Episode 3

How Australia's largest grain exporter works

A focus on CBH, the little co-operative that grew into a powerhouse

 

Co-operative Bulk Handling, or CBH, is Australia’s largest co-operative and one of the nation’s biggest agribusinesses, exporting the grain of 4,000 West Aussie farmers. It was formed by farmers more than 85 years ago to drive collective efficiencies for Western Australian farmers in exporting their grain to the world, a purpose which holds true today. It has a fascinating story, with lots of triumphs and tribulations along the way. Renowned agriculture journalist Pete Lewis talks to farmer Natalie Browning about her journey from co-operative member to CBH Deputy Chair, about how farmers can take some of the risk out of agricultural production by co-operating in business together, as well as how the grain giant has become one of the biggest co-operatives in the world.

Listen to Episode 3

Episode 3 transcript

Melina Morrison:

Hi, I’m Melina Morrison, CEO of Business Council Co-operatives and Mutuals.  Welcome to our Co-operative Farming podcast series. Cooperative Farming is designed to support farmers, fishers and foresters through the formation of new farming cooperatives, and to foster the resilience and growth of developing farming cooperatives.

Today, Natalie Browning, of Co-operative Bulk Handling Group or CBH.

Natalie’s story demonstrates the opportunities that being part of a collective, can bring to the individual. A member of CBH for 14 years she now sits at the table as Deputy Chair of not only Australia’s largest Co-Op but Australia’s fourth largest private company.

Natalie is an inspiring individual, along with her role at CBH, she is part of a farming business, she’s a mum of 3 primary school kids, and is also studying a Bachelor of Commerce.  Her passion for what she does is really the driving force behind what is a very full life and career.

Here’s our host, renowned agricultural journalist, Peter Lewis. Enjoy!

Pete Lewis:

Now we’re joined by a farmer and leader of one of Australia’s best known and most recognised co-operatives, the co-operative bulk handling organisation CBH. It has set the bar for innovation and an excellent model of how big you can get by combining resources and knowledge. Natalie Browning is a farmer based in the wheatbelt in Western Australia on a 100% cropping enterprise of 7,500 hectares. The Brownings grow wheat, barley lupines and sometimes canola. Natalie started farming at 17 when she met her fourth generation farmer husband, Karl Browning.

Pete Lewis:

She became a member of CBH when she got married and 14 years later, she’s one of the leaders in this, Australia’s biggest farming co-operative. Driving innovation and membership as CBH’s deputy chair. Natalie it is great to connect with you into the wheatbelt in WA. And you’ve had a bit of rain?

Natalie Browning:

Yeah, thanks Pete. It’s great to be here with you today. Yes, we’ve been lucky enough to have some rain over the last couple of days and we’re getting down to the business end of the season, so it’s always welcomed.

Pete Lewis:

Fantastic. Natalie, CBH was created almost 90 years ago, can you tell us what your co-op does and how did it start?

Natalie Browning:

Yep, sure. So, CBH group is Australia’s largest co-operative, so as you said, formed many years ago in 1933. It’s owned and controlled by about 3,900 West Australian grain growers, and CBH’s sole purpose is to get our growers’ grain from their farm to the international markets. At the lowest price possible while providing a good service in doing that. At the core of CBH is one true value and that is to sustainably create return value to WA growers, and that hasn’t changed since CBH was first founded in 1933. The CBH group today it has over $2 billion in assets and it has annual revenue which sometimes exceeds $4 billion. Has 1,100 permanent staff and at harvest time when we’re taking the grain from October through to January there’s an extra 1,800 casual staff that come onboard.

Natalie Browning:

A bit of the history behind CBH, the CBH Group was first formed during or just after the Great Depression and back in those days wheat was stored in 20 kilo hessian bags. So, growers got together and recognised that having a cheap and efficient bulk handling system would greatly reduce growers’ costs and also strengthening the wheat industry which is really struggling in Western Australia at the time. The CBH Group started with five trial sites and in its first year it received 42,000 tons. Over a period of time there were up to 300 network sites and as farmers have grown bigger and technology and innovation have come onboard, the sites have consolidated down to 100. And if you think back to the first harvest of 42,000 tons, two harvests ago we took over 16.5 million tons. We’ve got enough storage capacity for 20 million tons. So, quite an extraordinary story.

Pete Lewis:

Indeed. It’s often said that pressure makes diamonds. I imagine there must’ve been some very larger than life and very determined characters at the genesis of CBH.

Natalie Browning:

Yeah, absolutely. I think to be brave enough to take the leap to start CBH Group takes a lot of courage and it’s just amazing to think that over the past 87 years what it started out as to what it’s grown into today: Australia’s largest co-operative that’s been owned and controlled and governed by farmers for 87 years, the fourth largest private company in Australia. It’s just an amazing story and I think the growers of today will be forever grateful that growers back then had the foresight and the courage to one, start the business and to two, set it up as a co-op which truly delivers the biggest benefit to growers.

Pete Lewis:

Natalie, tell us a little bit about the structure of CBH. It’s obviously been intrinsically important to its continued viability and success.

Natalie Browning:

Yeah, absolutely. The CBH Group is a non-distributing co-op so it effectively operates as not-for-profit organisation. So, it’s quite unique where the owners of the business are also the customers and sole beneficiary of the business. So, very different to a corporate structure. The aim of a corporate structure is obviously to make profits to return to shareholders, there are no shareholders, all the shareholders in CBH Group are the owners and the customers. So, the whole purpose is to drive costs as low as possible while delivering good service. There’s no profit margin that has to be built in to deliver to an external third party and everything that growers generate is returned back to growers in the source of better services growing the business or in the form of rebates.

Pete Lewis:

Now look your pricing structure really differentiates you as well in that you have lower prices compared to many other grain traders, working off a rolling five year average. How does CBH manage this?

Natalie Browning:

Yeah, sure. So, we work off a rolling five year average, so we’re very reliant on the size of the grain crop and that’s our sole source of revenue. So, as you can imagine, take the last two years for example, two years ago we had a harvest of over 16 million ton, last year we had a harvest of 9.7 million. So, the fluctuations in revenue can be massive, and we need to make sure that we’re not charging growers too much money but we also need to make sure that we’re covered for the poorest growing seasons and that we’re generating enough revenue to run the business. So, there’s a lot of analysis that goes into that. We look though the cycle and work on long term averages or five year rolling averages. We’ve got a lot of seasonal variability and also farming practices are just improving year on year. So, that’s also taken into account.

Pete Lewis:

And once it’s grown and turned up at one of your silos, so where does it go next and who controls that? Is CBH involved right through to the port and beyond?

Natalie Browning:

Yeah, absolutely. So, CBH is involved from the receival site right through to the port. So, once the grain’s received on site, CBH has its own dedicated rail fleet, where possible we take as much grain as we can on rail, keep it off the roads and it’s the most viable transport method. What doesn’t go on rail goes by truck to ports, so we’ve got four strategically located ports throughout Western Australia. And once it gets to port CBH group exports approximately 98% of the… Well CBH acquires 90% of the WA harvest into its receival sites and of that 90%, approximately 98% goes through those four ports to our international markets right around the world.

Pete Lewis:

Now as we’ve heard as we go through this series, co-operative members all need to be very much engaged in the process for it to work and for it to work effectively. With so many members and such a large area, how do you keep everybody working together and pointed in the same direction?

Natalie Browning:

Yeah, it must be a constant focus, as a co-operative having a social license among your membership base is really important. We put lot of effort into staying connected to our growers we cover a very big area. The CBH board has a more active role with members than perhaps some private companies. There’s a lot of CEO management grower roadshows that happen and we have a dedicated team of business relationship managers that are out in the field assisting growers whenever needed. So, to keep your members engaged and supportive of the co-op is just always going to be at the forefront of your mind, you’ve got to have a good culture. There’s a saying that a co-op expert from the U.S. said to me last year that within a co-op you’ve got to make sure that frictions don’t turn into fractures and you’ve got to have that, at some stage there is going to be frictions amongst your membership base and differing opinions. But you’ve just got to be constantly working to prove that the only reason you’re there is for the benefit of WA growers.

Pete Lewis:

You’ve got all those rugged individualists with I imagine very strong opinions sometimes on the very key issues. The fact that you’ve had so much skin in the game for so long proves that culture thing you talked about must be very much front of mind no matter who’s running the place, who’s chairman, who’s deputy chair at any one particular point in time.

Natalie Browning:

Yes spot on. I think culture is just absolutely number one and culture and good governance run hand in hand together and that culture must start from the top. And we always challenge ourselves to make sure our culture is set right at board level, which then flows through to our management team, right down to our frontline. And it’s our frontline workers that interact with growers everyday and it’s important that they feel passionate about the co-op as well. Understand the benefit and they’re championing our co-op model. So, culture it’s just number one and CBH is such a valuable asset, grown to such a valuable asset when there is a little bit of dissent among the grower base.

Natalie Browning:

We’ve constantly got to be demonstrating to people why the co-op structure is the best structure for this business and why we believe any other structure will lead to higher costs. And ultimately some of the more marginal farming areas perhaps not getting the service that they get today.

Pete Lewis:

Over that period you’ve amassed a very, very impressive inventory of assets and I guess it actually goes well beyond the business of just growing grain. In all the significant parts of the operation, the transport, the logistics and obviously the sale of your product. It’s a pretty amazing thing to bite off and chew isn’t it?

Natalie Browning:

Yeah it is amazing if you sit back and think the assets that growers have built up and paid for over the years. We’ve got 100 strategic network sites with $20 million grain storage capacity. We have four strategically located ports around the state. We have a dedicated rail fleet. Our marketing and training team actually purchase between 30 and 60% of the crop which takes a lot of the risk off growers and move that crop into the international market. We’ve also got various investments including flour mills in South East Asia. Off the top of my head I believe they produce about 1.5 million ton of flour per year. We also have two oat processing plants, one in WA, one in South Australia. So, it’s an amazing asset and just to think what growers have done, I’m forever grateful. As a younger generation grower and I’ve got kids that want to go farming, I’m forever grateful for the previous generations for this just amazing asset they’ve built up for us.

Pete Lewis:

And an important part of having all those assets is the sharing component because not everybody needs to absolutely own every little bit of kit. And that I guess also goes to sharing not only equipment, plant and equipment, but resources, data, and critically these days, knowledge. Is that a big part of the story?

Natalie Browning:

Yeah absolutely. So we’re just at the start of our data journey and getting back to sharing, we always make sure that all growers throughout CBH are treated equitably, and equitably doesn’t always mean equally. But we always need to govern and control CBH as a whole for the viability of all farmers. So, sometimes that does cause a few frustrations, particularly when we’re rationalising the network and things that we need to do to make the business remain viable. With relation to data, growers receive massive amounts of data and analysis on their farm today. And there is a lot of talk about how we can utilise that data to help make growers more internationally competitive and more efficient in their businesses.

Natalie Browning:

We’re finding data is very closely held by growers and rightly so, and growers are quite private about their data. So, as a co-op we want to share data for the benefit of our growers and share growers’ data. We’ve been sent a really clear message that one, growers want to know that that data’s going to be protected and remains within their ownership and it’s their data. And the second one is we need to be able to demonstrate to growers that we can use that data for the benefit of their business, for the benefit of the co-op. To make them more efficient, more profitable and more competitive in the globalised environment in which we compete.

Pete Lewis:

And I guess one of the significant challenges just in terms of harvesting all that data is strong reliable connections in the part of the world where you are. What’s the story in terms of your ability to tap into the world wide web and really connect with an enormous corporate structure and potentially with all their customers overseas?

Natalie Browning:

Yeah, connectivity is a constant conversation within the co-op and we have one end of the spectrum to the other, so we have growers out there that have amazing connectivity and then we have other growers, we hear stories that they still have to get in the car and drive up the top of the hill with their laptop because they can’t get connectivity at their house. So, it’s a big challenge, it’s something CBH is always looking at. The challenges lie in that unfortunately some of areas that we farm are not populated enough of a big telco to be able to make putting fiber out here profitable. And we cover such a large area, we’re looking at lots of different ways that we can help growers with connectivity and we don’t necessarily have to always do everything by ourselves there’s a lot of companies out there that are bringing alternate solutions to connectivity and there’s several examples throughout Western Australia.

Natalie Browning:

So, just keeping I guess our finger on the pulse there and if we can anyway facilitate or help already established organisations out there that benefits WA growers, well CBH is always happy to play a role in that as well.

Pete Lewis:

Look, connectivity is just one of the challenges facing the grain industry and indeed most agricultural industries in Australia because we are so export internationally focused. What are some of the big challenges currently facing grain?

Natalie Browning:

Yeah, well I think that the number one would have to be the Coronavirus this year. So, that’s been a massive challenge and just absolutely just appreciative of everything that CBH Group has done. Management just transitioned from working from head office to home seamlessly. We actually continued exporting, we were breaking records with grain going out of our ports and we were very fortunate to be in the food industry that there was a real demand for food. So, there is a lot of procedure put in place to make sure that we didn’t have to close our ports at any time due to infection, and today we haven’t had one Coronavirus case within the CBH Group. We also have offices internationally and those measures extended internationally to our offices. I think the second major challenge today for Australian growers, or West Australian growers is we compete with a lot of lower cost origins and the Black Sea’s a great example.

Natalie Browning:

They can produce grain a lot cheaper than we can they have soils that are much more fertile. And our one big positive we’ve got going for us is that we are closer to our main markets in the South East Asia. So, it’s really important that we keep driving efficiencies in the business. Because we are competing for the same markets as these low cost margins producing places.

Pete Lewis:

Well, you’ve talked about the Coronavirus and obviously the periodic trading hurdles that are thrown up in front of you and then there’s obviously weather and all manner of other things. For you how important a factor is being a co-operative in helping the resilience of your members and your business?

Natalie Browning:

Yeah, I think it’s the absolute number one reason and it’s why I’m sitting at the board room table, that’s what lead me to become a director, was during the last corporatisation bid. I really wanted to get involved and protect the co-op structure. I think any other structure will lead to rise in costs because the business suddenly changes from becoming value-driven to return value to the growers. It pivots to become a profit-generating business to give profits to external shareholders. The only way those profits can be generated are from increasing costs to growers. So, the CBH Group I think is absolutely a vital part of keeping WA grain growers internationally competitive and it flows right through our communities. And successful WA farming industry, there’s a lot of support services around that in our local communities.

Natalie Browning:

So, it leads right through the community to sustainable communities, keeps more kids in our schools, more members in our sporting clubs. So, the CBH plays such an important role right throughout regional grain growing Western Australia.

Pete Lewis:

Now, look it’s interesting that you said you were prepared to put your hand up and get on the board and actually have a very active say in the future direction. I understand that a teenage Natalie wasn’t necessarily aimed and ready to be fired into a farming anything.

Natalie Browning:

Yeah, no that’s right Pete. So, I married into farming, so I met my husband very young at the age of 17. I always grew up in a regional community. My parents are small business owners so it’s been great to be on both sides of the fence from living in a regional community as a small business owner now being a farmer. When I met my husband I originally trained as a nurse and I met my husband and I began working on the farm and I enjoyed it more and more, just absolutely loved it. I’m a very practical, outdoors sort of person and it just developed from there. I resigned from nursing and went on a trip to Canada with my, wasn’t my husband back then, but my partner and another couple and we actually did a grain harvest on Canadian farm. And that was the first time I realised what an amazing setup CBH was and I grew a lot of interest looking into CBH. And from there I joined the Grower’s Advisory Council for CBH which I sat on for 18 months.

Natalie Browning:

And then during the corporatisation bid I put my hand up for the board, not with an expectation as to whether I would get on or not. But we call for diversity which comes in all forms. So, if we want diversity people on our board we need diverse people standing. So, I even thought if I didn’t get on the board maybe it would encourage more growers to want to get involved with their co-op.

Pete Lewis:

Look, it’s often said that if you really want to get things done, particularly in the bush, you find the busiest person you can and give them something extra to do. And let’s have a look at this, you got the farming business, you’re the mother of three primary school kids, you are currently studying for a Bachelor of Commerce. You’re in the management of CBH and all that entails as you’ve outlined. I guess the burning question on everybody’s lips is how do you keep all those balls in the air?

Natalie Browning:

Yeah, I’m sort of doing everything at once there. It wasn’t what I envisaged when I started my degree I thought I would upskill while my children were young and I might go off and do something later on in life. But one corporatisation bid and that changed there. So, I’m really lucky. I think there’s two key things. The first is I’m passionate and I absolutely love everything I do and it’s such a privilege to be in a leadership role at CBH. It’s a role that not a lot of people get to experience so I’m just driven to make sure that I’ve got the skills I need to manage or to help govern our co-op and help steer it forward. So, I think my accounting and business law degree Bachelor of Commerce, it really equips me with the skills I need in the boardroom.

Natalie Browning:

Everything sort of works around that and I’ve got an amazing support network around me and that’s why I can do what I can do. So, my three kids, Chloe’s five, Noah is ten and Jace is 12. And we’ve got an amazing support network, my husband, both sets of grandparents. I actually have someone on the farm that is employed full time to give me a hand. So, when I’m off in meetings in Perth it’s actually my auntie, she comes in the house and does all the daily jobs, the cooking and cleaning and looking after the kids. My kids have got a fantastic school, I’ve got a fantastic group of friends so, I’m just really fortunate that I’ve got a great support network and allows me to do what I love.

Pete Lewis:

And I guess in a sense you are the manager station of the ideals of getting as younger people as possible involved as early as possible. And women, with all the skill set that they bring and I guess it’s a big organisation that can facilitate all those kinds of things and encourage people like you, where you live to be involved in something as big as CBH.

Natalie Browning:

Yeah absolutely. When I joined the board a bit under three years ago it was really important as the first female grower director in the co-ops history and I don’t know if I was the youngest director but probably one of the youngest directors on the board. It was really important that I did a good job and represented that it’s good to have diversity on the board. And as a co-op we need to make sure that we’re equipping our skill base, our grower base, sorry. With the skills they need so they can come through and govern our co-op in the future. And we’ve got a big role, that starts at grassroots levels in the communities. We’ve actually just had our second female grower director ever appointed to the board just a few days ago. So, that’s fantastic. And we’ve tried to create an environment that supports diversity but I don’t think you can ever force it because we want to attract the best that we’ve got to govern our co-op, it’s such a valuable asset.

Natalie Browning:

So, to see the diversity starting to happen naturally and for CBH being really committed to do everything we can to support the development of our growers and attract people to want to put their hand up and help steer this co-op for the future. It’s a great thing to be a part of.

Pete Lewis:

Do you get a sense there are other agricultural commodity groups within your own state and in other parts of Australia that have a little look over the fence at what CBH has done and what they’re doing and thinks, “We really need to attach a set of jumper leads to this mob, we could learn a bit from them?”

Natalie Browning:

Yeah absolutely. And we encourage other grain businesses, globalised grain businesses, to come and trade in the West Australian market. And if you take our marketing and trading arm for an example, buying the West Australian crop you’ve got to take on huge risk to do that, and while we mitigate that risk as much as possible, CBH actively encourages other buyers to come into the market. And we sort of aim to buy between 30 and 60% of the crop. But we actually need these other grain producers to want to buy our grain to export internationally. So, that’s really important and I think there always is a little bit of tension there when other corporate companies would probably like to crack the WA market in a bigger way, whether it’s storage and handling or other ways. But I just believe that CBH needs to be protected and we’ve seen the corporatisation happen in other states in Western Australia and their costs have risen significantly because of it. So, as a volume-based business, the revenue generated is solely reliant on the size of the WA crop.

Natalie Browning:

It’s so important that we protect the co-op and it’s solely there to benefit the growers, not for any other reason. There are some areas within the business that we absolute need other companies to come and give us a hand with and give WA growers a hand with. But we also need to protect the core meaning of our business.

Pete Lewis:

Look this is probably a good opportunity for us to once again remind our viewers that we’re running a poll in conjunction with today’s interview with Natalie, and we’re looking for your thought on what is the biggest benefit that internet connectivity has brought to farming. There are a range of options, you could probably tick all of them to be frank and not to be to wide of the mark. But we do want you to go through that and be involved in the process as much as you can. Click on the poll- it’s in the live chat to the right of this screen and select your answer. We’re really interested in getting your feedback and your involvement from that point of view. Natalie, with the vantage point that you’ve had now as a board member and now as deputy chair, do you think you’re farming better, differently? Has it had an effect having that sort of helicopter view of the whole game on to what you’re actually doing back on the ground?

Natalie Browning:

I think some of the values are very similar within the CBH Group, probably what we adopt on our farm. And I think efficiency is absolutely a key and sometimes simplicity and driving efficiency to make your business as profitable as possible. And we talk about areas of innovation and technology, there’s a lot of different innovation and technology and farming practices getting trialed these days. And I think if you’re going to adopt innovation and technology it’s got to bring value to your business and it’s got to help you become more profitable. So, that’s very similar on the farm to in CBH. There’s a massive amount of innovation out there. You talk of things about artificial intelligence and autonomous practices. We’ve just got to be careful with CBH that anything that we adopt, we always have to be looking to innovate. Anything we adopt must return value to our growers and sometimes it’s better to be a fast follower and let other people trial that innovation, and once it’s proven, be ready to adopt that for the benefit of our growers. So, I think the same principles there, farming as to CBH.

Pete Lewis:

Is there something that’s particularly caught your eye though and really captured your imagination that you think, this might be the next big thing that Karl and I’ve got to look at and look at trying to fund?

Natalie Browning:

Yeah absolutely and I think there’s a big push in the tech space and innovation space for use of autonomous vehicles on farm, the use of drones to check crops. And we are very cautiously standing on the sideline really watching and really keeping up to speed with what’s happening. But we don’t believe it’s at a place yet where it’s going to return a lot of value to our business. There’s a few little challenges with drones, really simple stuff like battery life and things like that. Connectivity once again, sometimes you need to be attached to wifi to be able to use your drone. So, similar looking forward we just want that to be proven before we spend the money on it for our business.

Pete Lewis:

Look, so much of what you do as grain growers is focused very clearly on export markets and I guess you indicated a little earlier that the primary challenge in 2020 has been how to manage your way through the Coronavirus challenges. I guess you probably see that as being a continuing challenge now as we move though the balance of 202 and this harvest season, and well into the future. How important has the support from state and federal governments, those authorities, in A) declaring agriculture an essential service and B) really trying to put a foundation and support to food exporters?

Natalie Browning:

Yeah absolutely critical. So, we have very positive relationships with our government counterparts and their support throughout the Coronavirus has been greatly appreciated and we have storage for 20 million ton of grain storage. But if something had have happened and our ports had have been shut down and we weren’t able to export, and the CBH group wasn’t able to generate the revenue it needed through marketing and trading, it wouldn’t take too long before you’d come across some significant challenges. And I’m sure we’d do everything we could if we had to receive another harvest on top of that. The CBH Group is really well equipped to handle a crisis such like this or something. We talk about black swan event where our revenue could have been cut off.

Natalie Browning:

And this is why at times the CBH balance sheet can be criticised. It’s called a fat and lazy balance sheet, but the co-op is deliberately conservative and our balance sheet must be resilient enough to be able to suffer these shocks and survive. We’re different to corporate structures where you’re really restricted in ways which you can raise capital. We don’t want to raise fees to growers and selling off some of our asset base, our storage and handling, excuse me, facilities is just not an option. So, we make sure that as a business we are resilient enough to get through some really, really tough times and that this co-op can exist for as far as I want forever into the future so.

Pete Lewis:

I guess one of the clever things that CBH has done is really establish themselves in some of those key markets with very rock solid partnerships which I guess at times of uncertainty are really part of your insurance.

Natalie Browning:

Yeah spot on, and our marketing and trading arm of the business have done an amazing job there, and particularly one of our main grain trading markets South East Asia. So, the relationships are highly, highly valued and CBH Group has built up some really long term relationships. We’re known as a reliable supplier of grain and good quality grain, and that really helped us throughout the Coronavirus. Perhaps some areas of the world hadn’t had the best harvest the season before. Buyers were looking to shore up their suppliers and we absolutely benefited from that throughout the Coronavirus period, and those relationships played a big part in that. So, it’s as big as culture I think, culture and relationships is massively important.

Pete Lewis:

Yeah, it’s interesting that you brought the conversation back to culture because it’s fair to say that many co-ops succeed or fail because of the sweat equity involved in them. What social value is created through your co-operative, you’ve talked a little bit about it already but I think it’s probably worth hearing a little bit about how it fits into the whole jigsaw puzzle of ag in WA and beyond.

Natalie Browning:

Yep. Yeah it’s something that, the social value is always at the front of mind and we’ve got to be able to demonstrate to growers, why the CBH group and it’s business structure is the best structure for WA growers. There’s a few things that jump to mind and one particularly being a younger grower. I sometimes think that if we don’t continue to champion our model and champion why we were created in the first place, I fear sometimes that that could get lost amongst a younger generation. That actually we forgot that CBH Group was formed because the cost of storing and handling grain was so high. So, I’ve said to people before I believe if CBH ever got corporatised, well probably in another 50 years a group of farmers would start another co-op. So, it would do full circle I think. We’ve always got to make sure that our growers understand the co-op model and the benefits of co-op model, and I think sometimes people that want to corporatise prey on that a bit because everybody understands how the corporate model works.

Natalie Browning:

And I know through my university studies, the co-op model is not something that’s taught academically enough, and we need to get better at that to people to understand the corporate model… The co-operative model sorry, and the benefits of that. So, just continually making sure our growers are informed and making sure our co-op is transparent with why we’re here, how we operate with growers. It’s really important and if we ever lose our social license and our culture heads in the wrong direction, it often, as I said earlier, those frictions turn into factions and it can lead to the demise of a co-op. And I don’t think we’d realise until we lost it how amazing it was, so we’ve just got to make sure we’ve got the best people to govern and run the co-op and just demonstrate to growers why we’re here.

Pete Lewis:

It’s been great talking to you Natalie. My final question is, along this amazing journey that you’ve had and an unlikely one in some regards, what’s the one big lesson that you’ve learnt that would help our farm audience watching today? What’s the best bit of advice, or who’s the best mentor, and particularly for those thinking about joining a co-operative or creating a co-operative?

Natalie Browning:

Yeah, well I think being part of a co-operative is such a rewarding experience. My biggest piece of advice is obviously you need to get your governance right and your culture right. And to form a co-operative and to be involved in the governance of a co-operative you’ve got to be prepared to make the tough decisions. And sometimes those decisions are unpopular amongst some of the growing base but they must be made in the best interest of the co-op. And that’s a constant thing that as a director you’ve always got to make sure you’re protecting and you’re governing your co-op as a whole to ensure it’s long term success. So, you’ve got to be brave enough to make those decisions that you might get a bit of short term pushback on, and some negativity from the grower base. But if you truly believe you’re making decisions in the best interest of the co-op, it’s a lot easier to sleep at night when that criticism comes in.

Natalie Browning:

So, it’s not always an easy gig but it’s probably the most rewarding thing I do in my life is to be able to represent WA growers and be a part of leadership groups. It’s amazing.

Pete Lewis:

Well look it’s been amazing taking to you Natalie. It’s a great story, I think it’s a timely one too, a timely sort of inspiration for a lot of people who are maybe questioning where their business and their commodities section is heading. So, it’s been a real delight and quite amazing really we were able to wedge our way into what is obviously the busiest schedule in Western Australia right now. Good luck with all those projects you’ve got on the home front and beyond, academia and obviously your board duties and, obviously it goes without saying, all the best for this next harvest.

Natalie Browning:

Yeah, thanks very much Pete and thanks for having me today, it’s been great to talk to you.

Pete Lewis:

Our pleasure entirely. Natalie Browning everybody.

Melina Morrison:

I hope you enjoyed this episode. Emma is really at the beginning of the co-operative journey.  She’s building a membership.

If you are interested in starting or joining a co-op you can’t miss a great round table where Emma and I were joined by some respected ag leaders to talk about the importance of the people factor – the membership base of a co-op.   It doesn’t matter if you’re big or small, often the most crucial part of forming and growing co-operative is engaged membership.

You can watch this excellent round table on demand by going to conversations.co-opfarming.coop.

Don’t forget to subscribe now to the cooperative farming podcast series and rate us.

I hope you’re inspired to find out more about the fantastic benefits of cooperative farming, and how to realise the incredible potential for your business, as we future proof Aussie farmers.

Join us at coopfarming.coop, and in our next podcast we talk with Kerry Murphy Secretary of TAFCO Rural Supplies.

Remember, in a challenging world, we are all “better together”.

I’m Melina Morrison, thanks for listening.

Key links

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