Jackman’s exit takes market by surprise

Outgoing Elders chief executive Malcolm Jackman says his sudden exit from the troubled rural services group was not a ‘‘retirement’’, comments that appear at odds with a statement from the board.

Outgoing Elders chief executive Malcolm Jackman says his sudden exit from the troubled rural services group was not a ‘‘retirement’’, comments that appear at odds with a statement from the board.

Mr Jackman stood down from Elders with immediate effect on Wednesday, ending a five-year tenure, much of which was aimed at keeping the company’s bankers at bay.

In a statement to the ASX, Elders said Mr Jackman and the board had ‘‘previously held incomplete discussions about his retirement’’, which was set for some time in the first half of next year.

‘‘Mr Jackman’s retirement from the business has been reached after further discussions,’’ it said.

But Mr Jackman told BusinessDay he had not retired and after Christmas would start job hunting. ‘‘We just decided that today’s the day to do it and off we go from there, rather than say it’s an early retirement,’’ Mr Jackman said.

‘‘I like to think that the knowledge I’ve built up over the past 10 years running a couple of public companies can be used elsewhere, and so we’ll work on doing that.’’

Mr Jackman said he had talked with the board for most of this year about his looming departure from the company, which posted a $505-million loss for the year to September. He said he has been commuting to Elders’ head office in Adelaide for the past eight weeks after he moved back to Sydney.

He was philosophical about leaving the company, saying: ‘‘I’m always a great believer that the CEO’s role is somewhere between four and seven years ... and this falls in line with that’’.

Investors reacted mutely, with Elders shares ending flat at 11.5¢. Mr Jackman took over from Les Wozniczka in September 2008, when Elders had a $1.4-billion debt.

A recapitalisation in 2009 failed to lift the company’s fortunes. Over the past five years Elders has lost $1.59 billion, which has left it with a shareholder equity of $46.2 million and a market capitalisation of about $50.1 million.

Mr Jackman said when announcing this year’s loss that it stemmed from significant writedowns as the company moved from being a conglomerate to focusing solely on rural services.

Asked if he set out what he wanted to achieve at Elders, he said the company had deviated from its original course.

‘‘I’ve achieved a lot but I’m not sure what I set out to achieve is what we are actually doing. We set out to do one set of things and we ended up doing another set.’’

Mr Jackman said his greatest achievement was ensuring the survival of Elders, which has seen its share price crash 99.5 per cent since January 2008 when it was trading at $23.30. ‘‘The thing I’m most proud of is we actually survived. There were ... times when I didn’t think we’d actually do that.’’

Mr Jackman is leaving at a time when the company’s live cattle division is under pressure. Victoria’s Supreme Court heard earlier this month that Elders had been ‘‘hampered by the sudden and unexpected loss of its entire [live cattle] trading team’’, which defected to rival Ruralco in October.

On top of that, Indonesia is threatening to source live cattle from countries other than Australia, which Mr Jackman told BusinessDay on Sunday would have a similar effect to the Gillard government’s live export ban in 2011.

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