Thursday, December 7, 2023

A seat at the table for farmers and women

Neal Wallace
Alliance Group director Dawn Sangster reflects on her 12 years on the board.
Alliance Group director Dawn Sangster is retiring later this year.
Reading Time: 3 minutes

It was a logical progression for Dawn Sangster to stand for the board of Alliance Group.

The meat company’s performance was crucial to her farming business and, having just completed an Agri-Women’s Development Trust (AWDT) Escalator leadership programme, she felt confident and equipped to contribute to that performance.

A requirement upon graduating from the programme – whose first intake she was part of – was to set a five-year goal.

Sangster’s was to be a director on the Alliance Group board.

Coincidentally, at the same time a vacancy emerged for a farmer-director. She stood earlier than she had planned to and was elected, becoming the third woman ever elected to the co-operative board.

That was 12 years ago and this year she is retiring from the board, having decided the time is right. She is keen to pursue other governance roles.

It has been a rewarding time.

“Alliance is so important to our business as most of our income comes from Alliance,” Sangster says.

“It is so important to farmers and shareholders, to all of New Zealand really.”

Her message is for people to pursue governance roles – and that many rural people have the expertise, passion and ability to contribute to the running of these businesses.

She says governance training is available through AWDT, Alliance’s Know Your Co-op programme, Beef + Lamb NZ (BLNZ), Nuffield and the Kellogg’s rural leadership programmes.

“I love corporate boards, working with intelligent staff and directors, working with a great group of people dealing with complex problems.”

Sangster and husband David farm Glenayr Ltd, a 2870ha business incorporating three sheep and beef properties in Central Otago’s Maniototo district.

She has been active in a variety of governance roles, including spending nine years on the board of the Maniototo Area School and seven on the board of John McGlashan College.

Sangster is a past member of the BLNZ Farmer Council. She chairs the Community Trust of Maniototo, and is a director on the governance group of catchment group project Tiaki Maniototo.

Since 2018 she has been a Farmlands director.

A graduate of Lincoln University, Sangster has a Bachelor of Agricultural Commerce in Farm Management and in 2012 won the Institute of Directors Otago-Southland Aspiring Director Award.

She is also a Chartered Member of the New Zealand Institute of Directors.

She says the 10-month AWDT Escalator leadership programme gave her the skills and confidence needed when she set out to grow her corporate governance interests.

The five modules combine leadership, governance and personal development with practical applications.

The programme blends face-to-face group facilitation, personalised learning and executive coaching with support and input from established leaders.

Her goal when elected to Alliance was to improve shareholder involvement with the company, and that started with better communication.

There were no regular newsletters, shareholder meetings were sporadic and, more to the point, few women attended. 

Her other goal was to improve the company’s performance in beef.

She feels both goals have been achieved.

Shareholder interaction is more regular, more women attend meetings and functions, three women are in the executive team and Sarah Brown is on the board as an independent director

Change followed the arrival of chief executive David Surveyor eight years ago, and Sangster says she is sensing further change under his successor, Willie Wiese.

Those changes have to be focused on growing returns and value for farmers given the decline in sheep and beef numbers, she says.

Other changes have been capturing more value from the market and prioritising the reduction in workplace harm. The era also saw an end to inter-company rivalry, with the appointment of senior executives from outside the industry helping to reduce tension.

That more collaborative approach was reflected in the aftermath of covid and Cyclone Gabrielle, when companies worked closely for the greater good.

“There is competition within the industry, but not like it used to be.”

Sangster says there is no tolerance for workplace accidents, with management setting targets and massive investment in technology such as robots to improve health, safety and wellbeing.

Governance requires passion, commitment, an ability to think strategically, a desire to make improvements and to work for shareholders.

She says farmer suppliers bring an understanding of farming systems and farmer views, which complements contributions from independent directors.

A director’s workload is reflected in fees, she says, which are set to allow the employment of staff to cover them when they are on company business.

Following an outstanding financial performance for the 2022 year, when Alliance reported $117m gross profit, Sangster says this year will be tougher for all rural businesses.

Market returns are down and costs are up, but Sangster says that is the benefit of co-operatives such as Alliance and Farmlands.

“Farmers are battening down the hatches but a co-operative does what it can to help them through.”

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