Meet … Roz Henry, new CEO at Cooperative Business New Zealand

'The younger generation is looking for change. They are smarter, better informed, and have a voice through social media'

Roz Henry has taken the helm at the national sector body Cooperative Business New Zealand. In addition to her previous roles at Fonterra, she has worked as a management consultant in the UK and New Zealand, and with Auckland’s economic development agency ATEED, which gave her insight into the political and economic environment for co-ops.

How did you get involved in co-operatives?

My early career was at the New Zealand Dairy Board (now Fonterra), at its ingredients division, New Zealand Milk Products (NZMP). Working in New Zealand, Australia, the UK and Germany, I gained commercial experience in sales and marketing, business development and research and development (R&D). After this, I was part of the team to establish Fonterra as it is today, before moving into supply chain as director for NZMP’s European operation. I came to understand that we weren’t just working for a big corporate; there were individuals and families whose livelihoods were very much linked to the success of our work. 

My new role at Co-operative Business New Zealand is a great opportunity to use my full skill set and work in an area I am passionate about. 

What does a typical day look like for you?

No two days are the same, which I thrive on. It’s a matter of constantly re-prioritising. As the advocate for New Zealand’s co-ops, we deliver:

  • Education, and specialist governance and leadership development
  • Lobbying government officials and agencies
  • Advocacy – writing articles in support of our members and the business model. I’m looking to work more closely with tertiary institutes and other professional associations to incorporate education around the co-operative model
  • Business support – helping start-ups and non-co-ops establish or transition
  • Events – throughout the year with speakers on relevant topics, and our annual awards. 
  • Thinktanks – smaller executive groupings to engage on topics relevant to their sectors.

What is the state of the co-operative sector in New Zealand?

Co-ops make up 16% of the GDP, employ 50,000 people (excluding migrant workers), and have 1.5 million members. For a country with 4.78 million people, this speaks volumes: New Zealand has been identified by the UN as one of the more ‘co-operative’ countries. 

But there are lots of challenges. How to fund expansion and diversification without extracting for future investment? How to ensure they have the right governance model? And there is work to be done with the government to ensure policy-makers and regulators don’t apply a one-size approach. We lobbied government over the requirement for smaller co-ops to put together investment prospectuses which, for smaller players, is a huge layout. As a result, this is no longer a requirement until they hit a certain threshold. This is building a bridge to regulators so they see the need to look at co-ops differently. 

As a sector and a nation, we are addressing the UN Sustainable Development Goals. New Zealand is seen as a leader on this: 65% of our
co-ops are rural and emissions targets have massive implications for them. How can we provide a voice to our politicians to work together to find solutions? 

We have significant challenges around providing low-cost housing for first-time home owners and the poor. Co-operative Business NZ is facilitating discussions with the government to look at overseas examples of how co-ops can help.

We also regularly engage with start-ups looking to establish co-operatives, ranging from employee-owned models supplier or customer-owned ones. It is seen as a viable business model but more needs to be done to ensure education helps start-ups to consider this model when setting up businesses. 

How should the movement respond to recent problems in the dairy sector?

I was recently interviewed about the demise of Westland (Milk Products) and provided some commentary about Fonterra’s woes. Decisions made by their former executives are concerning, but the model itself is highly sustainable. Much more so than corporates. Very few co-ops die. 

We have recently seen a change with Fonterra revising its strategy and making it clear that it is a co-op, and that co-op values are fundamental to its operation. There are experts, including economists, who now say they are optimistic about where the organisation is heading. 

The demise of Westland opens a Pandora’s box. What skills and capability do boards need? What happens in 10 years when the new owner is no longer required to give farmers a pay-out equivalent to Fonterra’s? What will be the impact on land values, overseas ownership, if there is a world food supply shortage– who is going to get priority? How do we ensure the next generation continues to farm and land isn’t converted to other uses?

This has led these organisations to review how they can do things better. We are delivering significant governance training to members as they look to make changes and challenge the status quo.

What are the biggest challenges ahead?

The pace of change requires businesses to be nimble and adapt to ensure they stay relevant. This needs the right skill set at the senior leadership table, making the right decisions on behalf of members to enable capital investment, diversification and R&D spend to incorporate technology. 

Just because you are amazing at your day job and have a large network doesn’t mean you have the right skills to sit on the executive or board. As these organisations are member-owned there is a tendency to look inward. In addition, how do you keep your shareholders all working towards the same outcome? We see the downfall of these businesses when the shareholders feel they are no longer involved in the decision-making.

How will the sector look in 10 years’ time?

I hope co-ops will still be seen as a highly viable business model and groups of individuals will continue to look at this as a way to start a business. 

Internationally, there is a massive drive to respond to climate change – and the Rochdale Principles align with this. The younger generation is looking for change. They see capitalism as having led to the demise of our environment. They are smarter, better informed, and have a voice through social media. As they come into the workforce, they are going to want to do things differently. 

The co-operative model will be alive and well to sustain a better world.

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