New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra has announced chief executive officer Theo Spierings is to leave the role later this year.

The announcement today (21 March) came as the cooperative reported a half-year loss of NZD348m (US$250m), compared to a profit of NZD418m a year ago.

Fonterra’s finances were hit by a NZD405m impairment charge linked to Beingmate, the Chinese infant formula business in which it is a shareholder. The company also had to pay French dairy giant Danone NZD183m in damages for a contamination scare in 2013. 

Not linking Spiering’s departure to the results, Fonterra said its board and Spierings had formally started succession discussions last year and begun searches in November to identify potential replacements. It is now shortlisting candidates.

Fonterra chairman John Wilson said the board was taking the decision to bring forward the announcement, which it was expecting to make in April, to avoid speculation.

He said: “It is not yet clear exactly when any appointment for Theo’s replacement will be made, but it is absolutely clear that Theo will continue in the meantime to drive the cooperative’s strategy and business, with special emphasis on China.

“The board and Theo are committed to a high-quality transition to a new CEO and when we have more information in regards to timing we will let our farmers and the wider market know. Until then it is business as usual with the focus on driving returns to our farmers and unit-holders.

“We envisage that even after the announcement of our new CEO, Theo will be involved in an advisory role so that we make best use of his knowledge and expertise during the transition.” 

Spierings said: “It is now time for a new CEO who can lead the cooperative through this next phase. The time is right for the cooperative and that is important to me and to the board.

“It is also the right time for me personally. I look forward to new challenges, but right now my focus is on Fonterra. That will be the case until I finish with the cooperative.”

In January Fonterra expressed concern at an earnings downgrade by Beingmate – which then reportedly blamed the world’s largest dairy exporter for its losses.