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

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