For 15 years, Tim Mackle has been the public face of DairyNZ.
As its first chief executive, he has fronted the industry-good organisation as the dairy sector has grown into the economic powerhouse it is today.
But with growth have come massive challenges – payout volatility, M bovis, central and local government environmental regulations, animal welfare claims around bobby calves and most recently issues related to covid-19.
Mackle shrugs them off as “part and parcel of the job”, pointing out that his role was always underpinned by a great team behind the scenes supporting him and ensuring that progress was made in tackling these challenges at a farm level.
As CEO, being the public face of the organisation when confronted by issues came naturally.
“I’ve always been happy to do it because I believe in dairy and I believe that farmers want to make progress and are making progress,” Mackle says.
Tackling the challenges kept him motivated.
“I’ve stayed so long for a bunch of reasons, but it’s mainly about people. The great people at DairyNZ come to work every day to help farmers and indirectly help the country. They are motivated by that purpose and I am too.
“I haven’t had a day where I haven’t wanted to get out of bed for this job. I reflect on that and think I’m lucky.
“I feel incredibly privileged to have a great team of people. I might have a big title but I don’t have all of the big ideas.
“We deal with so many different issues at DairyNZ that you couldn’t even attempt to have all of the ideas and it’s really critical that you have a great team of people across the board who can think really deeply and get on and deliver stuff.”
He credits DairyNZ’s first chair, John Luxton, with insisting the organisation get more involved in policy engagement. Luxton saw what was coming as more policy work at local and central government level was formulated and the sector had to be at the table when those policies were formulated.
Mackle’s challenge was working out what that looked like and complementing the existing advocacy work of groups such as Federated Farmers rather than duplicating it.
That came in the form of scientific, evidence-based policies, using the scientists and economists on staff.
“We built that and that’s something that changed with the advent of DairyNZ,” Mackle says.
The industry’s growth has been one of the sector’s focal points over the past 15 years. The challenge now is working out how it can resolve the issues this expansion has caused.
“We have always had the philosophy that we need to be there to help solve these problems but in the smartest way.”
That means identifying the problem, being clear at a community, catchment or national level about what they are trying to solve and then working out a solution.
His advice for the new CEO is to remember that the job is all about the people – our farmers, the staff, board and wider industry partners – and being able to navigate those different interactions.
“But most critically, establishing that relationship with farmers, really understanding farmers and having that strong empathy for the issues that they deal with.”
Wearing those different hats was a challenging part of the job, Mackle says.
“Always be guided by the principles of why you’re there and why you’re doing what you’re doing and have those values there so even when you’re not with farmers, it’s always at the front of your mind that this is why you’re there to help them.”
Mackle’s great-great-grandmother farmed dairy cows at Kaikōura and it is in his blood, he says.
“I do get their challenges and frustrations and I really value that. I like working with farmers and that means the good times and the times when you get a bit of a kicking.
“Their expectations, quite rightly, are always high.”
Mackle says he regrets not being able to spend more time with farmers, but the demands of the CEO’s role meant it often took him away from those interactions.
“We have two big challenges, one is to deliver as much value for our farmers as we possibly can. The second challenge is to help farmers understand where that value is: A, because they deserve it, and B, because it helps with our relationship with them to engage more and get more done together.”
DairyNZ also must build a better understanding with farmers as to the value their levy money creates.
That challenge around engagement also in part contributes to the repeatedly poor turnouts for director elections.
“Everything contributes and we have to take that on the chin, that we have to keep working on that better. It’s not the farmers’ responsibility to know more about DairyNZ. It’s our challenge.”
Mackle says he is optimistic about the dairy industry’s future but it will take an industry-wide effort for it to work. It is already occurring with the dairy companies getting far more involved in helping farmers make changes to meet customer demands.
It will also require greater collaboration with the sheep and beef sector, which makes sense given how many issues affect both industries, he says.
“It’s going to take collective team effort.”
But whatever those challenges are, they must always be grounded in whatever challenges farmers are facing, he says.
Mackle says the decision to resign came after ongoing conversations with DairyNZ’s board as well as his family.
“Me leaving now, it hasn’t been a spur-of-the-moment thing. It’s something I’ve talked about for quite a few years particularly with [DairyNZ chair] Jim [van der Poel].”
Nor was it an easy decision.
“I care deeply and passionately not only about the organisation but also about the people who we’re serving, which are the farmers. That’s what makes it difficult and it’s not an easy thing to walk away from.”
Nor does he have anything concrete lined up, although he says he is committed to staying in the primary sector.
“For me, the next chapter has got to have real strong purpose.”