GrainCorp loses CEO to Coca-Cola Amatil after Treasury halts ADM move

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

GrainCorp loses CEO to Coca-Cola Amatil after Treasury halts ADM move

Related tags Australia Board of directors

It was revolving doors today in the Australian food and beverage industry as GrainCorp announced the departure of its chief executive, closely followed by Coca-Cola Amatil broadcasting its own new appointment.

Alison Watkins was the subject of both stories, and her departure from the multinational grain producer and trader comes just days after Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey vetoed a A$3.4bn takeover bid for the company.

It appears that Watkins had been on the recruitment market for some time leading up to last week’s unexpected corporate events.  

Strategic focus

The expectation in the investment community was that ADM’s offer for GrainCorp would be approved and effected in the near term. In that context, it is not surprising that an executive of Alison’s calibre has attracted interest and had new opportunities presented to her​,” said Don Taylor, the company’s chairman, who will serve as acting chief executive while the company searches for a successor to Watkins. 

Taylor added that GrainCorp’s business had sharpened its strategic focus under Watkins, diversified its earnings base and made sound progress to delivering an additional A$110 million of underlying earnings.

Watkins, who has been at the helm of GrainCorp for the last three-and-a-half years, said she had originally planned to leave the company when control passed over to ADM.

"Given last week’s unexpected developments, I feel it is in the best interests of GrainCorp, our people and customers that I move on now and allow the board to find new leadership to take the business forward into its new phase​.”

Moving on

Immediately after the GrainCorp announcement, Coca-Cola’s Australian operation, CCA, announced Watkins would take over from managing director Terry Davis next March.

“I believe my career and experience to date puts me in an excellent position to lead CCA in its next chapter of growth,” said Watkins, who has experience across alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, food processing, agriculture, retail, consumer goods and financial services. 

Prior to her role at GrainCorp she held a number of executive roles including CEO of Berri Limited, the market leader in the Australian juice sector at the time, and is a former partner of McKinsey & Company.

She was formerly a non-executive director of Woolworths Limited and is currently a non-executive director of Australia and New Zealand Banking Group, which she intends to resign in April.

Treasury blocking

Last week, GrainCorp’s shares plunged by more than 25% after Hockey announced plans to block the ADM takeover.

The treasurer said he had taken the national interest into account when considering the bid, adding that the industry was "going through transition and now is not the right time to have all the major players foreign owned​”.

Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce defended the move by the Treasury, saying the deal posed a number of problems for Australia.

"One of those issues, I think around 30 per cent of ADM's money comes from US subsidies, which means that ADM if they'd owned GrainCorp it would be highly influenced by the effect of a large stream of money coming into their coffers from the US Government​," he said.

"And therefore it would be affected by US Government agricultural policy, and this is not in our nation's interest​.”

Meanwhile, the US State Department told Australia’s ABC that it had been “disappointed​” over Hockey's decision, but stressed that the country had not been cowed by the move.

"We do note that the Australian treasurer… has expressed openness to approving an increase in ADM’s current share in GrainCorp​," it said.

"The United States is the largest foreign direct investor in Australia, with US$132bn in investment projects to date, and we look forward to working closely with Australia’s government to build stronger trade and investment ties​."

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