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May 19, 2021

Santos GM quits after fiery meeting

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Story Luis Feliu Video Sharon Shostak

The iconic Mullumbimby wholefoods business Santos is in a state of upheaval following a fiery meeting of management, owners and disgruntled staff last Thursday night and the sudden resignation of its general manager yesterday.

In the wake of the meeting, general manager Jean Boussard has resigned.

Santos deputy chair Robert Hart told Echonetdaily that an interim manager was about to be appointed and the process in finding a replacement would start immediately.

Mr Hart said Santos would overcome the current difficulties and continue to thrive.

Thursday’s meeting, called to address ‘disharmony among staff over the leadership and direction’ of the well-known business, had decided to call a further extraordinary meeting within the next two weeks to try and resolve the issue.

Mr Boussard, who was appointed to run the 30-year-old business a year ago after previous and longtime general manager John Dolman retired, had told the meeting he would stay away from Santos’s three outlets in Mullumbimby and Byron Bay and work from home in an effort to ease tensions till the extraordinary meeting was held.

A staff source told Echonetdaily that Mr Boussard, the target of much of the staff’s anger, agreed to physically remove himself till then so as not to inflame the already-tense standoff between staff and management.

The meeting called by Mr Boussard and other directors was originally described as an ‘information forum’ where only private unit-holders of the trust that owns Santos were invited.

But after an emotional plea at the meeting by some of those unit-holders to allow them in to have their say, around 20 mostly senior staff waiting outside joined the already-packed meeting.

In a recent letter to unit-holders Mr Boussard, who was also chief executive officer, chairman Richard Freise and deputy chair Robert Hart said they had entrusted the ‘delicate but essential mission of guiding the Santos healing process’ to an expert in conflict resolution to facilitate the meeting, with a view of ‘bringing back unity and harmony’ in the workplace.

The ‘forum’, they said, would be held ‘so that concerns may be voiced and heard with clarity and an open mind in conformity with the values that we all stand for’.

They said its aim was to ‘deliver an open and aligned support for the management team of Santos’.

An observer said staff spoke out at the meeting claiming they had been ‘abused, demoted, demoralised, threatened, sidelined or overruled’ and how some were suffering from stress and were about to resign and others claiming the management structure was ‘undemocratic’.

The meeting was told that staff, who had taken part in a comprehensive internal survey late last year which was highly critical of management, had also boycotted the annual Santos Christmas party as a protest.

It was soon after the meeting was told that many of the 75 staff were at their wit’s end and ready to quit en masse, that Mr Boussard agreed to work from home till the extraordinary meeting was held in the hope of defusing the situation.

Moana Pearl O’Brien, one of around 90 unit-holders of the Santos trust, told Echonetdaily the main and pressing issue of holding the meeting was because of the ‘distress’ among staff and the ‘pending resignations’.

Moana said staff attended the meeting not to protest, but out of concern for their workplace, and with the help of unit-holders were invited in.

‘They had walked into their jobs with so much trust and goodwill; many are not covered by unions; and they walked into the meeting very grateful that the unit-holders had recognised their plight, allowing them to have a voice,’ she said.

She said she didn’t think some of their concerns about management, finances or staffing had been ‘put at ease’, but the meeting itself helped soothe staff’s concerns by ‘presenting the issues for the unit-holders and managers so they could be looked at intelligently and addressed’.

She said many people she’d spoken to in the community who were not unit-holders or financially involved with the company were concerned about ‘losing Santos, which in a sense is an icon in Mullumbimby’.

‘It’s about a level of generosity of spirit above and beyond the call of duty; people care about ethics, a holistic approach to food and community.

‘If we profess to be one of the meccas in so much as offering alternative food and culture still based on a sense of family and community, then the feeling in town if Santos goes will be that “Mullum’s gone off the map”.’

When he took over the reins, the French-born Mr Boussard told staff, management and owners via the company website that he had ‘the difficult task’ in taking up the previous general manager’s ‘commitment and dedication’ to ‘make Santos a success story’, which could ‘only happen with your continuous support’.? He said his background included being a ‘former French trade commissioner with MBA and PhD qualifications’ based in Sydney, and he became a business migrant in 1989, establishing at one stage a venture importing and distributing ‘French fine foods and wines/liquors/champagnes’.? He was also a former CEO of Ngulingah Aboriginal Land Council in Lismore and Nimbin, which was ‘a very challenging role’.

Attempts to contact Mr Boussard for comment were unsuccessful.

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