NATIONAL Farmers Federation CEO Simon Talbot has been replaced by second in charge Tony Mahar in an unexpected power shift at the nation’s peak farm body.
Mr Talbot started as NFF CEO in late October 2014 and has been regarded by some senior industry figures, government officials and NFF members as a polarising figure who struggled to communicate and manage the agri-political landscape during a significant transition period.
However, others like NFF President Brent Finlay have praised his unique approach to resolving the farm sector’s representative failings while forging ahead with a restructure strategy underpinned by building an innovative online digital platform.
Mr Finlay acknowledged simmering criticisms existed but stressed Mr Talbot had not been sacked by the NFF Board and was taking-up another role in the food and agribusiness sector; permanently based in Melbourne.
“The NFF CEO’s role is a tough gig and there’s a lot of travel and time away from family,” Mr Finlay said.
“Simon has a young family and children and is moving onto another role so we wish him well with that and we wish we were holding onto him for a bit longer.
“We employed Simon to try and change the direction of farmer representation and bring a more commercial focus to try and resource what we’re doing better – so we could be bigger, stronger, and faster.
“Realistically we only thought we’d have him for two years and it has been 18-months and that’s something positive.”
Mr Finlay also dismissed suggestions of unrest among NFF staff given Mr Talbot’s part-time presence at the organisation’s headquarters in Canberra, saying an annual review for 2015 showed strong support existed for the CEO and the strategy he was implementing.
But he conceded some of the NFF’s member organisations “did not get as close to Simon as they could have done and vice versa”.
“Simon did not get as close to our member organisations as he could have but when you look at his travel and meeting program last year he was a very busy person,” he said.
“After last year’s annual review we talked about him spending more time with our members and attending member events and also spending more time in the paddock - to get dirt on the boots and talk to farmers about their issues.”
Mr Mahar has been NFF deputy CEO since mid-2012 and originally applied for the top-job which Mr Talbot won from a field of about 80-applicants.
He will take over the NFF CEO’s post on March 14 and has previously worked at the Australian Food and Grocery Council and been a Senior Policy Advisor for International Trade at the federal Department of Agriculture.
In another major development, the NFF has seconded NSWFarmers CEO Matt Brand to work three days per week in pushing the next phase of its Project Streamline and Strengthen to streamline agricultural representation via a united voice; in particular via online advocacy.
Mr Finlay said the NFF’s plan to launch its new representative model before the upcoming federal election had not been disrupted by Mr Talbot’s departure.
“We’re at another stage in the process and that’s why we’ve appointed Matt Brand,” he said.
Mr Finlay said Mr Brand’s appointment aligned with expert external advice which stated the NFF needed a dedicated individual with overall carriage of the restructure process which had been lacking to date.
He said Mr Brand would now take over that role, from Mr Talbot who was originally hired to bring about the NFF’s unified transformation.
“We’ll have the digital platform up and running by June but if the federal election is called faster than that we’ll be caught with our pants down,” Mr Finlay said.
Mr Finlay said the departing CEO had left the NFF with a clear restructure implementation strategy which included building a digital platform and increasing the involvement of commercial partners, in farm advocacy.
“We have to make the NFF family as financially strong as we can with strong membership to do what we need to do,” he said.
“When Simon came in we charged him with looking at other organisations around the world like the US Farm Bureau and the National Farmers Union in the UK to find out what works the best and build something similar in Australia.
“He also worked with MLA around their great brand True Aussie.
“People have been stealing the farmer brand for a long time - whether it’s Coles or Woolworths or the RSPCA - but farmers need to own their own strong brand like they do in the UK with the Red Tractor logo.”
Mr Finlay said Mr Mahar’s development over the past 18-months had been “incredible” and he was now primed for the CEO’s role.
“When the NFF board learnt about Simon moving on and that we needed a new CEO it was a unanimous choice and they said, ‘Tony’s the man’,” he said.
“He has grown and developed and has the respect of our directors and members and the people he engages with so he’ll be great for the role.”
Mr Talbot replaced Matt Linnegar who was the NFF CEO for three years and left the organisation on a sound financial footing having also developed a national Blueprint for Australian Agriculture.
Mr Talbot was contacted but declined to comment.