GrainCorp’s surprise new chairman-in-waiting, Graham Bradley, will hit the road within weeks to meet farmers, customers and staff of the big grain handler and processor.
Despite having no farm sector experience during his busy career to date, the professional company director and recently retired chairman of the Stockland property development group starts as a GrainCorp director on Wednesday.
He is apparently extra keen leave his suit in the wardrobe for a while and go bush to learn as much as possible about the industry before taking over as chairman on May 1.
Mr Bradley will be the first non-grower to lead Australia’s biggest agribusiness when southern Queensland farmer and former corporate accountant Don Taylor departs.
His appointment has already sparked shareholder questions about his notable lack of agri-food sector experience and why no existing directors took the chairman’s job.
Retiring Mr Taylor, whose own first hand grain industry experience began in 1978, joined GrainCorp in 2003 when the company bought Queensland’s GrainCo.
He planned to be a director for just five months, but by late 2005 had followed large-scale NSW graingrower, Ron Greentree, into the chairman’s job, leading GrainCorp through 11 years of significant international growth as a grain trader, maltster and vegetable oil business.
Managing director, Mark Palmquist, agreed while incoming chairman, Mr Bradley, did not have the depth of grain industry or GrainCorp business experience which Mr Taylor brought to the table, there was a lot of board room confidence in the calibre of the new appointment.
“I’m also quite confident in the level of agricultural knowledge remaining on the board when Don leaves,” Mr Palmquist said following Friday’s annual general meeting.
He confirmed Mr Bradley was “acutely aware” of weakness in his understanding of many aspects of agribusiness and the farm sector, but wanted “to deal with it”.
“We are already organising his schedule to meet GrainCorp employees, visit our facilities in regional and city locations, and meet farmers, key customers and others who are important to our business,” Mr Palmquist said.
“Graham considers it to be an imperative that he understands the agricultural sector and he has expressed his real desire to learn as much as he can.
“One of his first comments to me was about agriculture’s pillar role in the Australian economy and his deep excitement about being involved in a leading agribusiness”.
Mr Taylor would also give Mr Bradley as much insight as possible in the transition phase.
Recognising his “outstanding reputation” as a company director and chairman in other fields, Mr Taylor told the AGM he had “no doubt Graham will more than adequately be able to comprehend and complete his duties at GrainCorp”.
However, Mr Bradley’s lack of farm industry experience quickly provoked questions about GrainCorp’s decision from the Australian Shareholders Association (ASA).
ASA representative, Elton Ivers, asked the AGM why no other sitting directors were considered capable of taking the role, also expressing concern Mr Taylor’s departure would reduce food and agribusiness sector experience on GrainCorp’s board.
Mr Taylor repsonded noting GrainCorp’s directors had themselves selected Mr Bradley, and while the board had “a number of extremely talented and capable people who had the qualifications”, other commitments meant they did not have the capacity to take on the job.
Despite Mr Bradley also having several other board directorships, Mr Taylor said he had a proven capacity as a chairman, and directors Don McGauchie, Dan Mangelsdorf had strong farm sector experience.
Simon Tregoning had other agribusiness exposure and other directors had supply chain qualifications.
“We have a breadth of experience, which is the way boards should be, and Graham will bring skills I don’t have,” he said.
Mr Bradley is currently Australian division chairman of Asian banking giant HSBC and on HSBC’s global board, chairman of Infrastructure NSW, a director of Energy Australia, Virgin Australia and the NSW State Library foundation, and former president of the Business Council of Australia.
He was managing director of financial services and listed funds group Perpetual Limited from 1993 to 2003 and prior to that a managing partner with law firm, Blake Dawson, and a partner in business consultancy firm McKinsey and Company.
Reflecting on his own time with GrainCorp, Mr Taylor said he was departing a company in “excellent shape with world-class assets, strong cash flows and a healthy balance sheet”.
“There is cause for great optimism as we look to the future,” he said.
“I’m proud GrainCorp has remained an active member of our regional communities and proud of our commitment to diversity and inclusion … including the appointment of our first female managing director (Alison Watkins in 2010-2013).”
During his time in the chair, Mr Taylor guided GrainCorp through the controversial 2008 termination of its “golden” foundation share, removing grower control of the business and the dual class share system to simplify its capital structure, subsequently luring more investor market support.
He signed off on the $757 million purchase of global maltster, United Malt Holdings in 2009, which doubled GrainCorp’s business overnight.
He also took the helm as executive chairman for nine months hot on the heels of dealing with the hostile $3 billion takeover bid by US commodities giant Archer Daniels Midland, which was eventually blocked by Canberra in 2013.
Mr Taylor acknowledged many shareholders “weathered disappointment and lost value opportunities” when the bid was rejected, but this had been followed by the largest capital investment program in the company's history and those benefits would be felt in the years to come.