C-suite chaos at world’s top fertilizer company baffles investors

Image courtesy of Nutrien

These are boom times in the fertilizer market, with record prices amid strong demand. But the world’s largest producer is in disarray after losing two chief executive officers in less than a year, and investors are still waiting for an explanation for the latest departure.

The surprise exit this week of Nutrien Ltd. CEO Mayo Schmidt just eight months into the job has fueled concern about corporate governance at the Canadian company.

“My concern is why does this keep happening,’’ said Brian Madden, senior vice president and portfolio manager at Toronto-based Goodreid Investment Council, which holds Nutrien shares. “It raises some questions about the board and governance. This is not something that comforts or inspires investors.’’

Nutrien declined to comment on the reason for Schmidt’s departure, though a spokesperson said the company has begun to search for a new CEO and will consider internal and external candidates.  Ken Seitz, who headed the company’s potash segment, will lead the company in the meantime. Attempts to reach Schmidt for comment were unsuccessful.

Frequent leadership changes in a company can sometimes be a sign of instability or poor management. Unexplained C-suite departures are even more concerning to investors, because of potential liabilities or scandals that could affect share prices and the direction of the company.

Nutrien’s performance should be better given how high fertilizer prices are, Scotiabank analyst Ben Isaacson said in a note Thursday. The board and senior leadership had the opportunity to use a “tidal wave” of free cash flow to “meaningfully” increase earnings, and a “lack of execution” ultimately led to Schmidt’s departure. The ordeal will make Nutrien stronger in time, and the company will learn to better communicate difficult messages to shareholders, he said.

“Nutrien knows, better than all of us, what a PR nightmare this has been,” Isaacson said.

Nutrien was formed in 2018 from the merger of two Canadian agriculture firms, Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan and Agrium Inc., with Chuck Magro in the top job. In addition to its vast potash, nitrogen and phosphate operations, the company owns a network of retail outlets that sell fertilizer and seed. Schmidt was named CEO in April, replacing Magro, who is now CEO of agribusiness giant Corteva Inc. Magro declined a request to comment on his reasons for leaving Nutrien.

Shares have fallen 7.7% on the Toronto Stock Exchange since the Saskatoon, Saskatchewan-based company announced Schmidt’s exit on Jan. 4. Nutrien’s stock rose 55% last year, though the share performance lagged North American peers CF Industries Holdings Inc. and Mosaic Co. in 2021.

It could be as simple as Schmidt and the other board directors deciding that he wasn’t the right fit to lead the company long term, said Seth Goldstein, an analyst at Morningstar Investment Service. If the fit wasn’t right, “it’s best to move on quickly,” he said.

Goodreid’s Madden said he plans to continue holding Nutrien shares since the company has world-class potash deposits that are in the ground regardless of who is at the helm. 

Still, “in a perfect world we would have full transparency on all this,’’ he said. “I don’t know if we’re ever really going to find out.’’

(By Jen Skerritt and Elizabeth Elkin)

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