Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The path least traveled

As silly as this may sound coming from a guy who admittedly enjoys the warmth of spring sunshine, summer evenings and fall days, I love this time of year!  While this time of year used to be considered our “slow time”, it is when we essentially cram every kind of imaginable meeting into four months. 

The reason I love this time is that I actually look forward to the meetings. While I may dislike the travel and every minute being scheduled for the foreseeable future, the exchange of ideas with so many different people provides me with a way to challenge everything we know today.  This exchange allows for intelligence to be cumulative and not singular and it allows for an environment that fosters the innovation necessary for improved performance.   It is in this sharing of ideas and concepts, trials and errors, and successes and failures that we learn from each other. 

We have increased our efforts to provide opportunities to our members to participate in “idea exchange” sessions.  We’ve already provided a number of these sessions in which many of you have taken advantage of.  We’ve hosted meetings designed to help producers understand and use tissue sampling with the intent of increased production.  We’ve provided sprayer clinics for those who own their own equipment.  Our energy division recently hosted meetings to help you better understand the refined fuel delivery (RFD) program as well as fuel and oil warranties.   Additionally, Team Marketing Alliance sponsors a number of meetings designed to improve our customers’ understanding of how to capture the best in crop insurance and marketing tools.  We’ve also offered a host of meetings that covered a range of topics including social media, input financing, utilization of TMA’s Patron Access and MKC’s Customer Portal.  We are in the final stages of planning this year’s women’s meeting to be held April 19.  The list of meetings goes on and on!

We believe that meetings of this kind are imperative for us to foster an environment for cultural exchange that will provide all of us improved performance opportunity.  That is part of your coop’s mission today. 

I read recently in a great book - and I’m paraphrasing - that the exchange of ideas is to cultural evolution as breeding is to biological evolution.  It makes sense to me. Exchanging ideas is the value of what we can accomplish this time of year and why I look forward to it. 

Stop and think for a moment of the evolution that your local cooperative has gone through since its inception. We continue to transition our company, which was once solely a warehouse model, to a company that can help you decipher and utilize the gigabytes of information flooding your every waking hour and help you successfully navigate the “risk” minefield that surrounds us. 

I think there are times when we don’t give ourselves the credit due for what the coop has achieved, with your help.   I’m referring to more than just achieving financial success because it’s given that we need to be financially successful.  I’m referring to the recognition and anticipation of what could be detrimental to the success of our member owners and developing the type of programs that can help them deal with managing these issues. 

I will acknowledge there are still some people who are certainly more comfortable with the same old problems than proposing and dealing with new solutions.  (I get reminded of this occasionally by those who prefer not to change anything.) But I always reflect back to another quote that I keep nearby:  ”The measure of success is not whether you have a tough problem to deal with, but whether it is the same problem you had last year.”

I also take this time of year to try and host as many informal meetings with producers that I can.  One disadvantage for a larger company is that the CEO doesn’t get to spend as much time with front line employees or customers as he or she would like.  While it may seem like a “drop in the proverbial bucket”, this is one of my efforts that I love to do.  

I have hosted about a dozen meetings this winter and they have provided me the opportunity to listen to and visit with about 100 growers.  If you’ve never attended one of these meetings and would like to, contact your location manager and we will get you added to the schedule.  I try to keep the group size to less than 10 growers which allows for some great open dialog, so it may take a while to get to everyone on the list. 

One of the great things I’ve seen happen in these meetings over the past few years is there is less focus on the past and a much greater emphasis placed on the future and where the coop needs to concentrate its efforts and resources to best help our growers. 

These producer meetings are interesting on many levels but one of the most extreme examples of the heterogeneous nature of our customer base is the varying opinions surrounding invoices and statements.  I'm sure you're aware that our statements have significantly changed and we continue to make adjustments to them based on customer input. A perfect example occurred at a recent meeting.   One producer stated   he really preferred to never receive any paper.  He could have easier access, less paper to sort through, easier document retention and the flexibility to develop the spreadsheets he wanted.  He also desired to receive payments and pay bills on line.  Seated across the table was another producer who resided in the opposite camp.   He wanted everything sent to him, including invoices .  The best part is that we completely understand and acknowledge that they are both correct and we will strive to develop methods to make sure we are meeting the needs of those two customers and all the people who reside somewhere in between.

 As I wrap up each of these producer meetings, I always ask the participants to make sure they take advantage of our excellent location general managers whenever they want or have the time to do so.  The location managers are integral stakeholders in our company and are charged with communicating with you and making sure the message gets delivered and not overly filtered.  While there are a handful of administrative items we centralize, the most important one we will never centralize is listening to and taking care of a customer’s needs.  This is the responsibility of the location general manager and his or her team.  The information they gather and share helps us chart or make adjustments to our course.  This same information is taken into planning sessions throughout our company and into the boardroom. 

Thank you for sharing your ideas and thank you those of you who have been increasing your business with your cooperative.  We’ve again added more than another 100 new members this year.  With the obvious exception of bushels (due to some untimely dry weather), it is with your help that we’ve increased volume in every other commodity area in the company.  It’s apparent you have been promoting the value of your coop and we appreciate it. 

A business we consider an integral stakeholder in our company recently asked us, “How do we help you grow?”  I will ask you the same question, and it doesn’t have to be interpreted to mean “size”. We will continue our efforts to provide you with the educational opportunities and the environment to foster cultural exchange.  We see that as one of our most critical and most rewarding missions.  Due to the initial investment required to provide these types of exchange opportunities, it’s a path not many of the people competing for your business choose to take.  While reducing your price by $20 a ton or raising the price of wheat by a nickel is nice, it won’t insure success for either one of us.  With a career steeped in sales I will be one of the first to acknowledge that price is important. However, it’s no replacement for use of appropriate risk management programs and access to good timely knowledge. 

This year we’ve been fortunate enough to lead the pack in timely programs with exceptional values that resulted in good business growth for MKC and income opportunities for our customers.  Talk about shared growth and shared success!   With your unrelenting input, we will continue developing and offering programs designed around your needs.    Please take advantage of them!

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