When asked what it's like to run the Canadian Wheat Board these days, chief executive officer
Ian White tried to be diplomatic.
"It has been a very interesting experience," Mr. White said with a smile on Thursday as he stood in the lobby of the wheat board's head office in Winnipeg. When pressed further, he added: "There's no question it has been a difficult period because of what's gone on. However, right through this what I've been trying to do is run the business successfully, and I think we've been successful in doing that."
Whatever success Mr. White has had will be seriously tested in the next few months as the CWB grapples with the new realities of Canadian farming. That includes the loss of the board's 76-year monopoly over the sale of all wheat and barley grown in Western Canada and the pending takeover of Viterra Inc., the country's largest grain handler, by Swiss-based Glencore International.
The CWB will now have to compete for farmers' grain with private giants like Viterra, Bunge, Cargill and Richardson International. And it will have to do it without any of the same infrastructure the private players own, such as rail cars and elevators.
On Thursday, Mr. White announced a series of grain contracts that the board will offer farmers this year to compete with the other companies. The board has also reached a grain-handling agreement with Cargill, which will take delivery and handle CWB contracts for a fee. The board hopes to cut deals with other handlers including Viterra. But there are concerns that grain handlers will give preferential treatment to their contracts if they deal with CWB contracts as well.
Mr. White said he and other board executives have held a series of meetings with farmers across Western Canada and he believes many are eager to do business with the board. "What we are hearing at the moment from farmers is they substantially want to deliver their grain to a company like the CWB," he said. He added that the board has built strong relationships with foreign buyers over decades that would serve Canadian farmers well. "We believe that we can do an excellent job of competing in the global market place with farmers' grain."
But there are already signs that the board is losing ground. There has been a round of layoffs and departures and more are likely in the months to come. The CWB now employs about 340 people, down from 400 last year.
The CWB's future is dependent on how many farmers sign up for contracts and while Mr. White has a target in mind, he won't share it publicly. "The more grain that farmers provide us, the more viability we have and the better job we'll be able to do for them," he said. "The role of the wheat board is really going to be determined by what farmers want it to do."
He acknowledged that no matter how many farmers sign up, the CWB will never be the same. "It will be a smaller organization, a tighter organization with a tighter group of specialists," he said.
As for his own future, Mr. White said he has no plans to leave. He joined the board as CEO in 2008 after spending 30 years in the grain business in Australia. His current contract expires in 2014. "I'm here," he said Thursday. "I've indicated [to the government]that I'll be here to try and see this through successfully."