Sparks fly at Wool Growers' AGM

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The Canadian Cooperative Wool Growers (CCWG or Wool Growers) held its 105th annual general meeting October 14, 2023 near Carleton Place, Ont.

The meeting was tense, given the months-long uncertainty after long-time general manager Eric Bjergso was placed on paid leave in March 2023, following what the Wool Growers’ board calls “undisclosed liabilities” and “corporate processes” not approved by the board of directors.

It took over an hour in to the meeting before acting general manager, Morgan Moore, disclosed that Bjergso had also filed a statement of claim for nearly $2.5 million, naming Moore, current chair Allan Ribbink, and the Wool Growers in the lawsuit. There are three components to the suit — including defamation of character and wrongful dismissal. That suit was filed March 31, 2023, just two weeks after his being placed on leave.

The board of CCWG did not circulate an agenda at the meeting, though one was posted on a screen at the front of the room (see photo above). Financial documents were also not produced for membership to review prior to or at the meeting. Moore stated the financials would be available in the annual report “as per usual.” Several shareholders disagreed, stating that draft financials were available at the AGM in the past.

The meeting of the national organization was also not broadcast via Zoom, on advice of the Wool Growers’ legal counsel, Moore said.

Minutes of the 2022 annual general meeting held at Prince George, B.C., could also not be produced to be reviewed or passed, as the board relayed that the person who took the minutes at the last meeting was no longer with the co-op. Board members stated, “we do not know where they are,” when asked about the whereabouts of the 2022 minutes.

Several employees have exited the company since March 2023, including office staff and the head wool grader, Nathan Pappas-Barabe. CCWG did not provide a tally of staff that had left since March, however, Anita Reid, who had taken the minutes on behalf of the co-op, left in late July, Moore stated. When asked by a shareholder if the minutes could be asked for from Reid, Moore did not answer audibly.

Christa Bingley was on hand as the auditor of the financial documents to February 28, 2023. She gave a verbal account of the Wool Growers’ financials, including over $11 million in assets, $2.7 million in liabilities, and $8 million in equity. Gross profit margin increased six per cent, and operating sales increased 40 per cent on value, despite a 38 per cent decline in wool sales.

Much of the focus of the presentations made by Ribbink and Moore focused on the hard times facing the wool market and on the promise of a $1 million pelleting mill set to be in operation by 2024, according to the chair. Poor quality wool will be processed at Carleton Place through the mill to create a soil amendment product, according to the board.

The Wool Growers says it is holding about 3 million pounds of wool in storage, as a back-logged, flooded wool market has made sales stagnate or disappear entirely.

Ribbink also noted several times the additional time commitment Moore has endured as acting general manager since taking over, temporarily, for Bjergso in late March.

The meeting was lively, with several questions taken from the shareholders in attendance. One shareholder called into question the validity of holding an AGM with no financials provided as required by the Wool Growers’ bylaws, and stated they disagreed with Moore being made acting GM. Another asked that the business case and feasibility of the pelleting mill project be made available to shareholders. Moore stated those documents were for board members only.

Related to the removal of Bjergso and the absent financial documents, forensic analysis by Ernst & Young Canada was not completed at the time of the AGM, however, legal counsel for the CCWG did communicate via text message that the review would be done soon (with no date given).

Counsel for the CCWG also stated that no claims by the CCWG have been ruled on at this point, and the lawsuit filed by Bjergso was still in the discovery phase. No fault or ruling has been granted on either matter at this time.

The Wool Growers has 1,200 shareholders and six retail locations in Canada, including a new, expanded feed and ag supply store at Brandon, Man. The co-op is the sole distributor of Canadian Sheep Identification Program (CSIP) RFID tags, and the largest buyer of wool in the country. All wool collected across Canada through these locations is brought to Carleton Place to be graded, packaged, and shipped.

Editor’s note: The author is a sheep producer in Ontario and a customer of CCWG, but is not a shareholder and attended the meeting as media.

Related: Eric Bjergso out as general manager of CCWG

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