RL highlights: Bega Chair Barry Irvin
Dairy's compassionate leader
“That’s just the way things are” is conventional wisdom that has never sat well with Bega Cheese Executive Chairman Barry Irvin, banker, dairy farmer, and the driving force behind a growing industry powerhouse.
“I’ve always come from the angle: why can’t things be better or different?” Barry says.
On the day the dairy mogul was due to deliver the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation’s annual John Allwright Memorial Address at the graduation of Course 19 of the Australian Rural Leadership Program in September last year, he certainly had to adapt to a day that wasn’t going to plan.
A dead car battery and little time left to wait for roadside assistance saw Barry rely on the sort of country camaraderie he so enjoys—getting a lift to the Healesville venue just in the nick of time.
Speaking while in the midst of Bega Cheese’s $320 million takeover bid for Warrnambool Cheese and Butter, which ultimately resulted in Bega selling its WCB stake, Barry began his speech by alluding to “a week of large corporate activity”.
His rushed arrival to the ARLP graduation meant he decided to speak entirely off the cuff, beginning with a simple statement: “There is nothing special about me.”
While best known for his role as a leader in the corporate sphere, Barry’s speech was very much a blend of the public and the personal.
A fifth generation dairy farmer, Barry’s current role may seem like an extraordinary tale of a man at home under wide open skies learning to be comfortable in suits and board rooms.
It is, in fact, much more complex.
“I grew up in Bega in a dairy family, but my involvement with the industry is accidental,” Barry says.
“I left Bega as soon as I completed my HSC, I thought, I don’t want to be a dairy farmer. I found a career in banking, and had no real intention to return.”
However, fate intervened, and the death of Barry’s father just prior to Barry’s marriage to his wife, who also worked in banking, saw the couple quickly set on an unexpected path.
“I was upset to leave banking, but that’s what I did. I got off the bus I caught back home to the farm, trying to remember how to milk cows!” Barry laughs.
“It was a very big adjustment.”
Throughout his early years in rural New South Wales, Barry says he was helped by some ‘accidental mentors’.
Now a mentor himself to young leaders emerging and consolidating their places in agriculture and business, he is still benefitting from having experienced the world of dairying while he was very young.
“I have mentors from both spheres. In agriculture and dairy, there were a lot of those very good, down-to-earth men who taught you what a good man was,” he says.
“They very quietly but clearly would come and offer help and advice, and they operated by the code of being aware of others and where you can help them, and assist them in a manner that is not about you, but about the person you’re helping.
“I continued doing business with the men my father had done business with, as we had a generational, long-term trust. Then on the other side, I learnt from and had the support of some very accomplished bankers and business people. I’ve benefitted from being involved in two unique worlds,” he says.
The world that Barry now operates in of course, is one highly shaped by competition, and he has observed a changing environment, with which many producers have struggled.
The influence of supermarket pricing has placed pressure on dairy farmers, along with seasonal conditions and costs, and Barry acknowledges that he must often juggle his own roles as farmer and businessman.
“Of course, on occasion I have found it challenging in terms of trying to communicate a bigger picture philosophy if people are struggling to pay their bills. I have gone through difficult times balancing short term needs with long term vision,” he says.
“But the best way to deal with an issue like the current environment for dairy producers is to have people feel that you have explained your situation well and with absolute honesty about how price is derived and why you’re investing in dairy,” Barry says.
“The fact that industries don’t explain the workings of their supply chain is a factor behind shocks and hard times,” he says.
“The dairy industry’s understanding of markets and supply chain could definitely be better. I’ve tried for years to do a good job communicating how and why things work, and I would always say I could do better.”
When the now seasoned industry leader first became “a small cog in the wheel of Bega Cheese,” it was just the right ingredient to satisfy the corporate side of Barry’s original aspirations.
“Obviously the farm became more successful,” he says “but rolling towards 2000, with deregulation on the cards, I could see that new leadership was needed,” he says.
“And I decided to put myself forward.”
But while Barry had great contacts, great opportunities and a great outlook, it was something far more personal that was about to change his life, his goals and his leadership.
“During the same time, our son Matthew was diagnosed with severe autism, and that brought a whole new set of influences around me.”
As Barry continued to build up the dairy cooperative, he dealt with the personal pain of a son difficult to reach and physically affected by his mental isolation.
It was through his strong network of corporate contacts that Barry came to hear of Giant Steps, a tiny team of people in Sydney, and about the only organisation willing to take on Matthew and his challenges.
“There is no question that leadership from the behavioural and emotional aspects of my life fed back into Bega,” he says.
“Once we felt like we were able to help Matthew, it didn’t take long to say that we should be helping many. We have requisite skills and financial strength. There’s also more than just dollars required to make somebody’s life fulfilled, whether they’re disabled or able, and that is to be part of a community.”
The businessman has since supported Giant Steps to become an organisation helping hundreds of children and young people with autism.
“Giant steps cemented my belief in the benefits of investing in staff, training and developing them so that their own careers can flourish. This is one of the keys to informed, robust and well-represented rural industries,” he says.
“Invest in technology, best practice, employ people in regional Australia, train them, give them new skills, let them compete against the best in the world,” he says.
Over 50 per cent of Bega Cheese’s shareholders are farmers, and Barry says that it is a mistake to see the needs of producers and that of financial stakeholders as mutually exclusive.
“There is a strong link here to community. When Bega was floated, it was the people that lived here who most keenly invested in it,” he says.
And in 2014, the International Year of Family Farming, Barry says he still has firm faith in the role of family units as primary producers.
“I’m a great believer in the family farm. The best and most successful model around the world is still the family farm. Corporates may be bigger, with more technology, infrastructure and employees, but I think agriculture in general will remain the family farming model, with others alongside them.”
He says that leadership education and development will also play an integral part in the success of rural Australia.
“I have met a lot of people along the way who have taken part in programs run by the Foundation, and the formalisation of good leadership development is very important,” he says.
“You can’t assume it will just happen, and people will self identify and self-develop.
“The ARLP takes people out of their comfort zone. It introduces them to new networks and great challenges. It’s all the things that I try and do with my own employees,” he says.
“The challenge is how you keep those networks growing and how you continue to keep results flowing. It’s great to see Course 19 graduate. Now they people need to think about what they want to do in the future.”
Bega Cheese invests in its own emerging leaders by supporting their participation in TRAIL each year.