Friday, February 11, 2011

So the CWB wants to buy a couple of lakers

Surely this wasn’t just an impetuous reaction to the federal Government’s removal of a 25% tariff on imported vessels (announced on Oct 1st, 2010).  I give the CWB board more credit than that; I’m certain they’ve been developing this for a long time – long enough to have talked it over with farmers well ahead of making the decision.

Even though the CWB has had ample opportunity to discuss the concept with farmers, it failed to do so.  So what are we supposed to think when we read this quote from Maureen Fitzhenry in a recent news article?

"What we need to know is what the actual farmers of western Canada are thinking. That's why we have farmer satisfaction surveys, the annual producer survey, e-polls, accountability meetings and that's why we collect feedback from our front line staff," she said.

They clearly didn’t want to know what “actual farmers of western Canada are thinking” about investing in lakers.

If they had asked, I wonder how many farmers would have said “no, I don’t want you investing my money”.  If given the choice, I wonder how many would have voluntarily invested.  The CWB is stepping over the line, taking money it holds in trust on behalf of farmers and investing it against their will and their individual interests.  They shouldn’t be surprised with the outrage we’re seeing and hearing.

Is the CWB board so focused on some unspoken agenda that they’re willing to accept a little collateral damage?

Did you know....
One of the CWB’s partners in this venture is Upper Lakes Group, which, among other things, owns Soumat, which in turn owns: 
  • Mission Terminal, operating a terminal in Thunder Bay, two primary elevators in the prairies, and with financial interests in a number of producer car loading sites and short line railroads
  • Les Élévateurs des Trois-Rivières Ltée, a CGC-licensed transfer elevator located on the St. Lawrence River at Trois-Rivières, Quebec
  •  Les Grains Lac Supérieur Ltée, a grain trading company originating and distributing grain and by-products from Western Canada, Ontario, and Quebec to domestic and export markets.
And did you know...
The CWB already has a very close relationship with Upper Lakes:
  • Adrian Measner, ex CEO of the CWB, became President and CEO of the Upper Lakes Grain Group (Soumat) in October 2007.
  •  Mission Terminal is the largest producer car administrator, most of which are for CWB grains.  I’ve been told that the CWB ships 60% of its grain destined for Thunder Bay to Mission Terminal, even though it has only 10% of the capacity in the port.  The CWB favours Mission so much, in fact, that Mission applied to the Ontario Provincial government for $1 million to expand its capacity.  (This seems quite ridiculous when you consider there is excess capacity in Thunder Bay already and the other terminals would gladly (and efficiently) handle more CWB grain if given the chance.) 
  • Soumat’s grain trading company, Les Grains Lac Supérieur Ltée, includes CWB grains (red spring wheat (CWRS) and durum (CWAD) on their list of “products” they trade.  However, they are not listed on the CWB’s website as an Accredited Exporter. (So what are they doing for the CWB on CWRS and CWAD?
  • Soumat’s transfer elevator in Trois Rivieres handles CWB grains (among others).  Before Adrian Measner became responsible for this elevator, it handled an average of 1.4% of all CWB exports going east (via Thunder Bay and/or transfer elevators). Under Mr. Measner’s leadership, it’s handle of CWB grains has increased to an average of 7.7% of all CWB eastern exports.  To put it in tonnage terms, prior to Mr. Measner’s appointment, the terminal handled an average of 69,000 tonnes annually.  Following his appointment, the average annual handle has risen to 469,000 tonnes – a 580% increase.  (Is this good business or just a good “relationship”?)

Looking at everything that has gone on before, I have to ask: is partnering with Upper Lakes on these vessels just a coincidence, or is it part of a larger strategic plan for the CWB?  One that they haven’t shared with farmers.

Of course we don’t know the answer.  But we should.  If this investment is based on such a good business case as Allan Oberg claims, why is the CWB using farmers’ money without consultation?  Why has so much business been diverted to Upper lakes’ terminals (Mission and Trois Rivieres) in the last couple of years?  If it’s commercially driven, then what has changed?  There appears to be more going on here than just the purchase of two lakers; what is the strategic plan that encompasses all this?

The CWB has a dominant position in the grain industry with significant countervailing power over grain companies, railroads and laker operators.  Used properly, this power can ensure competitive forces keep costs in line - and that’s a good thing.  However, what the CWB has done with Mission Terminal goes well beyond exerting market dominance to ensure competitive forces work to the farmers’ benefit.  Is the CWB doing the same sort of thing at Trois Rivieres?

The idea is to get better service and rates through leverage of countervailing power; ignoring the other terminals in Thunder Bay to the point that Mission needs to expand demonstrates an unsettling disregard for the health of the industry that serves farmers.  Taken to its ultimate conclusion, it drives competition away – and that’s not good for farmers.

The CWB could have accomplished a similar financial result on behalf of farmers without using their money by negotiating an agreement much like they did with Mission Terminal.  And it seems to work there.  You know the old saying:  “Why buy the cow.....”.

On a personal note - the only upside to this whole thing is that this will give me loads to write about for months to come.  Stay tuned.


  1. If it walks like a duck...

  2. From everything I have seen relative to the CWB is that is as crooked as dog's hind leg. The Liberals and the NDP love it because it allows their pet bureaucrats to get into a position where they can invest in some operation and then funnel all activity to that operation while they make sure to skim their cut right off the top.

  3. The 8 year pay out on the ships and the 15% return on investment sounds away to good to be true so is very likely not true.
    I think the shipping firm that engaged the CWB investment has led them down the garden path to gain the shipping of CWB gains.
    If the investment operunity was true there is lots of money around that would have jumped at it(Ontario teachers pension fund for example).

  4. The issue is not about statistics, pennies, or dividends. The Nomenklatura of the CWB find life to be quite rewarding. They must be amused at the throes of rapture when a few crumbs fall off the table for the people who produced the grain in the first place. They may command my attention, but never my respect.

  5. It would appear that CWB has taken a page from the Barack Hussein Obama playbook, and is following in the shoes of MANY Chicago politicians. How can ANYONE help but admire their civic spirit?