NEXT week will mark the end of an era for the CBH Group, as chief executive officer Andy Crane completes his final day in the top job before handing over the reins to former BHP Billiton iron ore boss Jimmy Wilson in October.
Dr Crane has been at the helm of the Australia’s biggest grain exporter for the past eight and a half years, and has spent 17 years with the co-operative.
Born in the United Kingdom, Dr Crane first became interested in the agriculture sector when completing a degree in environmental science.
He went on to complete a PhD in agriculture, before spending 12 years within the European malting industry.
“I’m a townie so it (agriculture) is something that I came to but I’ve sort of always had an interest in all things living,” Dr Crane said.
“I worked in production making malt and then I went into international sales and sold malt to brewers around the world.”
It was this experience that made Dr Crane an ideal fit for the Grain Pool of WA, which he joined in 2001 before the organisation merged with the CBH Group in 2002.
Following the merger he was responsible for running the marketing and trading division of CBH.
“It was at the time when the government was deregulating the State single desk and the national wheat single desk so a very exciting time and a great opportunity,” he said.
After working his way through other divisions of the business over the next seven years, Dr Crane was appointed as CEO of the CBH Group in 2009.
One of his early priorities in the top job was to put an end to the ongoing discussion over the future structure of the organisation to determine whether it would continue to be run as a co-operative or be changed to a corporate model.
“We got strong confirmation from growers that owning the co-operative was a good way of owning the infrastructure and from then on I set about making that a competitive advantage so putting the grower at the centre of everything we do,” Dr Crane said.
“It has been really instrumental in focusing the business on what’s important to the WA grain grower.”
Restructuring the co-operative is an issue that has been raised several times throughout his career, including last year by the Australian Grains Champion (AGC).
Mr Crane said he hoped the latest vote in favour of the co-operative structure would settle the debate for the next few years.
“Certainly last year’s AGC takeover approach brought those discussions all back into the fore and given that it had been six years since we’d looked at it again it was no bad thing to re-examine it with growers,” he said.
“I think it’s not something we should distract the organisation with every year, it’s often good to put it to bed for a while and really focus on running a good business and co-operatives can be good commercial businesses.”
Safety was another issue at the top of Dr Crane’s agenda in the company’s top role.
Since Dr Crane’s appointment, CBH has seen significant improvements to injury and incident rates, a cultural improvement he believes has contributed to increased production.
“Safety is not at odds with productivity so I think that actually we’re running a better supply chain and the sites better because of a focus on safety,” Dr Crane said.
“I’m very proud of what the team has achieved, it needed enormous change of thinking and culture.”
According to Dr Crane, other career highlights included the acquisition of locomotives and wagons for rail, business diversification improvements including CBH’s investment in Interflour, and the reduction of grower fees.
Dr Crane said he was happy with the way the co-operative had evolved over the past eight and a half years, and was hopeful the organisation would continue to grow in a positive direction.
As he moves onto the next chapter of his career, he is confident the company has been left in safe hands.
“For growers it has changed in that I believe they have absolute confidence that we’re focused on their needs, grower support for the co-operative has grown dramatically as has their trust in CBH really significantly,” he said.
“Externally I think CBH is now seen within industry as a major player, not only in WA but within Australia.
“The great opportunity of CBH is it’s financially healthy with great clarity of purpose so the opportunities are there for the organisation to go where it would like to go for our growers benefit and it is not hamstrung by any financial crisis or volume crisis.”
Dr Crane said there was a “bright future” for agriculture in WA, but it was important the State didn’t rest on its laurels.
“Our unique selling points of proximity to the market, quality of produce and scale of exportable surplus are all important but we’re seeing that even that combination of strengths isn’t enough to guarantee those markets against competition from produce from elsewhere in the world, particularly in the case of grain from the Black Sea,” he said.
“It’s got a bright future but we can’t take it for granted.”
Dr Crane will remain with CBH until the end of November, as Mr Wilson officially takes over as CEO on Sunday, October 1.
Beyond that Dr Crane hopes to further develop his career as a professional board director.
“I have interest in infrastructure, ports, rail, airports, supply chains, manufacturing and Asia and Australia investments,” he said.
“I think that after eight and a half years as CEO, it’s time to move onto my next career as a professional director and bring my experience in agriculture, supply chains and infrastructure to other organisations and as well give CBH room for a new look.
“I’ve had a great time running the business, I’ve loved it.”