CBH chair on a unity ticket

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CBH chairman Simon Stead.
Camera IconCBH chairman Simon Stead. Credit: CBH

CBH’s new chairman Simon Stead is disappointed his predecessor Wally Newman resigned after being bumped from the top role, but says he is ready to lead a “unified” team with CBH’s first female deputy chair.

Mr Newman sensationally quit the board after he was overlooked for the chairman’s role in a vote of board members last Wednesday.

His resignation ended a 20-year term on the board, including six as chairman.

Mr Stead said it was a “fluid” leadership succession plan about 18 months in the making, but he hoped his mentor Mr Newman would be there for the transition.

Former CBH board chairman Wally Newman.
Camera IconFormer CBH board chairman Wally Newman. Credit: Countryman

“There was a strong belief that the succession process would be a managed process and a transition, rather than what it is,” he said.

“There had been a lot of discussion and debate about the timing of it (the leadership change).

“I was a bit disappointed for Wally to go ... I thought I would have kept working with him but was adamant that in these circumstances it was the way forward.”

Mr Newman’s resignation came six weeks after he was re-elected to a three-year term, polling 211 to 113 votes in a two-man race with Lake Grace farmer Shane Carruthers.

Mr Newman, a Newdegate farmer, first joined the board in 2000 and was appointed chairman in 2014.

Mr Newman’s last three months as chairman were marred by controversy — starting when his challenger lodged a complaint to the WA Electoral Commission, alleging Mr Newman publicly divulged financial information about CBH’s Interflour business only board members would know.

Speaking on WA Country Hour, Mr Newman said Interflour was set to make a $30 million-$60 million profit, which he later clarified was meant to refer to earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation.

CBH deputy chair Natalie Browning.
Camera IconCBH deputy chair Natalie Browning. Credit: CBH

The heat intensified when former board member and Pingelly farmer John Hassell accused Mr Newman of making inappropriate comments to a woman at a grains conference in 2017.

Mr Newman apologised after being re-elected on February 17, saying he took responsibility for his “inappropriate language” and had completed “personal coaching” after the alleged incident.

While Mr Newman had flagged this term as his last after 20 years, he hoped to continue as chairman.

Countryman understands Mr Newman put an ultimatum to the board last week — keep him in the top spot for now, or he would quit.

It was an ultimatum that cost him his director’s seat, when Mr Stead was elected chairman and CBH’s first female grower director, Kondinin farmer Natalie Browning, was elected deputy chair.

Mr Stead, who farms at Cascade and Dalyup with his wife Sue, said Mr Newman left big shoes to fill.

“He provided strong leadership to the board and the business,” he said.

“He led during the Australian Grains Champion bid and subsequent structural and governance review, was instrumental in introducing the grower patronage rebates and was pivotal in investing in above-rail efficiencies.”

Mr Stead joined the board in 2015 and was was appointed deputy chairman a year ago, when he took the reins from Northam grower Vern Dempster after five years.

While he hoped Mr Newman would still be on the board, Mr Stead said he felt “comfortable” taking on the chairman’s role with Ms Browning as deputy.

A self-described “quiet listener”, Mr Stead said would always listen to growers and act in their best interests.

“It is very important for the board to be able to communicate what is happening,” he said.

“I don’t often have a lot to say, but please be assured I am taking it in and will take it to the board.”

Mr Stead said he was a staunch supporter of the co-operative model and he felt extremely privileged to lead a “largely unified” 11-person board.

“In the lead-up to the elections there was a fair bit of pressure, and a lot of questions about the results of CBH’s marketing and trading arm,” he said.

“It was a low production year (last harvest) and that had everyone a bit on edge.

“We have largely a very unified board, we have strong discussions and most people bring their beliefs to the table ... with the possibility of (their views) being changed.”

Mr Stead he had a “respectful relationship” with CBH chief executive Jimmy Wilson, but had watched and learnt as Mr Newman “stood his ground”.

“At the end of the day the chief executive has always said he worked for the board,” he said.

Ms Browning made history when she became CBH’s first female grower director and potentially the youngest grower director in the co-operative’s history in 2018.

Her journey to the deputy chair role has been bolstered by completing the Australian Institute of Corporate Directors course two months after being elected and studying accounting and business law at Curtin University.

Ms Browning said it was a privilege to be appointed to a role which brought “great responsibility”.

“I am determined to put my head down and work really, really hard,” she said.

Ms Browning said she believed growers wanted the board to “get back to work” after the controversy of the past few months.

“Simon and I have to earn our stripes and build a respect and rapport with growers,” she said.

CBH was this week unable to confirm whether it would now call a by-election.

The chairman last year earned $206,000, including superannuation, while the deputy was paid $119,620, and directors each earned about $100,000.

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