After a lifetime working in countless different facets of the agricultural sector including not-for-profit, central, and local government, co-operatives and commercial business, Jessie Chan is excited about her new role as Chair of Ruralco.
It’s been a long, winding journey for the mum of two young sons, Adam, 7, and Noah, 2, who farms in partnership with her business-partner Hayden Dorman on a 420-hectare property at Dorie in Mid-Canterbury, milking 900 cows.
Jessie’s the first to admit that it’s not the path she imagined for herself when she had her first taste of the agricultural sector as a 17-year-old working for the Dairy Research Institute, now Fonterra Research Institute. But it’s her continuous sense of learning, driven by an innate sense of curiosity, together with a passion for making a meaningful contribution to rural communities, that continues to empower her.
Jessie grew up in Palmerston North, one of four children. Raised by her father, although she did not grow up on a farm, she developed a love of agriculture and the primary sector. Her father also instilled the importance of education. Jessie left school at 16 but was determined to go to university. “I had always had an interest in science, in particular biological science.”
Having worked as a Lab Technician at the Dairy Research Institute working in product development, Jessie put herself through university, completing an Honours degree from Massey University in Animal Science Majoring in Ruminant Nutrition.
Fresh out of university, Jessie worked as a Technical Advisor for the Ministry of Agriculture (MAF) doing live animal export and imports, followed by stints with Meat and Wool New Zealand [now Beef & Lamb New Zealand] as a Research and Development Portfolio Manager, and as a Dairy Policy Analyst for Federated Farmers, amongst other roles.
Jessie gained invaluable skills and exposure across all these roles, but especially through her time with Federated Farmers. “I learnt a lot about farming, and I mixed with farmers from all around the country. It taught me a lot about communicating clearly, and keeping it simple, being concise and effective. And how to work with people to get a win-win.”
It was while Jessie was provincial president of the Wellington Young Farmers’ Club that she met Hayden Dorman, who was then Chairman of Tasman Young Farmers. It proved to be the turning point in her career taking her back to grassroots.
Embarking on a new journey together, they decided to move south to Canterbury and take up a lower-order share-milker position at Dorie, on the south side of the Rakaia River. Coming from a corporate background, it was Jessie’s first exposure to rural life.
Playing to each other’s strengths, Hayden was hands-on with the cows, leaving Jessie to focus on the accounts, HR, compliance, environmental issues, and governance. “He’s the cowman. And he’s good at it,” says Jessie. “I self-confess, I don’t milk cows, because I am not very good at it.”
Working their way up from the bottom, growing their equity, skills, and knowledge they took the next step, purchasing 800 cows. After two years of herd ownership, the farm was sold to Italian buyers and they were offered the chance to lease. “It works really well. We run it as if it were our own,” says Jessie.
Before the sale, the farm was run as two units carrying 1,700 cows. In a bid to future-proof themselves against future downturns and to lower their farming footprint, they opted to move to a self-contained system including split calving and winter milking, reducing numbers to 900 pedigree Holstein Friesian and some pedigree Jersey cows. They also grow 70 hectares of crop to feed their cows, drystock and young stock.
While continuing to run the farm in partnership with Hayden, Jessie explored opportunities where she could give back to the agricultural industry. From the variety of roles she had experienced earlier in her career, she gained invaluable insight into how a variety of organisations work and what drives them.
During her 20s Jessie had numerous jobs. At the time she was concerned it was a negative, but looking back the journey of discovery was pivotal. “During that time I discovered governance was one area I was good at and could add value in terms of running a business, understanding risk, financial acumen, legal obligations, strategic thinking and how to go about building a team of people to make that happen.”
Determined to make a difference, Jessie is not afraid to make the tough decisions. “You have to own it. Taking ownership is something that I was taught as a child. With governance, it’s on you. As a director, I am responsible for the decisions we make around the board table. I cannot point the finger at anyone else. I like that side of it.”
Having developed a sound understanding of people dynamics, Jessie’s come to realise that everyone has a story. “People’s life experiences are all different. Everybody is an individual. You need to take the time to understand people. Once you can understand that you get better outcomes. It all comes back to people.”
The move to rural Mid Canterbury, coupled with grassroots experience provided the perfect springboard for her career into governance. “It opened up a lot of opportunities for me. It has evolved from there,” she says.
Jessie completed the Fonterra Governance Development Programme, gaining further experience through the Food and Agribusiness Marketing Experience, the Professional Development Course for Co-operative Directors, and the Kellogg Rural Leadership Programme. She received the Canterbury Institute of Directors Aspiring Director Award in 2014 and was also named 2017 Fonterra Dairy Women of the Year.
She has also served as a Fonterra Shareholders’ Councillor, on the Board of Federated Farmers Mid Canterbury, Business Mid Canterbury, Connetics Limited, Environment Canterbury and as an associate director of Dairy NZ. Last year, she attended the week-long Te Hono Stanford Bootcamp at Stanford University in California along with other major players in the agricultural sector.
Currently, Jessie sits on the board of Ngai Tahu Farming Ltd, Alpine Energy Ltd and the Bio-protection Research Centre. She is also a trustee of Meat the Need, a farmer-led initiative which sees farmer donated meat distributed to New Zealand food banks.
Having first joined the board of ATS in 2013, Jessie assumed the helm in June following the decision by previous Chairman, Alister Body, to step down from the role. In doing so, she became the first female Chair of a major Kiwi agribusiness co-operative.
Jessie was excited to be part of a board that is diverse and very future-focused, though she welcomed the day when having a female Chair wasn’t big news. “It’s lovely that people think it’s cool, but it would be nice if it was normal. That’s when we know we’ve got equality. I’m just a person doing something. Not a woman and not half-Chinese,” she says.
She brings with her a host of skills, not least first-hand experience as a farmer. “I understand the hard graft of farming, whether you are building a business from scratch, growing a business, or trying to keep one for future generations.”
For Jessie, it’s about reflecting on her journey and what she can contribute going forward. She says the challenge for Ruralco is thinking about how it can do things differently while staying relevant and true to its values.
“We have to be thinking about what value we can add for our members. There is a super fine line between delivering the best for members and having a viable business. Finding an answer to that conundrum is both exciting and challenging at the same time. Melded into that is how people are going to do transactions in the future.”
She believes the key always comes back to people and relationships. “People and relationships, whether it’s with our members or suppliers, face-to-face or electronically, are at the heart of all we do.”