FORMER Coles and AWB corporate affairs executive Rob Hadler has been appointed to spearhead a four-member project management team to achieve an end-result on restructuring national farm representation over the next five to six months.
A report by Newgate Communications released by the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) last October recommended adopting a “unified model” for national farm advocacy.
One of the model’s key aims is to remove duplicative State structures and streamline available resources for a peak national body to operate under a single brand.
The Newgate research was initiated in November 2013, amid concerns over diminishing resources and expanding fragmentation for farmer representation.
The final report said the sector’s federal structure had historically aligned the efforts and funding of State farming organisations and peak councils but was now “under immense strain”.
Speaking to Fairfax Media, NFF CEO Simon Talbot said NFF members had formally appointed FTI Consulting last week to follow through on the Newgate report’s critical recommendations.
Mr Talbot said the report clearly stated what farmers wanted in terms of more effective representation and a stronger, faster and more streamlined voice.
But he said that body of work must now be converted into a specialised project to assess the NFF member base and explore opportunities around shared services and where to deploy additional resources, to represent farmers in the field.
The project will also develop new tools and techniques to give farmers what they want in terms of “a dashboard on how to operate on any given day”, he said.
Mr Talbot said FTI Consulting was appointed following an open tender process and will present NFF members with one or two models for final consideration by June or July.
He recognised that conjecture about Mr Hadler’s appointment may arise, due to his prior involvement with AWB during the removal of its monopoly wheat exporter status and the recent Coles $1 per litre milk controversy.
But he said Mr Hadler and another FTI Consulting project team member, Robert Skeffington, were seasoned professionals with vast experience in a variety of agribusiness executive positions - including both being ex-NFF leaders - which gave the NFF confidence to make the tough appointment.
Mr Skeffington is an ex-journalist and was NFF assistant director from 1994 to 1999 and worked alongside Mr Hadler.
The pair also will be joined on the FTI Consulting project team by former political policy and media advisor Ben Hamilton and former Canberra press gallery rural journalist and newspaper editor Cameron Morse.
Mr Hadler worked at the NFF for three years during the 1990s and joined AWB at the height of fallout form the Iraqi wheat for weapons scandal, leaving in 2009 to join Coles.
Last year he made a list of Australia’s 50 most influential corporate executives where he said, in a related online profile, that the governance reforms achieved at the AWB were a career highlight.
Mr Hadler said the reforms required a 75 per cent yes vote from AWB grower-shareholders “to give up their shares for nothing”.
“At Coles, a big highlight was finalising the recent code of conduct between supermarkets and food manufacturers which took two years to negotiate,” he said.
Mr Hadler said the most memorable communications campaign he’s been involved in was the ‘down down, prices are down’ campaign run by Coles.
“Love it or hate it, it is the most memorable campaign in retailing in the last 30 years,” he said.
Mr Talbot said FTI Consulting were “change-management, transformation experts and that gave us the assurance we wouldn’t just get a consultancy report; we’d actually get a definitive outcome”.
“The timelines are pretty tight – by June we want to have a definitive position on what the model or models look like,” he said.
“Then we want to go to our members’ council and say, we operate on democratic principles, so let’s vote on which model we progress towards’.
“Then you bring in the likes of KPMG or Ernst & Young to actually do the change-management process with us because we’re not change-management experts.”
Mr Talbot said FTI Consulting would investigate three key areas of the restructure process, including the likely financial model, member communications and shared services.
“There’s a ballpark figure that says 30 to 40 per cent of our shared services are replicated so there’s this wastage through the core body of members and there’s a view that (funding) could be redeployed in more effective ways, for example, employing field officers or new technology,” he said.
Risk of irrelevance
Mr Talbot said it was the NFF’s fifth attempt in 20 years to federate and unify, with a strong argument to suggest that, following each attempt, “we’ve become smaller financially and we’ve probably lost a bit of voice”.
But he said this time, the NFF members and board have appointed “some of the best players in the game to lead us through the project, rather than doing it ourselves”.
“Ultimately we’ve given ourselves the best chance of success to represent farmers,” he said.
“We have a clear roadmap in terms of what success looks like but we’re not predetermining the outcome.”
But Mr Talbot said if the NFF wasn’t restructured ahead of the next federal election in 2016, with a stronger and more effective representative model, “we run the risk of becoming irrelevant, perhaps even to the point of extinction.”
He said the NFF’s capacity to engage new and existing members via the internet and utilise online services like social media, and to conduct lobbying or policy activities with greater immediacy and effectiveness, were key opportunity growth areas.