DIVERSITY: HOW THEY DO IT IN ASHBURTON
There is a bit of a quiet revolution going on in Ashburton as a local rural supplies co-operative turns its business upside down to go nationwide, creates a modern business out of an old style environment and celebrates the diversity of its board.
ho has heard of ATS of Ashburton? Not many north of the great divide, I’d guess. But that is likely to change as this long-established Ashburton cooperative rolls out its Ruralco-branded discount card nationwide (25,000 holders and counting) and proudly proclaims the diversity of its young, gender diverse board.
Chair Philip McKendry and CEO Neal Shaw contacted Management after they saw our June story on the Champions for Change, a group of high profile CEOs leading the charge to ensure more diversity on New Zealand boards.
As Shaw explained in the email: “We have seven directors of which three are female, one of these is an independent director. Our business is an agricultural cooperative with sales revenue in in the vicinity of $230 million, staff of about 90 and tucked away in Ashburton.”
The cooperative has around 3,000 members of which 80 to 90 percent are active. Its research shows that 96 percent of the eligible farmers in the region have signed up with ATS.
The reason he was contacting Management was that while they hear a lot of talk about diversity, ATS is actually doing it.
Both men are at pains to point out it is not just gender diversity on the board, they also have a relatively young board. Director, Jessie Chan-Dorman is in her 30’s, two other directors, Gabrielle Thompson and Mark Saunders are only just in their 40s. McKendry, the chairman is 54 and only one director has had a 60th birthday. In turn they come from very different backgrounds and governance roles.
Only McKendry and deputy chairman Ian Mackenzie have been on the board longer than five years. The most recent member is Sue Lindsay, an independent appointed in 2015. McKendry notes the age and backgrounds of their directors mean they have real diversity of thinking on the board. But it is the skills and experience they bring as individuals that is important, not just gender, ethnicity or age. And the younger members are quite deliberate and strategic about their careers as directors.
As to how this young, gender diverse board came about McKendry explains that the board positions at ATS are highly sought after. Directors are elected at the AGM in a “competitive and testing environment where prospective board members have to present themselves”.
The agriculture boom in Canterbury in the last decade means too that there are a lot of talented young people involved in the industry and they see the co-op as a significant company.
“It is fantastic what they bring in terms of fresh ideas and energy,” says McKendry. “It does mean a challenge for the board, and especially the chair, to ensure newer board members are brought up to speed with what is a significant business.”
And ATS is no staid local rural company, happy with its place in life. It has also put in place a number of initiatives in the last year, most significantly it’s launched its Ruralco Card nationwide so farmers anywhere in the country can join up and get substantial discounts. The Ruralco offering grows the opportunity for farmers and their families to lower their costs.
Ruralco Cardholders have access to a growing network of more than 2,500 local and national businesses nationwide. Discounts for both farming and family goods are typically between 10 percent and 40 percent and the cards can be used at more than 380 fuel stations nationwide.
It’s been slow but steady growth, Shaw says, they now have 25,000 card holders used by 7,000 to 10,000 farmers. Essentially it is a credit card but there is no interest and members pay ATS on the 20th of the month following.
So good is the technology usage by Ruralco as it rolls the card out nationwide that the Canadian supplier, LBMX, has invited Shaw to Chicago to talk about how they have implemented and utilised the software.
“It’s leading edge,” says Shaw and they are proud of the service capabilities it gives them. They process some 50,000 invoices a month and under the earlier manual system it would take 12 staff three days to process them. It now takes five staff members one day.
While ATS only has three stores in Canterbury it can service farmers all around the country and McKendry explains they