Big Wal was wool's human headline during past decade

Merriman, mulesing and China grab Merino spotlight over the past decade

Wool
AND ANOTHER THING: Wally Merriman was the dominant figure in the wool industry during the past decade but spent a lot of time embroiled in controversies.

AND ANOTHER THING: Wally Merriman was the dominant figure in the wool industry during the past decade but spent a lot of time embroiled in controversies.

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The Australian wool industry enjoyed a turbulent but relatively profitable time during the past decade.

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The wool industry's past decade was dominated by Wally Merriman, repeated but unsuccessful calls for flock rebuilding, the buying domination of China and mulesing.

Mr Merriman started the decade as chairman of Australian Wool Innovation and ended it by being kicked off its board by shareholders.

During the years in between Mr Merriman was never far from controversy but was also at the helm of AWI during periods of record high wool prices.

He was elected to the AWI board in 2004 and was instrumental in diverting the focus of AWI spending from research to marketing and promotion.

During his rein in the top job China emerged as the major buyer of Australian and now takes around 75 per cent of the clip.

He is chip off the same block which produced previous larger-than-life and belligerent wool industry leaders, John Macarthur and Sir William Gunn.

Mr Merriman's first bombshell for the decade came in 2012 when AWI decided to cease funding the Information Nucleus Flock (INF) program which provided data for Australian Sheep Breeding Values (ASBVs), a genetic tool to aid breeding decisions.

The INF had been established by the Co-operative Research Centre for Sheep in 2007 and its CEO, Professor James Rowe, was keen to secure funding to continue the program into a second stage.

Relations between the two organisations hit a new low in 2014 when AWI pulled the plug on providing funding to the Sheep CRC itself.

AWI said the INF program lacked a commercial focus and was used by only 30pc of Merino ram breeders.

Soon afterwards Mr Merriman declared in a newspaper interview that science couldn't teach growers much about breeding better Merinos and said there was too much reliance on ASBVs.

AWI scored a major win in 2013 when it resurrected the International Woolmark Prize which had been launched in 1953 and won the following year by two young designers, Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent, who became icons of the fashion world.

Since its relaunch the Woolmark Prize has been won by some of the world's top young designers which has put wool onto fashion catwalks around the globe and helped enforce AWI's message that wool is a sustainable and natural luxury fibre.

After hip New York label, Public School, won the prize in 2015 AWI CEO, Stuart McCullough, declared the award the company's best ever marketing strategy.

AWI was also starting to dip wool's toe into the premium sportswear market.

Mr Merriman copped more criticism in 2014 when he suggested the introduction of scheme to regulate the flow of wool onto the market to stop erratic price movements.

Critics raised fears about a new floor price scheme but to be fair, auction wool prices experienced almost constant fluctuations throughout the decade.

Sheep numbers were refusing to budge above 70m and wool production was tipped to slide 2pc in 2013-14 to 345m kg.

WOOLMARK PRIZE WINNER: A model wears one of the designs which won emerging London designer, Edward Crutchley, the International Woolmark Prize awards this year for menswear and innovation.

WOOLMARK PRIZE WINNER: A model wears one of the designs which won emerging London designer, Edward Crutchley, the International Woolmark Prize awards this year for menswear and innovation.

Former AWI deputy chairman and leading sheep processor, Roger Fletcher, kicked off 2015 by suggesting Meat and Livestock Australia's sheepmeat role should be hived off and amalgamated with AWI.

More sparks flew between AWI and the CRC for Sheep in 2015 when a new report said woolgrowers were losing 55 cents for every dollar AWI invested in genetics and genomics research. The CRC for Sheep hotly rejected the claim.

In early 2016 the AWI's wool system selling review recommended overhauling the auction system including a push for sales by description, direct selling on farm and electronic selling.

HIGH PROFILE WINNER: A young Yves St Laurent (far left) at the International Woolmark Prize awards in 1954.

HIGH PROFILE WINNER: A young Yves St Laurent (far left) at the International Woolmark Prize awards in 1954.

Wool prices were also running hot with the EMI reaching 1265c in early February.

Victoria started a push to have all national physical wool sales centralised in Melbourne.

Meanwhile, PETA ramped up its attacks on the Merino industry using Joanna Krupa from Real Housewives of Miami standing naked holding a slogan: "There's nothing warm and cuddly about wool".

South Australian photographer, Jacqui Batemen, hit back with a picture of a nude shearer, Daniel Telfer, shearing a sheep.

CARPING CRITIC: Animal activist group, PETA, has used mulesing to try and convince people not to buy or wear Australian Merino wool.

CARPING CRITIC: Animal activist group, PETA, has used mulesing to try and convince people not to buy or wear Australian Merino wool.

In April South Africa put a few noses out of joint by claiming Australia's lack of progress on mulesing was damaging wool's global reputation.

A push was made in the NSW Parliament for mandatory pain relief at mulesing while WoolProducers Australia endorsed making national wool declaration forms compulsory to identify non-mulesed wool.

EMI closed the season at 1297c, the second highest level ever, Goulburn pushed to replace Sydney's Yennora as the home of wool sales in NSW while the Victorian Government started a push for mandatory RFID tags on sheep.

The AWI board ended the year by endorsing the development of an electronic information and trading platform for wool, the Wool Exchange Portal.

Growers had the best possible start to 2017 when the EMI hit a record 1431c in January.

AWI was in hot water yet again in March when a Senate Estimates Committee raised questions over generous redundancy and ex-gratia payments to redundant employees.

Some staff on $200,000 and $300,000 annual salaries had received almost a full-year's pay on the way out the door.

AWI CEO, Stuart McCullough, said some of the employees were in their 50s and 60s and unlikely to find another job. A 63-year-old employee had received a pay-out of $330,709.

In June AWI decided to spend $3.6m on building and launching an online wool exchange portal (now called Wool Q).

The following month MLA caused more ructions when it accused AWI of dragging its feet on key research topics such as mulesing, footrot and OJD.

NO LOVE LOST: MLA managing director, Richard Norton, locked horns with AWI chairman, Wally Merriman, over the funding of sheep research.

NO LOVE LOST: MLA managing director, Richard Norton, locked horns with AWI chairman, Wally Merriman, over the funding of sheep research.

Wally Merriman denied claims by MLA managing director, Richard Norton, he had pushed to get him removed from his MLA job.

Mr Norton began pushing for a sheepmeat-led strategy on mulesing along with a merger of sheepmeat and wool research and development into one body.

In September Mr Merriman probably hit his peak for stirring up controversy when it was revealed he had covertly observed the previous June a focus grower group in Sydney from behind a one-way mirror.

The following month he abused an ABC journalist for asking questions about the "man in the mirror" episode.

He apologised at a Senate Estimates Committee hearing where concerns were raised about the large number of undirected proxies Mr Merriman was holding for board elections and how he had been using those proxies.

Wool prices rocketed to new highs in 2018 with the EMI at 2073c by June.

AWI didn't have time to bask in the glory with the board forced to grapple with a highly unflattering review of its performance and governance by Ernst and Young (EY).

Its 82 recommended included calls for 10-year maximum terms for directors, transparency in proxy voting, a more skills-based board and better strategic planning.

In early November Mr Merriman resigned as chairman and was replaced by his deputy, Colette Garnsey.

Growers then voted to cut the wool tax to 1.5pc in WoolPoll 2018 which has continued to add to AWI's budget woes in 2019.

Mr Merriman was voted off the board at AWI's annual general meeting at the end of 2019 with shareholders deciding to inject some new blood in Dr Michelle Humphries and Noel Henderson.

And drought has dashed hopes that sheep numbers would lift well beyond 70m by the end of the decade.

The wool industry starts the new decade with around 65m sheep and facing strong competition from booming export and domestic lamb markets.

The story Big Wal was wool's human headline during past decade first appeared on Farm Online.

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