safe as their conventional counterparts. This includes the World Health Organization, the Australian Academy of Science, the European Commission, the American National Academy of Sciences, and the Royal Society of Medicine," s," the BCA said its plan to grow Australia's food bowl which was released in early December.
"Government needs to provide factual evidence about genetically modified (GM) foods to address community concerns and to address regulatory constraints relevant to genetically modified products."
Hunt says Nufarm is narrowing its focus to five main crops - cereals, corn, pasture, TNVV (trees, nuts, vines and vegetables) and soybeans – to ensure greater profitability. It is also tightening its global footprint to Australia, New Zealand, Latin America, North America and Europe.
"The world of tomorrow is going to be the security of supply, health, and food safety," Hunt says.
"Our job is really to make sure that we are helping farmers be more productive and we are supplying high quality and safe products that meet their needs and working in a collaborative way with our channel partners to meet the needs of the ultimate customer of our products, that's where we'll be."