This year’s annual general meeting was the last for Mark Saunders as he stepped down from his directorship role after six years on the co-operative board. Mark’s term on the board has spanned a period encompassing some of the most significant changes Ruralco has experienced in its 55 year existence, and includes changes that will set it up well for the future.
This includes the most obvious, the brand change from ATS to Ruralco. It was a change that was more than a simple revision, and captures the co-operative’s vision to offer its competitive and expert services to a farmer market beyond its founding Ashburton base.
Mark’s decision to step up to a directorship role six years ago came in an environment where rural governance was still developing, and he saw the opportunity to play a role helping a co-operative he was already a shareholder in set its path into the future.
“At that time there was an opportunity for younger directors to get on board, and that said a lot about the co-operative’s willingness to work towards a diverse and dynamic board profile.”
Today he can point to a board that exemplifies what a diverse directorship mix should be, with a 43% female:male balance, good representation of younger directors and input from two independent directors providing additional experience and depth from beyond the immediate agricultural sector.
“And it has really been about stepping up and taking an opportunity in our community with what is a win:win position – it’s not just an obligation you have to fulfil, it is playing a part in helping grow the business, while still keeping those values that make it what it is in the first place.”
One of the most significant achievements Mark has overseen in his time on the Ruralco board has been the launch and 100% ownership of the Ruralco card services side of the business.
An innovative approach to growing a small regional co-operative without investing in significant store and branch assets, the card has meant Ruralco has grown its reach well beyond Ashburton, extending into the remainder of the South Island, Lower North Island and Taranaki through its services and supplier network.
“And over time we will have the opportunity to grow organically beyond that.”
The Ruralco Card has enabled the co-operative to link up with suppliers committed to offering farmers exceptional prices on products and farm inputs, while also sharing Ruralco’s values of community commitment and participation.
Meantime within Ruralco, during his tenure the board has overseen the appointment of a new Group Chief Executive and two highly capable Chairmen.
“I think what we have also managed to achieve is a good alignment between management and governance, with the two working well with each other, with a good level of respect and commitment from both.”
He believes this is reflected in the quality and tenure of the staff at Ruralco, with a good quantity of quality younger staff being recruited and remaining within the co-operative, providing a valuable source of future leaders and managers for the co-operative.
“It is rewarding to look at the skills and talent that are already within the co-operative, and from here we can work on enhancing their leadership skills and capabilities.”
The past few years have contained more than their share of volatility in farm commodity prices, putting pressure on farmer shareholders and ultimately Ruralco’s income. However Mark believes the co-operative’s smaller size and level of staff commitment has meant it has been nimble enough to roll with the challenges.
“We have been able to cut our cloth where we need to, while also not holding back on making changes and investment where we think it is necessary for the co-operative’s next phase of growth.”
This has included a complete revamp of Ruralco’s digital platform in recent months – the significant investment has set the co-operative up for a rapidly evolving rural retail market, and enhanced its established card management services.
“It is not only there to help expand our geographic reach, but also for those shareholders in close proximity whose business patterns are changing and who are looking to use online purchasing more than they have before.”
Meantime he is pleased the co-operative has managed to maintain the ethos and values that drew its original shareholders to it, namely being able to offer them the best prices possible to ensure their farm businesses are as profitable as possible.
But while maintaining farm profits is important, Mark maintains Ruralco and its staff have set a high standard for supporting and sponsoring its rural community.
In return the farming community has shown its appreciation by becoming loyal shareholders within the co-operative. That is in what is a fiercely competitive rural services sector that puts the co-operative up against some significantly larger, well-funded competition.
“Our sponsorship commitments say much about the sense of pride we have in our rural communities, and both customers and staff are very much part of that too – we punch well above our weight in this respect.”
The next couple of years bring plenty of challenges for Mark within his rural interests. This includes work on the MHVwater co-operative, helping manage its environmental needs and governance demands and working with other schemes around the region.
His time is also kept busy overseeing his extensive dairying interests that includes a 2,000 cow, twin dairy operation and grazing support business.