The independence of Australian Wool Innovation board nominee William Wilson has been questioned after the nomination committee endorsed him over incumbent board member Paul Cocking.
Mr Cocking failed to secure the committee’s support, which backed Mr Wilson, chair of the industry group’s Wool Exchange Portal, alongside incumbent AWI board members, Colette Garnsey and James Morgan, who are standing for re-election.
Outside board nominee Don Macdonald, Macdonald and Co Woolbrokers, said the committee’s endorsement had sparked debate about Mr Wilson’s independence.
“I’ve questioned how he fits the criteria of eligibility,” Mr Macdonald said.
“The board must feel Will Wilson is a better fit for their desires than Paul Cocking, who obviously has some opinions that don’t fit with the majority.
“They’ve supported someone with a stock exchange background, but I don’t see the relevance to the wool industry.”
Five candidates will contest the three vacant board positions at this year’s annual general meeting on November 17.
According to its constitution, at least one third of AWI’s current seven members must submit for re-election this year.
Mr Macdonald said he was standing to inject a “broader set of skills” into the AWI board.
“None of the existing board has any experience in post-farm gate of the trade and it shows,” he said.
Mr Cocking, former owner of Riverina Wool Testers, Wagga Wagga, NSW, was elected in 2013.
“I’m strongly independent and I believe different views are crucial in all debates,” Mr Cocking said.
“Just because I have different views doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be selected.
“It is critical the board represents the whole industry so there are robust discussions on hard issues and that people don’t all become aligned with the same view, which will stifle progress in the industry.”
Mr Cocking said at the centre of the board election debate was whether candidates had skills and opinions that could progress commercial wool growing in the country.
The industry group’s divisions run deep regarding Australian Sheep Breeding Values, which has become highly political in recent years.
Mr Cocking, a vocal supporter of ASBVs, said this was an example of why a variety of views were necessary when making research and development investment decisions.
“I’ve kept my strong differing views in house, at board level,” he said.
“Just because your views are different, doesn’t mean you can’t reach a consensus.”
According to AWI’s board charter, an independent director must not be an employee, adviser or consultant of the company in the past three years.
Mr Wilson has been a panel member of AWI’s Wool Selling System Review (WSSR), which was launched in 2014, before being employed as the Wool Exchange Portal (WEP) working group chairman last year.
Board nominees have questioned whether Mr Wilson was campaigning for the required 100 shareholder signatures to be eligible to stand while working as the WEP chair, as well as whether a conflict, or potential conflict, was declared when working with the AWI board.
“I will be running as an independent director,” Mr Wilson said.
“I only decided to run in the last two to three months. Woolgrower candidates are presumably engaging with industry on a weekly basis themselves so I don’t see it as an unfair advantage.
“I have not promoted myself as an AWI candidate wherever I have gone (as the WEP chair).
“I was never canvassing for a position on the board prior to the executive and board being aware of my decision to run.”
He said he was aware some people viewed his WSSR and WEP role in conflict with running for a board position.
“But I am only feeling bold enough to run for a position because of that work,” he said.
“I feel I have a better understanding of the needs of woolgrowers from doing those roles.”
A founding board member of the former Sydney Futures Exchange, Mr Wilson said it was unlikely he would step down from his role as the WEP chair.
“There is not a conflict in the sense I am not a supplier of product (to AWI),” he said.
“If there was concern from AWI shareholders that they would be uncomfortable then I would be happy to step down (as WEP chair).”
Meanwhile, veteran fashion industry executive Ms Garnsey, will re-stand, despite permanently stepping down from her role as brand director for Solomon Lew’s Just Group due to a “serious medical condition” which was announced in August.
The nomination committee, which is chaired by former AWI board member Brian van Rooyen, assesses the skills of candidates as required under a statutory funding agreement with the federal government.
According to the board charter, the majority of directors and chair of AWI must be independent directors. If elected, the circumstance would comply.
In a statement, an AWI spokesperson said the presence on boards of persons who do not meet independence criteria was not unusual in commercial life.
“If he is elected at the 2017 AGM, Mr Wilson will not meet the definition of independent director due to his contracting work for AWI in recent years,” they said.
“We would suggest the real criterion for eligibility as an AWI director is the skill set of each candidate, and how that may complement the skills already on the board.”