All Treasury would say officially on Monday was that COO Robert Foye had “left the company, effective immediately, due to a breach of TWE’s internal policies unrelated to the company’s trading performance”.
The smoke signals from inside the winemaker’s camp suggested that Foye’s transgression was an individual matter, rather than a wider cultural issue. But given the obvious seriousness of the transgression, investors could be forgiven for reserving judgment on that.
That Foye is gone after a very serious breach of Treasury’s policies can be deduced by the fact that Clarke has not only chopped a senior executive, but an executive seen by the market as his right-hand man.
Clarke worked with Foye at Coca-Cola and brought him into Treasury just five months after his own appointment in mid 2014.
Then in May 2017, Clarke essentially anointed Foye as his likely successor when he made Foye COO and said he would “oversee all major operating units across the global business” in conjunction with Clarke himself.
This wouldn’t have been a decision Clarke has taken lightly. But the whispers from inside the company suggested the departure of Foye underlined how seriously the chief executive takes the safeguarding of Treasury’s corporate culture, and his zero tolerance approach to transgressions.
That Foye has paid the ultimate price for his infraction provides some substance to this spin.
But if Clarke was really keen to make a point about Treasury’s culture – and satisfy the community’s ever-growing hunger for transparency from corporate Australia – surely he would have made the reasons for Foye’s departure public and delivered a clear message on his refusal to stand for that kind of behaviour.
The bigger issue for investors is the hole Foye leaves behind at Treasury’s office in California’s Napa Valley, where he has been based for the past few years.
While Treasury might have rushed to make it clear that Foye’s departure was “unrelated to the company’s trading performance” that line might not hold for long if his exit disrupts Treasury’s efforts to build up its US business.
While Victoria Snyder is the president of Treasury’s Americas business, the importance of the US market to the company and the fact Foye was located there mean investors and analysts saw him as a big part of Treasury’s US push.
This is emphasised by the fact the Treasury is trying to win in the US by deploying the “premiumisation” strategy it deployed in China, where it pushed into higher-margin, mass-market prestige segment with such success.
The man who delivered that strategy? Robert Foye, who was president and managing director of Asia and Europe for Treasury before his promotion to the COO role.
Treasury’s US push is at a delicate stage. Over the past 18 months or so the company has been making big changes to its supply chain to improve efficiency and get more control over the way its products are marketed and sold across the US, where different state laws create layers of complexity.
Guidance provided by Treasury in early January – and reiterated on Monday – suggested those changes were starting to bear some fruit, with the company’s forecast of 25 per cent growth in underlying earnings before interest and tax for 2018-19 implying that the second half of the 2019 financial year would be better than the first.
But could Foye’s departure interrupt that momentum? One investor said he was confident that Treasury had deep bench of managers that could step up, but conceded an executive of Foye’s experience would not be easy to replace.
Treasury investors, who have seen the stock sink 22 per cent since the start of September last year, will have to hope Clarke can fill the gap left by the departure of his key lieutenant in the short term, and then reshuffle his management deck over time.