A SUCCESSION plan for regeneration at Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) is working well, despite criticism of the Board Nomination Committee (BNC) recommending the return of long-term directors for two of three board positions.
That is the view of David Webster, a WA voice at the board table since 2008 who is seeking re-election at the November 22 annual general meeting, along with former chairman of 10 years and director for 15 years Wally Merriman, both of whom were recommended to AWI shareholders by the BNC.
Mr Webster, who has headed AWI's finance and audit committee for nine years and who also sits on the Australian Wool Testing Authority board, pointed to the calibre of a third BNC recommended candidate, Michelle Humpries, as evidence the AWI succession plan is working.
"Board candidates of the quality of Michelle Humphries don't just pop up," said Mr Webster, who confirmed on Monday he is running on a "joint ticket" with Dr Humphries and Mr Merriman against a fourth BNC recommended candidate and four other candidates who did not receive BNC endorsement for AWI's director elections.
"The succession plan we know is well in place and we're really comfortable with that - when you get somebody of the calibre of Michelle Humphries step up then we know it's working well," he said.
Dr Humphries worked with sheep artificial breeding pioneers, professors Terry Robinson and Gareth Evans while studying veterinary science at Sydney University.
A founding director of Livestock Breeding Services Pty Ltd in the New South Wales Riverina, she is acknowledged as one of the pioneers of the commercial application of ram semen freezing, laparoscopic insemination and embryo transfer.
Dr Humphries serves on the boards of MerinoLink Ltd and Murray Local Land Services and is an executive committees member of the Australian Veterinary Association's Sheep, Camelid and Goat Veterinarians and the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources' Ruminant Genetic Trade Advisory Group.
"We've known about her for some time in respect of being a possible replacement for when Meredith (AWI director Dr Meredith Shiel who is retiring after 11 years on the board and who was one of two AWI directors on the BNC) would leave," Mr Webster said.
"Michelle is prepared, she has schooled herself on everything that AWI does, she hasn't missed an annual meeting in the past five or so years and she's got science factors few others are able to bring to the board.
"She's really important, every Western Australian who exports sheep should be saying we want that person, she's been involved in the live export discussions, she's pro-farmer choice on animal husbandry and recognises we need mulesing as an option - particularly in WA - until an appropriate alternative is found, she has a lot of science skills.
"There's a hell of a lot of information for people to get their head around when they come onto the board - it's not a simple board to go on and I've been on plenty of boards.
"AWI's business is very complex around the world, it is dynamic, the market is dynamic.
"I've seen new directors come on and it's taken some years for them to get their head around it - it won't happen in a year.
"We know there's very good people already taking a very intense interest in schooling themselves about all of the intricacies of AWI and about what this company does.
"Over the next couple of years there will be more change, Wally and I will go because we know there's some really good people out there putting a lot of effort in, like Michelle did, to understand it all," he said.
Mr Webster said he was happy to run on a joint ticket with Mr Merriman who has attracted controversy in the past.
"Wally has just come back from Europe and China, he's highly respected all over the world - he's Mr Wally to everybody," he said.
"You can go to China or Italy and he's well respected because he has a long history there and he's very good at dealing with people.
"He's the person they (wool processors) talk to, with the volatility of the past few months he's the first person to ask them what are the problems.
"He gets criticism, but nobody else in the industry has got the capacity he has or the recognition," Mr Webster said.
He said he, Mr Merriman and Dr Humphries were "very strong on protecting growers rights", including the right to choose the best animal husbandry options such as mulesing, for their enterprise and that the market should determine the future of the live sheep export trade.
"If people want unmulesed wool then bid up, everything is about price," Mr Webster said.
"In WA without mulesing there is no industry, it's as simple as that.
"I'm proud to say I've fought for that issue (farmers' choice to mules) from day one when I came on the board.
"As a large exporter of live sheep myself I've always been supportive of the industry.
"I think live export has gone into a very good phase, the controls now are outstanding, the death rate on boats is probably lower than what we have in the farm paddock."
On the criticism of the BNC and its recommendations, Mr Webster said its decisions were independent of AWI.
"It was independent, that (recommendations) was what they came back with, every one of those (eight) candidates was given the same opportunity to present to the BNC," Mr Webster said.
"There was no influence what so ever, it was nothing to do with us (AWI).
"This (directors election) is about running a company, it's about your capability and capacity to do the job.
"We have to concentrate on what is relevant to that, because there is so much that is being talked about that is irrelevant."
Mr Webster reminded shareholders that over the past 10 years under the guidance of some current board members, AWI had been instrumental in the expansion of the wool market into a diverse range of new products.
"There's been a lot happening over a decade, a transformation pushing wool into that high-end market," he said.
"Leisure wear, sports wear, running wear, gym wear, next-to-the-skin wear particularly for women, it's a big focus and the big companies are all working on this now with their wool line."
"Ten years ago who would have thought we could have wool surf wear and on-the-beach wear - I thought (AWI chief executive) Stuart McCullough was drawing a really long bow with that one - but it's happening.
"When you think back 10 years we (AWI) had no one, then His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales put his hand up for the Campaign For Wool and we initiated a project with Giorgio Armani that was really beneficial, he was a recognised leader of fashion around the world and people started to see what he was doing with wool.
"They started to follow and we really started to build that interest in wool - that's all still there.
"What we have at the moment with the trade situation is all about uncertainty - you can't pay a price for something not knowing what you are going to be able to sell for.
"There is no doubt that the Trump tariff thing was a trigger for destabalising of the whole industry and a lot of uncertainty because people at all levels of the supply chain couldn't commit.
"There's some really big challenges ahead with the job we (directors) face.
"The issue quite clearly coming out of China now that we've got a reduced supply of wool, mainly caused by the drought in the Eastern States, is that they want something different to an auction system, where people can state their price.
"There's a whole range of issues around this, about WoolQ and the changes the industry needs to undertake."
Mr Webster said while Australia remained the world's main supplier of Merino apparel wool and China remained our main customer for it, changes continue to occur in the global wool market and AWI was keeping abreast of them.
"For example, Vietnam has become the knitting capital of the world for all fibres, seamlessly knitting all garments.
"They have up to 3500 knitting units, each one the size of a piano, in one mill.
"That has happened in seven years.
"We moved in there and employed staff there seven years ago, there was nobody working with wool then, now there is literally hundreds of people working with wool processing for different companies.
"We're now looking at other parts of the world, the market is already moving.
"Places like Cambodia and Ethiopia - we're seeing investment in Ethiopia which surprises a lot of people, but there's a long history in fabric in the top end of Ethiopia.
"There's large Chinese investment in wool processing there.
"There's a hell of an AWI story to tell.
"I'm urging growers to participate - this is your company," Mr Webster said.