Bruce Highfield: lifting the agribusiness bar

A clear business vision and focus on development and innovation through internal sharing of knowledge and expertise have been key to the success of the world’s largest, diversified farmer, Olam International, according to its head of HR.

Agriculture is Australia’s most productive sector, and Olam’s ‎executive general manager human resources and safety, Bruce Highfield, said the company’s vision is to keep it that way.

“During my time at Virgin Blue [where he was general manager of HR from 1999 to 2007] I learned that growth brings complexity and complexity kills profitable growth and engagement,” said Highfield.

“We are very clear that our 32 first line managers in regional areas are the bread winners and the role of the centre is to support them beat budget not be a drag on it.

“Much of their discussion centres on customer service, cost per kilo, labour and energy cost per bale, cost per hectare, return on equity and free cash flow.”

Incentives are based on hitting individual targets but also a person’s enterprise contribution in what they bring to the table in the organisation matrix.

Olam has also invested heavily in its frontline staff with both technical and leadership training, however Highfield says “we are great believers that real learning happens when you stretch a person with a new role or project.”

In agriculture the link between tenure (assuming the person is capable) and productivity is enlightening, he added.

A recent study of 22 sites indicated that where managers had over five years’ experience at the site productivity was up to 40 per cent greater than at the sites where there was churn.

Each site has a rated capacity based on the machinery, and at one site a manager with 25 years’ experience outperformed the nameplate capacity of the machinery by more than 20 per cent.

“However, at other sites operated by managers who are new to the industry with only a couple of years’ experience we fight to get 80 per cent per cent nameplate capacity,” he said.

“HR has to assist stop the churn and when drought hits you have to find creative ways to keep your work force intact for the big season around the next corner.”

For the full interview with Highfield and article on HR driving Olam’s success, see the current issue of Inside HR magazine.