Grain buyers lap up trade pitch

Brad ThompsonThe West Australian

Three sons of the Wheatbelt have sown the seeds for a win-win solution in the context of renewed debate over foreign investment in Australian agriculture.

They are showing that Australia doesn't have to sell the farm to reap huge benefits from foreign investment and that multinationals based in our biggest markets don't need to buy the farm to get what they want.

Tony Smith, Andrew Young and Ashley Bacon are the local shareholders in grain trader Plum Grove, which only five years ago had one customer paying for advice on grain pools and no balance sheet.

Today three multinational companies each have a 25 per cent stake in Plum Grove, which estimates that its annual revenue this year will top $400 million. It has no debt and a cash balance of about $30 million.

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The success is built around big customers from the biggest Australian grain markets investing in a local management team and their knowledge, expertise and goodwill with growers.

The business model gives US-based Seaboard, Indonesia's Salim Group and Japanese conglomerate Mitsui direct access to grain through a respected brand name without the need to buy farms or port infrastructure.

Salim is the biggest private customer for Australian wheat through Indofood and flour miller Bogasari; Seaboard operates 14 flour mills in Africa and South America; and Mitsui has a controlling stake in imports to Japan and big share of the Korean market. Plum Grove is by no means their only source of grain, but it is an increasingly important one.

It has been a rapid rise for Mr Smith, Mr Young and Mr Bacon, who hail from farming families in Goomalling, Beverley and Cunderdin respectively.

Mr Smith founded the business after a stint overseas with the Australian Wheat Board. He began offering advice on pools and quickly forged a successful relationship with growers and CBH.

Mr Bacon then joined his former Aquinas school mate, bringing the expertise and experience gained through his other business interests. And former Perth footballer and CBH executive Mr Young completed the trio.

They agree it was the deregulation of the wheat market in 2008 that opened the door for Plum Grove to diversify into the cash grain market and sell itself to the world. But first the company needed finance.

"It was a business that needed no money and then it needed so much money it wasn't funny," Mr Smith said.

There was only one bank willing to take a punt on a business with no balance sheet.

"If it hadn't been for Macquarie backing us it (cash trading) wouldn't have got off the ground," Mr Smith said. "They understand commodity risk better than any bank in Australia and as well as any bank in the world."

The bank support was vital but it came at a high price and Plum Grove set its sights on Salim and Seaboard for investment.

Mr Young knocked on the door of Indonesian billionaire Anthoni Salim and then went to Kansas City to sit down with the Seaboard bosses. He convinced the two companies, both big flour millers but operating in different markets, to simultaneously invest in 25 per cent stakes in Plum Grove in 2010.

"We brought the Indonesians and the Americans together, sat down with them and talked the concept through. Their decision to invest was a very significant event for us," Mr Young said.

"Apart from the model, the other essential ingredient was growers and our grower brand name. Establishing and maintaining grower support is essential in this game and the addition of customers as shareholders actually helps that.

"Mitsui coming in December last year was more the icing on the cake and it gave us access to Korea and Japan."

Mr Young said the unlisted Fremantle-based company's sales pitch focused on risk management, investment return, access to supply and the advantages of a local management team with a stake in the operation.

"It is not unlike mining in that outright ownership might sound good but you can get a better outcome from a customer point of view with some local expertise and knowledge and some local management shareholding that gives you sticky access to that expertise and knowledge," he said.

"In the case of Plum Grove, this happens in conjunction with some other customer bases that you have no conflict with."

The model also provides transparency for customers and a genuine understanding of what is happening in the market, certainty a much deeper understanding than they would get as customers dealing with a third-party grain trader.

The success of the model has seen Plum Grove extend its footprint into South Australia and in recent weeks into NSW with the purchase of a controlling share of Agrigrain, a company valued at well over $12 million, which accumulates high-protein wheat from a base in Narromine.

Plum Grove in conjunction with Mitsui now has about 10 per cent of the WA wheat market. This figure does not include its ongoing pool operations with CBH, which also has strong links to Salim through a joint venture in South-East Asian flour mills.

Plum Grove has about 5 per cent of the South Australian market and recently announced a new exclusive grain accumulation agreement with SA grower-owned Free Eyre Grain.

The Agrigrain acquisition, which allows Plum Grove to diversify from bulk accumulation into a range of products and the container export market, is expected to add $100 million a year to revenue.

Mr Smith said Plum Grove was not interested in growth for the sake of it but in ensuring the best outcome for growers and the shareholder customers.

And the three mates from the Wheatbelt have never lost sight of where they came from.

"There is no doubt we keep each other grounded and we have the support of a great team that mostly hail from the bush," Mr Young said.

"It is undeniable that it has been an incredible success story. The funny thing for us is that we behave no differently from the day we walked in here."

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