Nutrien Ltd.’s former chief financial officer is questioning the head of the company’s assertion that it “doesn’t really matter” where senior executives live, saying the loss of a major corporate headquarters could result in a “point of gravity” moving elsewhere.Wayne Brownlee joined Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan Inc. ahead of its 1989 privatization and became its chief financial officer a decade later. He also challenged Nutrien CEO Chuck Magro’s statement that the merger that created Nutrien — which he believes is sound — added $750 million to the province last year.“My long-term concern is not just what the snapshot is today, in terms of what it looks like. What’s it going to look like in five years or ten years?” said Brownlee, who left Nutrien in September, nine months after PotashCorp merged with Agrium Inc.“I don’t think the issue is whether (Nutrien) is going away. I think it’s a question of what’s the level of participation you’re going to have in the economy and in the community, and how does that compare to what it would be if you had the head office here?”Nutrien came under scrutiny late last year after the Saskatoon StarPhoenix reported that all but one of its most senior executives live outside Saskatchewan, leading the provincial government and others to express fears about the loss of a major head office.Multiple senior managers with ties to PotashCorp left Nutrien in the lead-up to and following the former Crown corporation’s merger with Agrium. Some, including Brownlee, have been replaced by leaders based in other cities, including Calgary.Nutrien has since committed to moving two more executive vice presidents to the province by the end of the year. Magro told the StarPhoenix last week that was “always the plan,” while downplaying the importance of where executives live.The company has also pledged to increase the size of its corporate office in Saskatoon — through new jobs in accounts payable, logistics, procurement and human resources — and move into a new office tower under construction at River Landing.
Former Nutrien Ltd. CFO Wayne Brownlee says the loss of a major corporate headquarters could move a “point of gravity” for the local economy elsewhere.
Liam Richards /
Brownlee, one of the four most senior executives involved in planning the merger, said he was not aware of any plan to move executives but acknowledged Nutrien for responding to the fears expressed by the province and some in the local business community.At the same time, he said a corporate headquarters and senior executives become a “point of gravity” that attracts money and talent, which is particularly important given the relative scarcity of such opportunities in Saskatchewan.“Is this gravity going to pull people out of Saskatoon? You lose the top level, then you lose the next level and the next level … The concern is it’ll simply be a processing shop for clerical people and a potash operation, and that’s it,” Brownlee said.Those fears have previously been outlined by local business leaders, who argued that small- and medium-sized companies can grow around a major corporate headquarters and the loss of one could “gut the talent” from across the city.The provincial government has called the company’s commitment a “step in the right direction” but signalled that it does not regard the push for a robust head office in Saskatchewan “as something that’s over or something that’s concluded.”That loss could have other effects, Brownlee said. Pointing to his own experience on numerous boards of directors, the former potash executive said a major corporate headquarters tends to benefit organizations and charities across the city.He believes those concerns are amplified in Saskatoon, which is home to just one other major corporation and has a deep and long-standing emotional connection to the potash mining industry and particularly PotashCorp.Formed as a Crown corporation in 1979 before it was sold off, PotashCorp was among Canada’s largest companies and was widely regarded as a point of pride for the province due to its history and as a symbol of an abundant resource.“In some ways, PotashCorp … was as iconic inside Saskatchewan, emotionally, as the Roughriders were. I’m biased in that because obviously I worked there, and people probably wouldn’t agree with that, but the name recognition of PotashCorp was huge,” he said.“The emotional sentiment attached to the company is hugely important. It’s a mistake to dismiss concerns about the head office location, purely from an emotional basis let alone from an economic basis,” he added.Speaking at a Greater Saskatoon Chamber of Commerce lunch event last month, Magro argued that Nutrien has added about $750 million to the provincial economy since its formation on Jan. 1, 2018. Its total economic impact in the province is estimated at $4.5 billion.Brownlee did not dispute the figures, but questioned whether that increase is a direct result of the merger and would not have occurred had PotashCorp and Agrium remained separate, saying it is a year-over-year comparison without a clear cause-and-effect relationship.Magro last week attributed the bulk of the increase to a 30 per cent increase in corporate jobs in the province, aided by greater potash production and higher sales prices.It is unusual for former corporate executives to speak publicly about their previous employers. Asked why he decided to voice his concerns, Brownlee said his motivations is “purely altruistic.”“It’s not always been the case that I’ve had a CEO that wanted to reside in Saskatchewan,” he said, referring to the move to Northbrook, Il. and subsequent repatriation to Saskatoon of most of PotashCorp’s senior executives about a decade ago.“I think, from an internal perspective, I was able to provide a Saskatchewan conscience to a lot of decisions that were taken here … I am concerned: Are we going to have the opportunities that I had, that others had, in this province if the issue seems to go away?”firstname.lastname@example.org/macphersonaRelated