Outstanding in the Field Podcast

Summary:

Tune in to hear candid interviews with leaders in the U.S. agribusiness industry to get their take on what it means to not only work “in” the industry, but work “on” the industry as well. John Fletcher is General Manager of Central Missouri AGRIservice, and Steve Zutz is President and CEO at Country Visions Co-op in Reedsville, Wisconsin. From being a part of agricultural legislation to empowering the future leaders in agriculture, these movers and shakers are making an impact across the board.

What you will learn in these episodes:

  • The importance of being involved in agricultural legislation
  • The value of NGFA committees
  • Why being an advocate for change is part of being a leader in agribusiness
  • The importance of encouraging and involving youth in agriculture

Relevant links:

Listen to the podcast:

Click HERE for John Fletcher’s interview.

Click HERE for Steve Zutz’s interview.

Tweetables:

Transcription:

Mike Terning: Welcome to another episode of Outstanding in the Field. My name is Mike Terning and I’m host of the podcast. Today we are speaking about leadership and agribusiness. I am pleased to have a guest who’s been involved with agribusiness for a few decades now and has a wealth of experience that I’m looking forward to chatting about. His name is John Fletcher. John, could you please introduce yourself to our listening audience?

John Fletcher: Sure Mike. I’ve been involved in ag business for, like you said, a long time. Probably inside our business 40 years. I worked outside for five/six years before that. I’m a general manager of Central Missouri AGRIservice. We’ve been in business in this form for 20 years. Before that I did grain operations and finance for my family company, which was Fletcher Grain Company. I worked with my dad for 25 years. He retired when we put Central Missouri AG together. Central Missouri AG, of course, is a joint venture between my family company, Fletcher Grain; and then MFA Incorporated, which is a statewide cooperative here in Missouri; and then Slater Farmers Association, which is a small local cooperative.

Mike:  Hm, okay. Well quite a journey there. In and around Marshall, Missouri, is that where you’ve spent most of your life?

John:  Yeah. So I’ve literally been here all of my life. I lived in Marshall for the first, oh, first part. The last 25 years I moved out of town. Now my south property line of my farm is in north city limits. I didn’t get very far.

Mike:  Well, there you go. But you have done quite a bit of travelling. Maybe not relocated, but–

John:  Yeah, exactly. I’ve got quite a few frequent flyer miles on Delta.

Mike:  Yep, yep. Well, John, I appreciate that background. What was your first job? Just looking back, what was the first job you ever remember doing?

John:  Cleaning out a grain bin.

Mike:  Cleaning out a grain bin. Okay.

John:  Yeah.

Mike:  You were the sweep auger?

John:  I learned, I figured… Huh?

Mike:  You were the sweep auger.

John:  Yeah. I walked behind the sweep auger any number of times. I learned fairly early in my career that I did not get along with grain dust. So I made it a priority to get beyond those kinds of job. Actually, that’s not totally right. I did grain bins. But when I was in high school, there were always jobs around the elevator that could be done at times of the day maybe outside of business hours. For example, back in the 1970s, cattle producers used liquid supplement to supplement forage for cattle. That stuff could be delivered about any time. They’d take order and leave it on a legal pad by the truck schedule. I’d get out of school. I’d come in, load the truck, and I’d go out and make a route with the molasses truck. I might not get in until 8:00 or 9:00 at night, but when it was all caught up I was done. I was able to get some hours but do it outside of normal business hours. So it worked out good for me. I got to know a lot of our trade territory that way and I got to know a lot of our customers in that way.

Mike:  I bet. I bet. I probably shouldn’t put you on the spot, but my gut tells me you were probably doing that before you even had a driver’s license.

John:  I had a driver’s license, but I did not have a chauffer’s license or a CDL. Back then they were called chauffer’s licenses.

Mike:  Okay. Well, interesting. So you know at that age…Looking back and thinking back to your high school years, would you imagine some of the experiences that you’ve had being in the grain industry?

John: No, I would not. I mean, you know, Mike. I’d come to the elevator before I’d go to school in the morning. We had a spot for three box cars. We call it coup cars. You basically put the paper doors in where the sliding doors is and then during the day they’d load the cars. We could load three cars a day. Today we’re loading unit trains where we load a hopper car in under four minutes. You couldn’t even imagine what was to come, much less what my life experience would be.

Mike:  Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Certainly things have changed over the last few decades, haven’t they?

John:  Yeah, they sure have.

Mike:  Well, John, besides working in your operation in Central Missouri there, you’ve had an experience to get involved in the grain industry on—well, even in your community on the political and legislative side of the equation. Can you describe to our audience how you got involved with those sorts of activities?

John:  Well, when I was growing up my folks always told me you need to be involved with whatever you’re doing whether it’s your community or your church or your school or your industry or whatever. My dad was active in the Missouri State Association. He did a short term on the NGFA board in the early 1980s. I was taught that you needed to contribute. What he didn’t teach me was how much I’d get back in return for that. I’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars travelling for NGFA and for other deals, and I can tell you honestly it doesn’t owe me a thing. I mean I’ve gotten more benefit from the things I’ve learned and the people I’ve met and the people I’ve become friends with and still friends with. I mean you just can’t imagine the payback that I received from the time that I’ve been doing stuff for the industry as opposed to just for my company.

Mike:  How old were you when you went to your first NGFA event?

John:  I’m gonna tell either…I think I may have turned 24 at my first country elevator council meeting, which was in Kansas City in 1980. I remember there was a guy by the name of Don Brouillette who was chairman of the committee. He was up there in a tuxedo with a top hat doing magic tricks. I mean that was a theme of the convention that year. I went into that place; I didn’t know a soul. I literally did not know a soul. The Brouillette family, I’ve met them over the years. Became close friends with them over the years. The people at Fowler Indiana, Demeter. Don was a great guy. He was a great industry leader. He was a great industry leader. Now his daughter Joann is a great industry leader. It’s just that kind of thing over and over and over again.

Mike:  Yeah. Interesting. So that was your first experience with NGFA directly in 1980. When did your first opportunity to arise to serve on an NGFA committee?

John:  I think it was 1984. At the time, the leadership was president, first vice president, second vice president. Now it’s chairman and the staff guy is president. Don was chairman of the association. I got appointed to the country elevator committee. Did six years. They have term limits on that. I did six years on that. Then probably two years later I got a board nomination and then did that.

Mike:  So how many cumulative years have you served with NGFA?

John:  Oh, my. I’m gonna guess probably in some form of capacity or another since 1984 there’s maybe been probably five or six years when I haven’t been either on a committee or a board or executive committee position.

Mike:  Wow. So it’s measured in decades.

John:  Yeah, it probably would be. Yeah.

Mike:  That’s impressive. That’s impressive.

John:  You know, the funny thing was when I went to that first one in 1980, I told you I didn’t know a soul. There also wasn’t anybody that was any younger than I was. Now I have a hard time finding people that are older than I am.

Mike:  Yeah. Wow. The industry certainly–

John:  Another great thing that NGFA has given me—The first NGFA event that I went to, Randy Gordon had been on staff for a little under two years. I met him at that event. We’ve become very, very good friends over the years. I count him as one of my best friends in the world. He’s now president of the association. He’s had a nice tenure at that. I dread the day when he decides to step back because he’s just been such a great workhorse for that association.

Mike:  Mm-hmm. Yeah, he certainly has. Well, when I was visiting you this spring at your office there in Marshall, you let me know of someone else you had met through NGFA. You had an opportunity to go visit in Washington not too long ago. Would you mind telling the audience about that story?

John:  Yeah.

Mike:  Please.

John:  Yeah, well, I don’t know if it was 1984 or maybe two years later, but Sonny Perdue got appointed to the country elevator committee. We became friends. Then over the years he got into politics in Georgia. He ran for the Georgia State Senate I think 1990 or 1992. He backed away from the industry stuff. So I didn’t see much, but there was a fella that worked for him and a fella that worked for me that would go to fertilizer industry events. I’m always getting messages back and forth that Sonny’s sending me a greeting, I’m sending back. That kind of thing. Did that for literally 10 years or 12 years. I’m laying in bed one night just kind of reading a book and got election returns on. CNN and all of a sudden they come on and said, “An underdog, Sonny Perdue, has now won the governor’s seat in Georgia.” I poked my wife who was asleep and said—I probably came three feet off the bed. She said, “What? What? What?” I said, “Sonny Perdue’s governor of Georgia.” She said, “Who’s that?” I said, “Never mind go back to sleep.”

We communicated back and forth a little bit while he was in office. Then when he got out of office in 2010, at that point in time I was in the leadership of NGFA’s pack. I invited him to come and speak to one of our pack events. He did. He talked about the importance or being part of the political process. One of the things was you know it ain’t the size of the check. It’s the check. He just made a good impression on people. Of course, he was from the industry and everybody knew he was from the industry. So he ended up going back on NGFA board. He was on NGFA board when he got appointed secretary of agriculture. We were texting back and forth on election night 2016. I think I told you this when you were here. When it became apparent that Trump was going to win, I said, “So, are you going to be next secretary of agriculture.” He goes, “I’m staying right where I’m at.” Three weeks later or maybe a month later I said I didn’t know you were in DC the night we were texting on election night. He said, “Things change.”

Mike:  Well, they certainly do. Yep.

John:  Yep, they have.

Mike:   Well, he spoke at an NGFA country elevator convention a couple of years ago. I really enjoyed what he had to say. He was very down to earth, and everybody enjoyed it.

John:  Yep. He’s coming [inaudible] for conventions on a couple of different occasions since he’s been secretary. I know that man loves this industry. He loves the people in the industry. Sometimes we feel like we’re overstepping, wearing out our welcome, if you will, on keep asking him back but he keeps coming. So there you go.

Mike:  No, that’s good. Well, John–

John:  I’ve told this to people all over the country. He’s one of the good guys in this world. He really is.

Mike:  Yep. Yep. He really is salt of the earth. In fact, that convention that I was speaking about, I think it was Kansas City that we were in. He helped take down the luggage out of the overhead bin—the carryon luggage—for one of my colleagues.

John:  Really?

Mike:  Yeah. He just–

John:  That would be him.

Mike:  Yep. Just gentleman. So that was fun to see. So, John, as you think about it, why is it important for folks like you and others in the industry to represent it and to spend time outside of their own businesses to get involved with these industry matters?

John:  Well, if you don’t have a seat at the table when there’s nothing going on, you’re not going to get a seat at the table whenever there’s something important going on. Like I said, I do it because I believe in it, but I’ve also gotten a lot back in return. It’s really nice when—If you’re keeping in contact with…For example, you make regular calls on congressmen and senators and DC, guess who they’re going to turn to whenever something in your area of interest comes up. They’re going to call the people who they’ve had experience with. So you’ve got to maintain those contacts and keep your reputation clean with those guys. The last thing you’re gonna be able to do—You can’t ever fool those guys because you’ll never have their trust again. You’ve got to be legitimate and honest. Then whenever you need something, you’ve got somebody to call. That happens more than you’d think.

Mike:  Yep. So if you think about a 24 year old just getting in the grain industry, maybe working for an agribusiness out in rural America. How can someone in their position start making an impact on the industry? What advice would you give them?

John:  Just don’t be bashful. If you sit on the wall and wait for somebody to ask you, you’re going to sit there waiting for a long because there’s gonna be somebody that cares that steps up and volunteers. The volunteers—If you’re there when you don’t need to be there but you’re helping people out again, it will pay the benefits whenever you need the help. Like I said, I think a person should be involved in their chamber of commerce. I think a person should be involved in their state ag associations. Whatever it is you pick out, be involved and get involved with it. If you don’t, stuff’s gonna happen and you’re not gonna have a say.

Mike:  Well, that’s a great point. I used to work for my great uncle on his dairy and diversified crop farm. He grew seeds and stuff like that as well. He used to say to me and his boys, “Lay into it.” Lay into it. Put all your weight into it. Get your shoulder into it. Lay into it.

John:  Yeah.

Mike:  I think that’s what you’re saying.

John:  Well, yeah. I mean another way said don’t be afraid to show your ass.

Mike:  Yep. So in terms of thinking back of your experiences, I was just going to ask what do you think was the most challenging experience you had serving maybe in the NGFA or in some other leadership position in the industry?

John:  For me, the most challenging thing is standing up in front of a crowd and speaking. I mean, man, I get cold sweats. I can have a conversation with one person one on one or ten people one on one, but man if you put a microphone in front of me, it just scares me to death.

Mike:  So how have you learned to kind of push through that fear?

John:  Practice. Just do it. Again, I was in a position where I had to give a short presentation at a local college here a month ago. Just start thinking about it early. I type out what I want to say. I practice it, I read it, I try to read it slowly. If it doesn’t fit, I edit it. The worst thing for me is doing a speech that somebody else wrote for me. Because it’s kind of hard to say something somebody else was saying.

Mike:  Yep. Yep. Indeed. Well, when you look back at some of your terms of service, what comes to mind as something that you’ve been really pleased about where you made a contribution that’s had an impact?

John: Probably, you know I don’t know how much of an impact it’s had, but probably the biggest thrill for me has been a couple of times when I’ve provided congressional testimony on behalf of NGFA. One of them was on the MF global deal. Because I mean that was a big deal. To be called upon to tell our position on what happened there, I mean that was kind of a thrill.

Mike:  You did that in Washington, or where was that?

John:  Yeah. That was in DC in the House ag committee hearing room.

Mike:  Full of people and you had to speak to them.

John:  Yeah. Lots and lots of cameras. I mean Terry Duffy with the CME was sitting next to me. I can’t think of the guy’s name that used to run MF Global. He spent a bunch of time getting grilled by those guys and it was pretty interesting.

Mike:  Yep. Yeah. Kind of a low point, but you did your part to help everybody through it.

John:  Well, you know, again. When an issue comes up, you deal with the issue that comes up. People laugh at me about this. I was watching IMAS on Fox business channel one morning. They were talking about MF Global had filed bankruptcy. My wife said, “Well, don’t you all do business with them?” I said yeah, but it doesn’t matter because the money that we’ve got with them are in segregated funds. I thought man, that’s absolutely safe. Low and behold it wasn’t and it was at risk. Segregated funds didn’t mean anything. It wasn’t really segregated.

Mike:  Wow. I asked you what kind of the most impact or something you’re pleased with, and that was kind of a low moment.

John:  Yeah. Well, you know really the big deals with any industry are the crisis that you’ve got to work your way through. I mean the storms are where all the action is. The everyday stuff—get up, go to work—yeah you’ve got to do that, but the crisis are where it’s really needed.

Mike:  Yep, that’s right. Well, John, before we end this call—By the way, this is the first time I’ve used a video conferencing tool. So John can see me, I can see him. That was at his suggestion. He’s giving me some advice about my podcast.

John:  I’m saving your company money. Maybe it won’t cost me so much to buy your software because you don’t have the travel expense.

Mike:  Well, I would rather be in your office but–

John:  Yeah, well, I guess.

Mike:  So. Before we move on—So it’s late on a Friday afternoon here when we’re doing this. So I appreciate you doing this. Before we end this call, what advice would you give our listening audience about anything else or how to get involved.

John:  You just do it. You just make up your mind that you’re gonna do it, show up, and participate. That’s about all you can say. You know, if you show up and participate and act like you’re interested in participating, people start calling you. You can be just as active if you want to be if you just take the initiative to do it.

Mike:  Raise your hand. Don’t be afraid if you get–

John:  Raise your hand. Yep. When everyone else steps back, you go forward.

Mike:  Yeah. I’m sure when you were 1984, you didn’t know everything about what they were talking about either when you first got involved.

John:  I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know anything. You know, the 1980s was an exciting time in the grain industry because they had all of this government storage. Our company was storing a lot of grain for the government, and most of the people around the table were storing grain for the government. It was a big deal. So it was kind of…It was pertinent. I mean I glaze over when certain issues come to discussion, but I really jump in there when others do. It just so happened that that was a time when it was something I had a whole lot of interest in. That helped. Once you’re in, you’re in. You put your shoulder to the wheel on other issues too. It just so happened the first six years I was on the committee were big, big issue years for NGFA and government grain storage. So yeah. A lot of interest. That helped.

Mike:  Yeah, yeah. You’ll pick here on all of that stuff, right, payment and kind.

John:  Yeah, exactly.

Mike:  Wow. Well, interesting. Well, John, I was to thank you for taking a little bit of your time here today to spend with us and share your experiences about leading in agribusiness, especially with your contributions to the National Grain and Feed Association. We do appreciate that. Of course, I appreciate your friendship and your business with Greenstone. So I wish you a safe and successful harvest.

John:  Thank you man. I’ve enjoyed it. Enjoyed the conversation.

Mike:  Likewise.

Mike Terning: Alright. Well this is Mike Terning. Welcome to another episode of Outstanding in the Field, a Greenstone System’s podcast. Today I have the privilege of being in Reedsville, Wisconsin at Country Visions Cooperative. I am visiting with the president and CEO of County Vision, Steve Zutz. Did I say your last name right Steve?

Steve Zutz: Actually, it’s Steve Zutz, but you’re pretty close. I get that a lot.

Mike:   Okay, alright. Okay, Steve, could you please introduce yourself to our listening audience?

Steve:   Sure Mike. My name, like Mike said, Steve Zutz. I’m the president and CEO at Country Visions co-op here in Reedsville, Wisconsin.

Mike:   Okay. How long have you been with Country Visions co-op?

Steve:   Well, Country Visions goes back to probably at one time 14 different co-ops. So actually I started back in the mid-80s with one of the Country Visions predecessors, one of the 14.

Mike:   Okay.

Steve:   So it’s been quite some time.

Mike:   Okay. Well that’s good. In terms of your background, where did you grow up? Where did you go to school?

Steve:   So actually I grew up in a dairy farm probably about 10 miles away from where we sit today. I milked about 60 cows with my folks and found out that was too small of an operation to have a future there. So I decided to go to college. I went to the University of Wisconsin at River Falls and started out in the agronomy field. So that’s kind of where I got my start in ag. I knew I wanted to be in ag, just didn’t know what disciple in ag I wanted to be in. Once you get to school you kind of figure that out. I decided to get into the agronomy field. So I started out as a scout as an internship in 1985.

Mike:   Okay.

Steve:   So then I came back to actually to my own territory and did scouting for central of eastern Wisconsin. So I did that for two or three years until I graduated. Then got my first full time job at the Brilliant Co-op, which is probably 10 miles to the west of where we’re sitting here in the agronomy plant. From there I went to the Valders co-op as an agronomist full time.

Mike:   Okay.

Steve:   From there I went to the Chilton co-op as the agronomy manager for about five years until we got into the mid-90s. The manager had been forecasting his retirement in 1995. Prior to that I had took the old [inaudible] Lakes management training program. Spent several months up in the Twin Cities and studying management and learning about that. Came back and moved into that role in the mid-90s.

Mike:   Okay.

Steve:   From after that, Chilton co-op merged with a couple other co-ops and we moved on to be Agri Partners co-ops. Several mergers into that we ended up merging with Country Visions, took on the name Country Visions, and that’s where we are today.

Mike:   Wow.

Steve:   So actually many co-ops within the same organization. That’s where we are today.

Mike:   Wow. Yeah. It’s been a lot of change. A lot of mergers and acquisitions through the years.

Steve:   A lot of change. Like we were talking Mike, the first co-op that I managed at Chilton, our sales were $5 million. Today our net profits are in excess of $5 million. So that’s just a change in what we see.

Mike:   Wow. So how many locations does Country Visions have today?

Steve:   Well depending on what you’re calling a location, it’s around 30.

Mike:   30?

Steve:   Yeah.

Mike:   How many employees?

Steve:   About 375 right now. 225 full time.

Mike:   Okay, alright. How many producers do you serve?

Steve:   Well, we have approximately 1,850 voting members, but producers, we’re probably mailing out 5,000/6,000 statements plus all the cash customers that we’re dealing with. So we probably have 25,000 customers. Because our trade territory goes from our northern most site is Menominee, Michigan, which is right on the boarder of Wisconsin. Our southernmost site is we probably go down to Random Lake, which is just north of Milwaukee. Our western most site is Ripon. If you go east, you fall into Lake Michigan.

Mike:   So how many miles is that north to south?

Steve:   North to south I suppose it’s about 200.

Mike:   Yeah.

Steve:   Yeah.

Mike:   Yeah. Pretty good swath.

Steve:   Pretty good swath.

Mike:   Yeah. Well that’s interesting. Full-service cooperative, right.

Steve:   Correct.

Mike:  Yep. So not only agronomy, but grain and energy.

Steve:   Energy. We’re in propane. We’re in refined fuels. We have five convenient stores. We have three country stores. So yeah. It’s a diverse operation.

Mike:   Well, it’s interesting. You mentioned that you went to University of River Falls Wisconsin. So right about when you must have been graduating, I went to football camp there. They used to have a high school football camp called Big D and Little O. Or Big D and Big O, or something like that. Offense/defense. So I spent a week there in River Falls.

Steve:   You probably don’t know but I was an all-conference tight end at the University of Wisconsin in 1985.

Mike: Really?

Steve:   Absolutely.

Mike:   Wow.

Steve:   So I played college ball up there during the glory years of River Falls.

Mike:   Interesting. Oh, okay. Yeah, well that’s cool. Yeah, I would have been there in the summer of 83.

Steve:   Okay.

Mike:  Yeah. I went in my rising senior year. Well, that’s interesting. Well, that’s cool. Actually, I started out of college and I was actually accepted to University of River Falls and the University of Minnesota, St. Paul campus. I decided to stay where I started at Northwestern College. So yeah, anyways. Interesting.

Steve:   It makes us old guys, our age.

Mike:   Kind of. We’ve got some experience, right?

Steve:   There you go.

Mike:   Well, good. Well thanks for that background. Boy, you’ve seen some changes. I guess we all have if we’ve been in ag for a while. This episode is about leadership. So in terms of, you said you went to leadership tool that [inaudible] Lakes put on at the time. What has sort of been the recipe for you in terms of rising to become a president and CEO of a cooperative like Country Visions?

Steve:   You know back when you go to those leadership schools back in the—I think I went in the early 90s. They were teaching all the same concepts that we actually teach our people today from time management, delegation, crucial conversations, financial tools, all the same things. It seems that things have really changed as our whole industry has. So it’s more of you have to adapt and change with we’re dealing with Millennials, Generation Z’ers, Baby Boomers. It didn’t seem like we had all of that way back in the mid-90s. It seemed back then you had more people looking for jobs than there were jobs. Today it’s almost the opposite that seems to be the biggest change.

Mike:   Yeah. Yeah. The interesting part was those mid-80s, they were really some bleak days within agriculture.

Steve:   Which, you know, ag’s been that way forever. Especially obviously this side of the state of Wisconsin is a big dairy area. We go through our peaks and our valleys. Today we’re kind of in one of our longest valleys the way it seems. It’s about a three- or four-year valley. We’re always confident. It always comes back.

Mike:    It is a cyclical business.

Steve:   It’s very cyclical, yes.

Mike:   That’s right. So in terms of being a leader in this environment of stressed margins, lower grower profitability, which tends to lead to more mergers and acquisitions and larger growers. What’s your…I mean what do you see is the value of being a leader to cooperatives like Country Visions and others and setting the vision for a company like this?

Steve:   Well, you know, I think it’s obviously more than just the leader. When you look at my role, you’ve got to be an advocate for change because nothing stays the same. If you stay the same, you’re probably going down or backwards. You always have to be looking for the next new thing. You’ve got to, I start with my board, but that leads to the customers and to the employee group. It always more than one person. It takes the whole group to make the thing move forward, but you’ve got to keep talking about change. Everybody whether they or not, you get complacent with the way you’re doing things and it’s comfortable. You’re looking at hey, there’s going to be a change coming whether it’s a merger or a consolidation or something you think as simple as changing our payroll, which we just did. That creates anxiety for some people and change, but you just got to keep working through it.

Mike:   So in terms of change, because setting a vision is one thing and executing it is another. What have you found successful in managing change within your member base as well as your employees?

Steve:   You know, I think we’re in a pretty progressive area over in this side of the state. I suppose a lot of areas would say that. But if you look at the dairy and the industry in eastern Wisconsin, I think we’re very innovative and forward looking. I believe my employees, my board of directors, and my customers have all that mindset. So, you know, obviously anytime you talk about a merger or a change, there’s the group that says, “No, don’t” or “Don’t make that change within your company.” Once the board has decided and the employees have agreed that this is the direction we’re going to take, you just move forward. You always have the naysayers, but you’ve got to do what’s right for the company and for the customer. It has to be right for all three groups, right? The customer, the employee, and the company or it’s not going to work. You rub some people a little bit along the way, but so far it’s always worked out.

Mike:   So when you have those naysayers, what have you found in your experience has been helpful in overcoming the opposition or the doubters or whatever you want to say?

Steve:   I just think talking through what you feel is right. We’ve had many mergers and consolidations and changes within this company. I’ve heard many times from some customers that you’re going to be too big for us. We’re not gonna work with you. A year later or two years later, they’re back and they’re 100% supporting of what you do. It just seems like maybe at the time you were ahead of what they were thinking. When they find out hey, I guess that works out fine, I don’t have to have a plant in this town. I just call and the fertilizer’s there any way and they find out it works, then they’re all right with it.

Mike:   Oh, okay.

Steve:   But you’re right. You have to execute the plan. If you want to have a failed merger, make all the plans and then don’t follow through with it. Then you’ll have yourself some trouble. Usually you don’t meet your financial goals.

Mike:   Right, right. So communication is key, right? Then execution.

Steve:   Communication is probably the hardest thing you’ll ever have, especially the bigger you get. Because how do you get everything communicated all the way down to the 400th person on the list? Everybody has their own lives that they’re dealing with and they’re usually busy. That’s the hardest piece to get everything communicated.

Mike:   Definitely. I’m sure when you’re in the middle of a business change…Do you ever feel like you’re a broken record? You’re saying the same thing over and over?

Steve:   All the time. Sometimes I wonder if we’ve just wrote this three times in a row and said it five, we’re gonna do it again. You could do it 100 times and there are still people that wouldn’t get the message, or they’d get the message a little backwards or behind time. I think we all know from any business or even from our personal lives that the communication isn’t ever perfect.

Mike:   Yeah. Especially with those big changes, right?

Steve:   Correct. Or they might be seeing it from a different view and kind of hearing it differently.

Mike:   Sure. Yeah. I’ve noticed that when we’ve done changes within our company. We have to communicate it probably about seven times before it’s really somewhat understood.

Steve:  Absolutely. Absolutely.

Mike:   So that’s us as humans. We want the message reinforced.

Steve:   We like to hear what we want to hear.

Mike:   Yep. You’re exactly right. We do hear what we want to hear. That is very true.  So we also talk about at least, there’s kind of three things that make a business tick. It’s people, processes, and the tools in terms of pulling off a successful business combination. Which of those would you say is most important?

Steve:   Oh, it’s people. People are what runs every business. If you have the right people, the processes and everything else will follow suit. So I’ve been fortunate throughout my whole career to have great people on my board, on my staff. That’s what it all takes to make it successful.

Mike:  Yep, definitely. Well, in terms of a leader’s role, what have you seen either in Country Visions or other successful agribusinesses in keeping production agriculture relevant and profitable in the cooperative area? What have you seen as kind of some of the key recipes or traits or characteristics of leaders that have been successful?

Steve:   One thing that makes production agriculture need to stay relevant is we all like to eat. Then our country, as opposed to the rest of the world, we have a relatively cheap food source. So in the United States, we have the safest and most abundant food in the world, and I think a lot of people take that for granted. I mean this is what they told us when we came out of high school. Get in ag. We’ve got to feed the world. The world’s multiplying. There’ll be good profits in ag. We see that at time, but at other times there isn’t good profits. We know our ultimate goal. Dairy in this area has grown big time. There used to be lots of 40/50/60 cow dairy herds in this trade territory. Now we see 2,000/3,000 and 5,000 cow herds in this trade territory. The technology behind that all, that’s really what’s drove the change. Our company needed to change and maybe be on the forefront of that change to help drive that. We went from seven feed mills probably in 1995 to 2000. We built a new feed mill and tore seven of them down. Now think that didn’t bring some anxiety to some of our customers who were used to having a feed mill right next door. We’re going to this big automated computerized mill. That’s where some of the customers said, “You’re too big. We’re not going to do business with you.”

Well, we grew in 2000 from an $18 million feed operation to today a $175 million feed operation with two feed mills. Agronomy, not quite that big of a change but we went from probably 14 or 16 fertilizer plants and we’re down to nine today with an expanded territory. So we’re still in that process with that business, but that’s where we need to get to.

Mike:   Really fewer but far more efficient and larger centers of operations.

Steve:   Yeah. Computerization, running these plants is totally valuable. Obviously the size of it.

Mike:   You’ve done a lot with youth in agriculture. Describe to the audience some of the things that you’ve done relative to supporting youth in agriculture and how Country Visions does that.

Steve:   Sure, Mike. So we started a scholarship program, oh I suppose it was about 10 years ago where we’re giving $1,000 scholarships to students of our membership that are going on to further education. We like to promote ag, but it isn’t always exclusively ag scholarships that we’re giving. So we’ve been doing that for quite some time and my board gets involved with that program. We support college internship programs for many years. We have anywhere from I suppose on a low of half dozen to 15 to 18 interns that we get. Most of them are obviously in the summer. A lot of them are obviously ag agronomy interns, but we’ve had feed interns. We’ve had several energy interns, and even an office intern. So I think that’s critical to try to develop future employees and give these young people a taste of what we’re doing here in our industry. It’s been good for us because if we have 10 or 15 interns, we probably end up with one or two of them that end up to be longer term employees. So if we can keep going with that batting percentage, we should have more interns hopefully. It’s getting more challenging to get them also.

Mike:   Oh, it is?

Steve:   Yeah. It’s not as easy. Years back you could probably get as many as you could find a room for. Today you’ve got to go out and almost recruit them. They’re a little harder to find, but it’s just part of less students being around than there were 20 years ago.

Mike:   Oh okay. Alright. How does it…What sort of value do those interns bring to Country Visions while they’re here?

Steve:   Well, sometimes I need to tell my staff don’t look at them as an extra labor/extra hand. We need to do our part as far as training them. Yes, they do sometimes some of the menial tasks, but we also want to show them what we’re doing. Probably sometimes the hardest part is finding time to spend with the interns to train them and give them as much experience as they need. They’re always bringing something new. Most of the time they’re very aggressive and ambitious, and they probably end up training us too because they have some new ideas that they’re bringing on. A lot of them are different generations compared to what half of my staff is. So I think it goes both ways.

Mike:   Yeah. That’s one of the things that we found with internships within Greenstone Systems as well if we’ve had some of our, I’ll say, more seasoned personnel kind of—Actually we had one gentleman who referred to as, “Now I need to go babysit the intern.” At the end of the internship, he said, “I don’t know what I’m gonna do without this individual.”

Steve:   Right?

Mike:   That’s how well it worked. From that attitude of babysitting to wow, this person is contributing within like eight weeks of time.

Steve:   So the learning goes both ways.

Mike:   It does.

Steve:   We’ve also participated with some of the local high schools in a—I don’t know if there’s an official title to the program, but they get off the last two hours of school and they come and work for us. We’ve had a couple of them in our grain division, want to come and learn the grain division. There’s obviously way less kids coming from the farms these days. So these are some of the only ways we can get people in to learn what we’re actually doing. So it’s very, very valuable. We also support a lot of younger kids in the 4H and in the fairs. We go to the animal sales for probably 10 fairs, support the kids and their projects. You know those kids or those projects, some up to seven/eight/nine years. Every now and then we get some of these as employees. They learn what the co-op’s about. Obviously a lot of those parents are customers of ours. So it’s good to keep them in ag and keep them interested, and hopefully they turn out to be good employees for us.

Mike:   Oh, neat. So you’re doing a bunch of different things on different fronts, getting youth involved.

Steve:   Yep because that’s our feeder program. We need to go and hunt these people out. These young people today where it seems like 40 years ago three-quarters of the people came from the farm and they wanted to work in ag. Not anymore. It’s totally different.

Mike:   Yeah. So rolling back in your career, when you were first starting out, were you aspiring to be the president or CEO of a large cooperative?

Steve:   Farthest thing from my mind. You’re just hoping for the first job out of college. Things were tight back then. Like I said, I knew at school I kind of went in the direction of agronomy and business. So I knew I wanted to be in fertilizer business or seed business and whatever. It was awful lucky that I ended up at the brilliant co-op which was close to my hometown. Some people say that’s maybe not lucky, but I guess it worked out for me. I knew the trade territory. I knew customers from my internship. So it transitioned well into a sales agronomist goal.

Mike:   What would you say was the—In terms of advising the younger coming generation coming into agriculture, how do you advise them on being successful within agribusiness?

Steve:   I’d say don’t be afraid to get in on the bottom floor. I’ve done every job in this company from walking fields soil sampling. I’d drive floaters. I still drive floaters on weekends periodically in the spring now. I’ve driven fuel trucks, propane trucks. I haven’t made a burger at our A&W yet, but I have done a lot of the basic jobs in ag because when we were in smaller companies, you were involved in everything in every department. That laid a good baser foundation to know what’s going on in this business. We need to find people that have diverse knowledge about what we do in ag, and that’s less and less moving forward. So anybody wanting to come in, don’t be afraid to get your feet wet and don’t be afraid to—If you think you want to be in agronomy, go ahead start in agronomy. Don’t be afraid to look into feed or look into energy. We’ve had a few people bounce around the departments, but if you want to get into management longer in your career bouncing around between those divisions is a good idea.

Mike:   Okay.

Steve:   Because you learn from a different perspective.

Mike:   Sure, sure. So roll up your sleeves, be willing to get dirty, keep a learning attitude.

Steve:   Keep a learning attitude. Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo. If you look at all the changes that we’ve had in the last 40/50 years, I think the next 10 years will have just as much change.

Mike:   Wow, yeah. So change is almost accelerating isn’t it more and more.

Steve:  More and more. What young people can bring for technology is just amazing to us people that are more senior in the company.

Mike:   Yeah, yeah. Well that’s interesting.

Steve:   Like we all say. If we don’t know how to do something, go ask an 18-year-old or a 10-year-old. They’ll figure it out for us.

Mike:   That’s right. That’s right.

Steve:   Mike knows what I’m talking about.

Mike:   Yeah. What button do I push here?

Steve:   Right.

Mike:   Yeah. Yep. Well, that’s interesting. So in kind of summary here, pretend that I’m about 30 years younger. What would you say to me if I said, “You know, I’d like your job someday.” What would you say to me?

Steve: I would say don’t be afraid to go for it. Get your hands dirty, get in the co-op system. Don’t be afraid to get out to some of these big farms, see what they’re doing, look at the innovation. Think technology because I think that’s going to drive a lot of things, but also get out on the farms. Get in the fields, get by the animals. Then talk to a lot of our employees because we have a very diverse workgroup now and all different age groups. They have a lot of bring. Like I said, don’t be afraid to try different departments as you’re going to move up in an organization.

Mike:   What challenge would you say that I need to be ready for? What do you think would be the biggest challenge for a rising leader?

Steve:   How to relate to people. Through the last probably 10 years when you look at upper management at probably any business, but at the co-ops. When we go to leadership discussions, we always talk about people. How do Baby Boomers, of which I am, relate to and deal with Generation Z, Millennials. That whole dynamics on that because everybody has a whole different thought process and how you relate to people and jobs.

Mike:   That’s interesting. I was at a National Grand Feed Association Country Elevator convention a couple years ago. They have the talent and development officer from Land O’Lakes speak. I forget what his name is. You’ve probably met him Steve.

Steve:   Probably.

Mike:   He had a PhD in talent management area. Anyways. Someone asked him a question about how can I as a Gen Xer or Baby Boomer or whatever relate to these millennials? It was a very interesting answer he gave and it kind of stuck with me. He said, “Really, it doesn’t matter what age we are. We’re all looking for three things in our careers.” He said number one—and the way I memorized this was AMP. A means autonomy. We all want the autonomy to do our jobs successfully. So show us what to do and then let us do it.

Steve:   Let us do it.

Mike:   Yep.

Steve:   While we fail. To a certain extent, we need to fail.

Mike:   Yep. To learn. M was mastery. We all want the ability to master what we’re doing at our career. Show that we’re proficient at it. Become competent, be proficient. Maybe start teaching others how to do it. So autonomy, mastery, and then P is purpose. We want to be serving a vision, a strategy. Some purpose that’s larger than ourselves. So I thought that AMP acronym was really pretty cool. I find, you know, all the people I work with, if they’ve been around a while I can see every one of those things. They want the autonomy, the master, and purpose or vision strategy. I thought, that’s pretty good advice. No matter what age we are, we want those things in a career.  So work ethics may be a little bit different. What I’ve noticed—and you’ve probably seen this too—the younger generation, they do want that easy button because they don’t want to have to work as many hours as their parents did.

Steve:   Absolutely. Our group, we were almost to the point of working fulls. We work seven days a week, long hours. There wasn’t as much automation on everything, but that’s not going to cut it in the future. We all need to figure out how to balance life and work, and the younger generation more so. So maybe that makes them a whole lot smarter than we were.

Mike:   Maybe it does.

Steve:   Right?

Mike:   Because I think too when we’re doing those 70 hours plus weeks, what happens? We make mistakes, right. Because we get tired, fatigued, and maybe irritable.

Steve:   Yep. So hopefully technology can take the gap and bring some of that time down.

Mike:   Yep, that’s right. Well, before we go, what advice would you give to our listening audience on being an effect leader or anything else that comes to our mind on leadership?

Steve:   I guess the top things would be be open to change, be proactive on change. Don’t get behind the eight ball because once you do, if the industry’s ahead of you, you’re going to have a hard time catching up. Work and hire the best people possible. Your job is easier if everybody that you’re working with is smarter than you. It’s going to make your job a lot easier. Then communicate. Like you said, it’s probably the hardest thing to do the larger you get. When we started merging, we talked to every one of our—When we started in our careers, we probably talked to everybody that you worked with on a daily basis four or five times. As you got bigger, that’s not even possible. So you’ve got to learn to communicate in other ways through other people and move forward.

Mike:   Well, that’s interesting you would say surround yourself with people smarter than you.

Steve:   Right? It makes the job as easy as possible.

Mike:   That’s coming from the highest employee position within Country Vision co-op.

Steve:   Yep.

Mike:   Yeah. Well–

Steve:   I’ll be the first to admit I’m not the smarter guy in the company. That’s the way I want to have it.

Mike:   Yeah, that’s right. I had a promotion one at Harvest States and the VP who gave me the promotion said to me, he said, “Mike, the key to this, surround yourself with really smart people.”

Steve:   See?

Mike:   That was very good advice. So that’s what I’ve tried to do.

 

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