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Leadership Through the Storm

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Leadership Through the Storm

Business leaders offer advice on facing and overcoming challenges

Ask an agriculture industry professional about surviving tough times, and you’re sure to get a good story. Or two or three. In a climate as challenging as the one we’re experiencing these days, just about everyone can describe a rough patch they not only endured, but conquered. We asked leaders inside and outside of agriculture for thoughts on how to manage best when things seem most chaotic.

What i learned from international business people: innovation, determination, gratitude

John Mendesh, Vice President, R&D, General Mills, and Cofounder, Partners in Food Solutions

“I’ve been at General Mills for 32 years, and I’m currently responsible for long-term research and development. I’m also one of the cofounders of Partners in Food Solutions. It’s a nonprofit that shares the expertise of corporate volunteers with small and growing food processing businesses in Africa. Our volunteers come from General Mills, Cargill, Royal DSM and Bu¨hler. Collectively, we’ve given more than 60,000 volunteer hours to more than 500 food companies in Kenya, Zambia, Tanzania, Malawi and Ethiopia.

“When I face a challenge in my daily work, I often think about those business owners in Africa, who have the odds stacked against them much more severely than any of us in the United States do. Success doesn’t come to them without setbacks, and sometimes they are forced to take one step forward and five steps back, but they do prevail. When they’re faced with adversity, they get more innovative, become more determined, and continue to express gratitude for what they do have. The great lesson I’ve taken away from my work with Partners in Food Solutions is that there will always be challenges, some much greater than others, but the important measure is how you choose to react to them.”

Don’t forget to have fun

Troy Hobbs, Director, Phosphate Product Management, The Mosaic Company

“When you’re faced with a tough time, it’s important to focus on the things you can actually control. In agriculture right now, there are a lot of things outside of our control. But you can get some tools in your arsenal to make good business decisions to help you make a profit and hopefully have a little bit of fun along the way.

“One key is to put a good marketing plan together, one that looks for opportunities to lock in profit, and then execute that plan. Keeping that focus on what you can control means you’ll need to look at everything as an opportunity to improve — what fertilizer to apply, what seed to put down, or how much you’re paying for land rent.

“I’ve talked to a lot of farmers and ranchers, and I know they’re concerned about how to remain profitable in this environment. The agriculture lifestyle is very important to many of them. Several years ago, a dairy farmer said to me, ‘It’s a lot easier to have fun when you’re making money than when you aren’t.’ For him, fun was a component in doing what he did for a living. He took genuine joy in his job — an office job would have killed him. Fun is important to help survive tough times, and so is pride in what we do. Many of us in agriculture feel that pride, because we make a material difference in feeding the world — and that’s a mission worth working for.”

Reach out to partners for the “win win”

Cindy Haren, Chief Executive Officer, Western Dairy Association

“I have lived on a farm and ranch for 25 years, so I’ve experienced everything that Mother Nature can throw at me. In my current role, we faced a truly turbulent time in 2009, when dairy exports declined sharply. It created a huge problem for our dairy farm families, and we experienced an epidemic of bankruptcies, foreclosures and business failures. As the leader of a regional checkoff association, I knew it was my job to help our families however I could. Right away, we stepped up our communications with members, making sure they had good tools for coping with stress.

“We also began to consult with national fast food restaurants about partnerships to increase the consumption of dairy foods. The leaders at Domino’s Pizza had heartfelt concern for our dairy farm families, and they started innovating with our national dairy research and development (R&D) folks to come up with better-tasting and more nutritious pizza. They even started printing stories of dairy farm families on their pizza delivery boxes. Within 18 months, our partnerships resulted in increased domestic usage of mozzarella cheese by 6 percent, thanks to partners like Domino’s and Pizza Hut.

“My takeaway from that experience is that when times are tough, you need to reach out to partners you trust, who hold similar values, and be honest about what’s happening. In today’s global economy, no one can survive alone, and you need the best professional team you can put together, including bankers, lenders, animal nutritionists, soil experts, scientists and others. They all should be on your side to help you work through whatever challenges you’re facing.”

Look to a role model

Bob Ness, Director of Sales, Western North America, The Mosaic Company

“I’ve been with The Mosaic Company and its predecessor company for a combined 22 years now. When we were first formed, we experienced low commodity prices and low margins, and our debt was relatively high. Our leadership at the time guided us through the tough times by staying true to our core values. We all worked hard and stayed focused on doing the right things day to day, which helped us move through and on to better markets.

“Here at Mosaic, we’re doing our best to help our growers and retailers navigate successfully in the current climate. Everyone here is focused on increasing yields and doing it profitably with products like MicroEssentials® and Aspire®. The key right now is buckling down and making it through the short term, because in the long term, there are good reasons for optimism.

“On a personal level, my role model for facing a challenge with courage and grace is my daughter, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was 3 years old. She was always tough and never anything but positive. From the very beginning, she insisted on checking her own blood sugar and giving herself insulin shots. I’m proud to say she’s now 21 years old and a student at Boston College. With an example like hers, I just can’t let tough times get me down.”

Question expenses, but watch out for overreactions

Chuck Lee, Head of Corn, North America, Syngenta

“I’ve lived through a few of these downturns, and I find that anytime there’s a rapid, significant challenge, it’s often met with a bit of overreaction. The temptation can be to cut costs drastically and try to survive that way. But if you look at the past, success came to farmers who calculated the return on investment for every input decision that had to be made. You still need to invest in the inputs that add value and provide high returns. If you do that, you’ll stand the test of time.

“You can see adversity as an opportunity, or you can be pessimistic. We know from previous downturns that some folks actually prospered during those times. One thing they learned was that in farming, technology usually pays. Switching to the lower-cost product might not be a good idea, and you have to question every expense. We encourage our growers to ask themselves, ‘As I choose a herbicide, is it really less costly overall to use a more expensive one- pass product than a cheaper two-pass one?’ During tough times, the focus shouldn’t be on cost cutting, it should be on efficiency.”

Surround yourself with great colleagues

David Lee, Senior Director, Supply Chain, The Mosaic Company

“The interesting thing about tough times is that while they’re all challenging, they’re also all just a little bit different. So you may get wiser with each experience, but it doesn’t mean you’ve experienced everything life can throw at you.

“One of my own tough times happened when I was the manager responsible for a specific region of our business. We had to come to a decision to divest the business, which was struggling with economic deterioration in a complex political situation. There were so many aspects to consider, especially the impact on people and on our company’s reputation. Looking in from the outside, the decision might have seemed obvious, but accepting it was certainly not easy.

“What I learned from that particular tough time is if you’re a leader, don’t feel you must carry all the weight by yourself. You’re never alone if you surround yourself with great colleagues, both personal and professional. With your own clear thinking and their support, you will get through to the other side, and those life lessons you learn will make you a stronger person.”