Andrew Ferrier, born and raised in Montreal, met with some skepticism two years ago when he accepted the position of chief executive officer for New Zealand's largest company, dairy producer Fonterra Co-operative Group Ltd.
In news articles, Mr. Ferrier was described as a foreigner, an unknown Canadian and a "little-known businessman whose firm makes hardware products." (He was previously CEO of GSW Inc., a manufacturer based in Oakville, Ont.)
"Andrew Ferrier has probably never milked a cow in his life," one commentator groused.
Undeterred, Mr. Ferrier quietly set out to win over the constituency that mattered most at the time -- the 13,000 dairy farmers who own Fonterra. And he was successful, says a partner of the executive recruitment firm that placed him, precisely because of his unassuming Canadian approach.
"Andrew Ferrier immediately impressed the [Fonterra] board with his ability to communicate with farmers as well as with heads of government," says Damien O'Brien, an Australia-based managing partner of recruitment firm Egon Zehnder International.
"Canadian executives travel well and, as a source of talent, Canada is very important for us," adds Mr. O'Brien, whose firm recently brought partners from around the world to a meeting in Toronto "to give them a better understanding of this very critical market for the firm's growth."
Mr. Ferrier believes he was selected to head Fonterra because of his prior international experience in the sugar business. Before his three-year stint at GSW, Mr. Ferrier spent 16 years in Europe, the United States and Mexico, working for Tate & Lyle PLC, a British-based global sugar processor.
The products are different, but many of the trade issues in the sugar and dairy businesses are similar, Mr. Ferrier said in a telephone interview from his Auckland office.
But he agrees that he probably enjoys a bit of a "Canadian advantage" as well.
"What you are looking for, what any business is looking for, is a combination of business capability and cultural fit and . . . Canadians are generally a good cultural fit," Mr. Ferrier says.
"I think we're a little more flexible, a little more accustomed to finding a way that isn't necessarily banging people over the head. I think Canadians are particularly good at getting buy-in as they are running businesses."
Jeff Rosin, a Toronto-based partner with the executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International, adds that Canada serves as a valuable proving ground for executives with global aspirations.
"Canadians who have been in leadership roles as a president or CEO are very attractive because, typically, they have had the full gamut of responsibility in running a full P and L [profit and loss] operation," Mr. Rosin says.
"That differs from folks in the United States who might be running a particular business unit and, while the scale is larger in the States just by virtue of the sheer size of the business they are running, it's not always a full P and L, it's not necessarily the responsibility of having the chief financial officer reporting to you, or human resources or IT or all the other administrative components."
Canadian education is also viewed as a plus by international recruiters, he adds. Postsecondary standards are consistently strong across the country, and there is no single Canadian business school that produces the lion's share of CEOs, recruiters note.
Mr. Ferrier, for instance, used his undergraduate degree in business administration from the University of New Brunswick and his master of business administration degree from Montreal's Concordia University as a springboard to a career as an executive in the sugar business, where he developed expertise in international trade issues as he travelled the globe.
"Canadians are highly regarded, with regard to their education credentials, and are known to have a good work ethic," Mr. Rosin notes.
Canada has another edge as well as a source of executive talent: The country's diverse ethnic makeup has produced a generation of business leaders who mix easily with different cultures, says Caroline Jellinck, a Vancouver-based partner with the international recruiting firm Ray & Berndtson.
Her firm recently placed a Canadian in Beijing for an American client that wanted someone to head up an operation in China. "Obviously, China is a huge market right now," she says.
"They wanted a Chinese-Canadian, not a Chinese-American, so they specifically came to us in Vancouver because of our strong Asian population here.
"Although the U.S. and China today have pretty cordial relations, they are pretty short-lived, so that somebody from the executive level would be more likely to have longer relationships with China coming from Canada than they would coming from the U.S.," Ms. Jellinck adds.
While it is rare for an international company to specifically request a Canadian executive, Ms. Jellinck says that when Canadian executives are placed abroad, "they do tend to do well and one of the reasons is that they do have an international perspective.
"A lot of American executives have only had experience with the American marketplace, and it's much more of an unidimensional marketplace, while the Canadian marketplace is much more diverse from a cultural perspective and also from a nationality perspective."
In Auckland, Mr. Ferrier says that when he recruits executives, he looks for cultural fit and international experience. "You really have to get your mind outside North America."
He says that when he got the cold call from an executive recruiter asking if he would be a candidate for the Fonterra post, he and his family decided the opportunity was too good to pass up.
"It was just an incredible opportunity to run a company on this global scale and it's about $11-billion Canadian in revenues right now, so it's a very strong player."
The other attraction, he says, was that Fonterra is a young company, formed just two years before Mr. Ferrier was approached in 2003 to take over the helm.
"To run a strong company, which is still so young that you can still actually mould it, is a very unique opportunity."
As Mr. Ferrier expands Fonterra's product lines and pushes into new export markets -- "we sell to 140 countries around the world" -- he also tends the grassroots by meeting regularly with the farmers who own the co-operative, he says.
"We have gone out and recruited a network of farmers, influential farmers who are prepared to talk to their peers. Twice a year, senior management and members of the board will give them a special presentation on the business and make sure that they have all the information on the business that they need to talk to their peers. We do a lot of things to ensure that we really connect back to our shareholders."
His performance over the past two years has silenced the initial critics. "I'm definitely not on a honeymoon, but I am enjoying a lot of support from the shareholders and the board and the employees, so it's going well."
His three school-aged children have also acclimatized, with a little help from the on-line MSN instant messaging service.
"MSN is phenomenal," Mr. Ferrier said with a laugh. "On Saturday mornings, the kids are all on their computers catching their friends when they get home Friday evenings from school. With the time difference, they can do that."
When Mr. Ferrier needs a Canadian fix, all he has to do is turn up at one of Auckland's two hockey rinks, where he plays centre in an adult league.
"That's one way to meet Canadians in New Zealand -- turn up at the ice hockey rink. I'd say 30 to 40 per cent of the adult players are Canadian."
© 2005 Ray & Berndtson