THE walnut industry was a fledgling when Australia’s largest grower – Webster Limited – entered the game with its first nursery in Tasmania 20 years ago.
The man behind the push was Rod Roberts – the then managing director of the 186-year-old, now ASX-listed company.
“In hindsight it was a very good decision for us to make the call to develop the walnut industry and so we grew it from its beginnings with 500 hectares in Tasmania. We later saw the opportunity for a more rapid expansion in the Riverina,” Mr Roberts said.
Today Websters’ walnut plantings run to 3,000ha. Establishment of an additional 900ha orchard will be complete next year.
After 20 years on the company’s board, including two stints as chairman, Mr Roberts has decided to step down.
“The company, in my view, has excellent assets, carries modest debt and is now extremely well positioned for strong growth.”
Throughout 2014 and 2015 Mr Roberts (chairman) and his board led the company through a period of vast expansion to become one of the largest irrigated producers in the country. Its string of purchases at this time included listed cropping giant Tandou Limited; former PrimeAg operation Bengarang and mega Riverina cropping aggregation Kooba.
Today Webster’s irrigable land spans 40,000ha of which 15,000ha is sown to cotton this year. Its water portfolio is worth more than $300m.
“It was a very busy time for the board. All the things the text books say about acquisitions – particularly, that the hard work starts after the acquisition is completed – are true,” he said.
“I am proud our achievements during this time and we now have a well functioning and well integrated business. We have a very strong board complemented by a very able management group.”
Now chaired by ports legend Chris Corrigan, Websters is Australia's fourth oldest business and was founded in 1831 by Tasmanian Alexander Webster.
“Working for such an old company makes you want to nurture it and protect it to make sure its legacy is maintained.”
A Tasmanian himself, Mr Roberts grew up on a mixed farm near Wynyard. After a stint as a high school teacher he transitioned into the dairy sector making and selling cheese. He later moved into investment banking. Since joining the corporate world he’s held roles on multiple agribusiness boards.