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Australia's GrainCorp turns to US for new CEO

Australia's GrainCorp turned the tables on the US by poaching a leading American agribusiness head as its chief executive, in a move seen as underlining the group's global ambitions.

GrainCorp, the Sydney-based grain handler, said that it had, after an eight-month search, appointed as chief executive Mark Palmquist - currently the chief operating offer, ag business for US grains-to-energy giant CHS.

The move, which will see Mr Palmquist move from Minnesota, contrasts with the prevailing move by US agribusinesses to target Australian agricultural assets, seen as allowing easier access to the important Far East Asian food import markets.

Groups including CHS itself have taken stakes in Australian grain handlers, although the trend is particularly sensitive for GrainCorp, which agreed a takeover by US-based Archer Daniels Midland, its top shareholder, last year only to see the deal blocked by Canberra.

ADM interest

Don Taylor - the GrainCorp chairman, who has been acting as chief executive too since Alison Taylor resigned last year to take charge at bottling company Coca-Cola Amatil - said that ADM had not been consulted in Mr Palmquist's appointment.

"ADM were aware of where the process was, but in terms of a name and the candidates that we interviewed, that was independent," he told reporters on a conference call.

ADM, which owns 20% of GrainCorp, is a competitor to CHS in many markets, notably in the US itself.

ADM is rumoured to retain a continued interest in acquiring GrainCorp, and last month said it retained "financial flexibility to engage in other strategic alternatives" even after the $3.1bn purchase of ingredients group Wild Flavors.

'Global agribusiness'

GrainCorp itself, meanwhile, retains interest in global expansion, after in 2009 paying $659m for United Malt Holdings, with assets in Europe and North America, besides Australia.

Mr Palmquist's "skills and extensive experience will be invaluable to the ongoing growth of GrainCorp as a global agribusiness and food ingredients company", Mr Taylor said, stressing also that the group had undertaken an "international" search for a new chief executive.

Mr Palmquist said that "GrainCorp's board, management team and people have transformed the company into a leading agribusiness with a strong international reputation.

"I have worked around the world and GrainCorp is by any measure an outstanding company."

CHS veteran

Mr Palmquist, a graduate of Gustavus Adolphus College in St Peter, Minnesota, has in 35 years at CHS worked in Asia, Europe and South America, as well as in North America.

He began as a grain buyer, being promoted to director of the grain marketing division in 1990, rising to chief operating officer in 2005, and taking his current position three years ago.

Recent initiatives he has overseen include the purchases in April of US ethanol producer Illinois River Energy, and of a stake in Sitio 0, a greenfield export terminal in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and represents CHS on the board of Ardent Mills, its milling joint venture with Cargill and ConAgra.

CHS chief executive Carl Casale, a former Monsanto manager, said that Mr Palmquist had been "instrumental in launching and building the CHS global platform and identifying numerous growth opportunities in our grains and foods businesses that add value for the owners of this co-operative".

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