Managing one of world’s largest unlisted plantation firms is no child’s play

AFTER the exit of Datuk Mohd Bakke Salleh, the task of managing Felda Global Ventures Holdings Sdn Bhd and Felda Holdings Bhd is once again entrusted in the hands of another Felda outsider, Datuk Sabri Ahmad.

Sabri joins Felda group during one of its challenging periods when the conglomerate is being questioned on its management acumen, bankruptcy claims, misappropriation of Felda’s replanting fund, the frivolous RM662mil Felda new headquarters in KL and disgruntled Felda settlers’ row over the low prices paid for their fresh fruit bunches.

Well-known in the oil palm plantation business circle, Sabri is a corporate figure who has served over 20 years under the banner of the now defunct Golden Hope Plantations Bhd (GHope).

His last post was as GHope group chief executive officer from 2004 to 2007 prior to its merger with Sime Darby Bhd.

He also holds other key positions in the industry, including chairman of the Malaysian Palm Oil Association and the Malaysian Palm Oil Board.

While Sabri may be a true blue plantation man armed with a long list of credentials and knows the entire palm oil supply management chain, industry observers said managing one of the world’s largest unlisted plantation companies like the Felda group is an entirely different story.

Operationally, the Felda group has about 850,000ha of planted area in Malaysia under its ownership and management, of which oil palm constitutes about 85%. Of the 850,000ha, a total of 520,000ha is owned by settlers.

Over the past 53 years, Felda has developed over 800,000ha of oil palm and rubber plantations involving over 100,000 settler families in 278 Felda schemes in over 12 states in Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah and Sarawak. Bakke, during his almost five-year stint in the Felda group, had undertaken a sweeping internal reorganisation involving Felda Global and Felda Holdings which is still ongoing prior to his calling to helm Sime Darby.

The re-organisation, which started last year, is believed to be over 70% completed.

While it is still too early for Sabri to prove his mettle, there is no doubt his priority now is to ensure Bakke’s reorganisation legacy is completed and will bear fruit in the near future.

Some quarters said it would be interesting to see whether the internal reorganisation – Felda Global to pursue the group’s overseas business while Felda Holdings to manage domestic business – which started in 2009 could be completed within Sabri’s two-year contract.

“There have also been talks that once the internal reorganisation is done, the long-awaiting Felda listing could be on the cards again. We will wait and see whether this (listing) will become a reality under Sabri’s stewardship,” said an industry observer.

His management style, which is more consultative and team-oriented when making strategic corporate decisions, should be a benefit for Sabri as he maps his strategies and vision for the group.

Sabri’s exposure during his tenure at GHope in international marketing, downstream activities such as refining and biodiesel, logistics, branding and research and development will come in handy, particularly for Felda Global.

Felda Global has been reorganised comprising global business lines, multicrops, oils and fats, oleochemicals and logistics and services.

“Sabri will definitely need to focus on pursuing global businesses for Felda as the domestic market is too limited,” added the source.

Sabri had also a commitment on the development of biodiesel at GHope previously.

Therefore, it is most likely he will now promote more biodiesel projects.

As it is, Felda Holdings is now poised to be the country’s biggest oil palm biomass operator with 56 biogas plants, six compost plants, one pellet plant and two independent power producer plants nationwide.

At the end of the day, all will be about creating more value and businesses for the Felda group. More importantly, Sabri will need to ensure that he continues to deliver a strong set of financial results to impress the Felda board as well as its stakeholders, particularly the Felda settlers.

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