Locals Can … But. Graham Clark On The Top Job. And Much More

The Prime Minister had told the Chairman, to run FSC like he used to run the bank. It’s a commercial business, we’ve got an independent board, we’ve got independent directors, and that’s how we run a business, the less we listen to this noise, the better for us so we can just get on with our job.
23 Jan 2021 17:10
Locals Can … But. Graham Clark On The Top Job. And Much More
Fiji Sugar Corporation’s Lautoka Mill.

Can a local lead Fiji Sugar Corporation?

The answer is yes. But.

Outgoing FSC chief executive officer Graham Clark, in an interview with SunBiz, says it’s possible.

“I’m sure, why not,” he said at his hilltop Lautoka office looking  back towards  the country’s biggest mill and main sugar port.

“They’ve done it before, but I think what we’ve got to think about at the moment is the right skill set.

“The fact that we interact as much as we do internationally.

“You need someone who can open those doors and to be inward looking.

“As I think might be a little bit inappropriate right now.

“So, but if we had a local guy I mean who knows some Fijian bloke who’s sitting in Thailand or Australia or whatever he wants to come home. Yeah. Fantastic.

“Because he would have had that exposure. But I am not involved in the recruitment process but I’ve got no doubt that this time it can definitely happen.”


How do you compare FSC today to when you first arrived?

I had previously retired and was asked to come and help the sugar industry in Fiji.

Which I said I would do with pleasure, because I know some Fijians for many years of working in Europe.

When I got here I didn’t realise how bad the sugar industry was.

We had a real mass in our hands I remember.

With our financials, for three years we hadn’t produced our annual reports and hadn’t had annual general meetings and everything was out of date.

So it was clear that the first thing we had to do was do a big clean up.

So we got the three years account out of the way.

I think with the new chairman that came in, he brought in new directors as well as subcommittees. So it was quite good to be able to do that.

In that process we took the view that we had to clean the cupboard out now.

This is so we don’t have any skeletons or issues that were going to emerge as problems later.

We had a big exercise valuing our assets, looking at our receivables and payables and cleaning it as well.

We managed to write stuff off and make provisions. We got the auditors to assist us with what we needed then we published our accounts for 2018. We knew everything in those accounts and what it contained.

So that was a start of the new journey for FSC.

Maybe my job was to clean up and get everything settled and then whoever comes can now drive FSC forward into a new direction.

It was clear that the business from a people point of view it had kind of gotten off track.

We had ballooned to about 200 people employed by FSC whereas today we are done by 1600 now.

There is still more room for more productivity and less unnecessary employment when you know that you are in a tough industry.

And it’s not just Fiji, it’s around the world  where the sugar industry is affected by such factors.

I have been involved with the sugar industry for the last 40 years, every sugar industry is finding it really tough. So I think from the people’s point of view, we were able to get rid of duplication and unnecessary positions or sort of stuff that crept in over the years.

Now we have a much leaner structure, I think we had previously had 13 general managers, we have changed that now.

Our team is made up of myself, plus four other executives.

With a smaller team means, we can make quicker decisions.

The other thing was we hadn’t focused on the young cadre in the business.

We found that most of the people were skewed towards the older age, approaching retirement, end of contracts and what have you which was a real worry.

We managed to put the apprentice scheme back in place.

We got a new focus on training to attract young people and a graduate training programme also.

If we look now we’ve got quite a good balance of younger people.

Now the job is to give them the experience so that they can do the job.

Now it’s really pleasing when you look at our apprentices, for three years in a row, the top apprentices were all from FSC which is fantastic.

So our training team and our technical team are doing a really good job in preparing those youngsters to come through.

From the people’s side that was a bit of hard work to be done but we’ve got a nice training facility and we bring everyone from all the mills together.


What impact has mechanisation had on the industry?

Dealing with mechanisation first of all, it starts with harvesting.

When we first started there were six harvesters in the industry, now there are 90.

The industry was sort of about to fall off the cliff in terms of being able to harvest cane.

Nobody wants to cut cane these days. I think we used to have like 9,000 people cutting cane that’s probably down to about six now.

So the harvesters have filled a big gap. And I think they’ve done a good job to get the crop in.

I think we’re now more than 50 per cent mechanically harvested which is good.

And we’ve got to work on that going forward now and it’s to make them more productive and deliver less leaves and things that don’t make sugar that’s something we will get towards.

Training has been a big part as well.

The past 12 months with COVID-19 and most people haven’t been able to travel.

So we’ve always had external technicians come and service the machines, external operators come and run the machines that didn’t happen this year.

So we were able to become a little bit innovative with the manufacturers. We arranged online training programmes for both technicians and operators.

From those 90 machines we probably have 100 per cent foreign operators before.

Now that we’ve got two foreign operators the rest are all local guys.

I’ve got to say it was a bit of a learning curve but they’ve done a good job so now they’re through their first season. We’ve now gotten everybody on a local base working well together, which is fantastic.


Revival of the rail system. Is it progressing?

With the  transport of the cane, we have a rail system which is probably 80-years-old.

So we’re very excited because the Indian government offered to give technical assistance to upgrade the railway system here.

India has the biggest rail system in the world.

So they did the initial study, and then they were coming back to do the feasibility study and well unfortunately COVID-19 struck so that’s on hold at the moment.

But as soon as they come in, we’ll be able to get to work on that.

Because frankly, the amount of cane coming on rail, when I got here it was probably 25 per cent, now less than 10 per cent. Because of all the challenges with old rundown equipment and all that so I think that’s something we’ve got to work on.

And it’s a big opportunity for Fiji because when I looked at it we’ve got 780 kilometers of rail track all the way around the cane belt so there’ll be a good advantage for us on the road side.

I’m pleased Fiji Roads Authority (FRA) Land Transport Authority (LTA), us and the lorry drivers got round and sorted this out.

We’ve now got a fleet of 117 trucks on the road, all fully deployed helping farmers bring their cane in.

So, last year, what we call our losses due to cane delivery were 25 per cent less than the previous year, which means the whole delivery process was working much better.


 What are some challenges faced by each mill?

The factories are a real challenge here. We’ve got three factories that are more than 100 years old, you’ve got Penang that’s just been knocked down by Cyclone Winston.

So, unfortunately, Penang was just not repairable.

So the first job was to close Penang, move the cane down to Ba, which we were able to do this with the assistance from Government.

So we brought in a team. Quite a well-trained technical team, they went through each factory and gave us a report back saying you need this, this and this.

And I wanted to do that independently. We knew, but we wanted someone else to tell us as well I mean we could compare notes to see, are we right or wrong.

Probably $50 million required to do immediate work on the factories, which we took on board.

We prioritise everything we said we’ll do over a period of three years, which I’m pleased we managed to do.

There’s still work to be done.

But again, if you look at the efficiency of the factories last year we were 20 per cent better than the year before.

And you know, each year before that, there’s an endless sort of cry about these factories that they are going to fall down and they’re not going to work.

But they worked really well last year. So mechanical efficiency is better and time efficiency is better.

And because of that, we managed to shorten the season.


What would suggest Mahendra Chaudhry and Biman Prasad can do to improve the industry rather than sit on the side and throw rocks?

I keep saying these guys should look into the mirror, because a lot of what we’ve gotten from us are issues, from long ago.

Don’t stand there and complain and just say fix it, fix it.

They can’t fix it, they have never been able to fix it and they’ve not got one suggestion.

I don’t think that makes any sense. So, I think you’ve there’s a lot of noise from the side. I think we’ve got to focus on what we’re doing and not get distracted.

We’re in the sugar industry we know what we’re doing.

That’s how we’re go survive from the noise in the background.

I’m gonna get us there. We intend not to respond everytime the media sends queries about what some politicians say about the sugar industry.  We say No comment. It’s not worth wasting our time.

So politics does hurt our industry.

It’s less and less and, I mean when I first got here, we were on page one of your newspaper, Fiji Times.

In every three days I thought oh my god what is this. We’re now maybe on page five twice a week. The noise has gone down, politics have disappeared. The Prime Minister had told the Chairman, to run FSC like he used to run the bank. It’s a commercial business, we’ve got an independent board, we’ve got independent directors, and that’s how we run a business, the less we listen to this noise, the better for us so we can just get on with our job.






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