Options if Fonterra boss Theo Spierings steps down - professor

Fonterra chief executive Theo Spierings (Simon Wong / Newshub.)
Fonterra chief executive Theo Spierings (Simon Wong / Newshub.)

Dairy giant Fonterra is denying reports its chief executive is ready to quit, but a professor of agribusiness says if he does there are other good people out there for the job -- and it's not Air New Zealand's boss.

Australian media is reporting Theo Spierings is set to stand down amid increasing pressure from difficult market conditions.

But the cooperative says the claims are completely untrue.

Waikato University agribusiness professor Jacqueline Rowarth says rumours of Mr Spierings' departure have been "flurrying for some time".

"The indication from Mr Spierings is that he is doing his best, but we gather he has been checking other opportunities."

She says at the most recent Dairy New Zealand Farmers' Forum, Mr Spierings "seemed to be slightly disengaged and not totally focused" on the farmers.

One name that has popped up as a potential replacement is current Air New Zealand boss Christopher Luxon.

While Ms Rowarth says he's a good chief executive, he lacks the specific industry experience to take on the difficult job.

"Cooperative, primary production, dairy in particular? Not there. [It'd be] challenging for him and I'd be checking other dairy companies or cooperatives within New Zealand and looking for people doing really well."

While she wouldn't name any of those people, she said whoever eventually ended up taking over Mr Spierings would have a tough task ahead.

She questioned the company's expansion policy, saying it wasn't necessarily the best route to take.

New Zealand is known worldwide for its food safety, animal welfare and environmental standards, "and those are not the same as other countries so why are we trying to expand?"

"The challenge of Fonterra with its currents strategy is that it is in so many different markets it is a very difficult role and you'd be looking for the ethos that someone would really wanted to make a difference and be able to come to grips with the current strategy and then perhaps change it so it will be challenging."

Any incoming chief executive would need to intimately understand how the dairy industry and cooperatives work as well as the point of difference the country has in the production of milk.