AWI chief defends taxpayer-funded US study

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Stuart McCullough said the development of an online WEP was a natural extension for an innovative organisation.
Camera IconStuart McCullough said the development of an online WEP was a natural extension for an innovative organisation.

Australian Wool Innovation chief executive Stuart McCullough says his $69,000 taxpayer-funded trip to the US for a leadership course in 2013 was part of the board’s strategy to keep him in the top job.

Speaking at the WAFarmers Vitality 2018 conference in Perth last week, Mr McCullough used his address to highlight AWI’s wool marketing efforts.

During public question time, Katanning farmer Kallum Blake asked whether Mr McCullough thought his attendance at the course, rumoured to have cost $100,000, was a “wise use of growers’ money”.

Mr McCullough said the course was part of a “long-term retention package”, initiated by the board after the wool body went through four chief executives in five years.

Part of the package, he said, involved an arrangement whereby if he quit within four years of completing the course, he would have to pay back a percentage of the cost.

“The board ran the tape over me for a couple of years and thought ‘OK, we might want to keep this bloke and retain him in the businesses’,” he said.

“I was sent to Stanford University in California to undertake an executive MBA at Stanford University ... the cost of that was $69,000, not $100,000, so let’s correct the figure.

“The board said ... we would like to provide you with an education opportunity and we think we want to retain you for a considerable amount of time.”

News of Mr McCullough’s trip to complete an executive MBA at Stanford University was reported in Countryman last week, with the company also facing an independent review of its performance and governance after a series of controversial incidents.

“I negotiated, they came to me with a contract and said ‘OK, we are going to send you to Stanford, but this is part of a long-term retention package for you,” he said. “It could cost in the order of $70,000 and should you leave any year after that, you will have to pay back a percentage of that on 25 per cent increments.

“Should I have left one year later, I would have had to pay back 75 per cent of that. Should I have left two years later, I would have had to have paid back 50 per cent of that.”

Mr McCullough took the reins at AWI in May 2010, after nine years in other roles with the organisation. He said the retention strategy had worked.

“As it turns out, five years on (from the course), I am still here,” he said.

“As it turned out, their strategy to retain me, whether you like me or not ... their strategy to retain me in the business did just that.

“It retained me and it provided some wonderful opportunities — things that I am still playing out.”

The review of AWI will take place over the next six months, ahead of this year’s WoolPoll, where farmers set the organisation’s funding for the next three years.

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