Consolidation has become standard operating procedure for the agricultural retail industry. And the recipient of this year's Jack Eberspacher Lifetime Achievement Award led some of the largest acquisitions in the business.
"Retail consolidation has been driven by grower consolidation," said Richard Gearheard, former President and CEO of Agrium Retail. "There are fewer and larger growers today than when I started in this business. It stands to reason there would be fewer retailers."
The Agricultural Retailers Association presented Gearheard with the Eberspacher Award during the ARA Conference and Expo at the JW Marriott in Palm Desert, Calif.
Gearheard served as Senior Vice President of Agrium, Inc. and President of the Retail Division from August 1996 until his retirement in April 2014. He also worked in various capacities with other Agrium retail companies such as Western Farm Service as Vice President, Northwest Region and Crop Production Services as Vice President and Chief Financial Officer.
In 1983, he participated in the formation of Crop Production Services through a leveraged buyout. During his career, he has been involved with company-changing acquisitions including PureGro, Western Farm Service, Royster-Clark, United Agri Products, Landmark (Australia) and Viterra (Canada).
Gearheard graduated from Oklahoma State University in 1972 with a Bachelor of Science in Accounting. He passed his CPA exam, with Honorable Mention, also in 1972, and maintains membership in Oklahoma Society of Certified Accountants and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.
At the time of his retirement, Agrium President and CEO Chuck Magro thanked Gearheard for "his tremendous contribution in building Agrium Retail into the leading agricultural retailer in the U.S. and globally."
"Richard is well known and broadly respected in the agriculture community for his business knowledge, humor and focus on people," Magro added.
Reflecting on his accomplishments, Gearheard said he was most proud of the opportunities he helped create for Agrium employees.
"We were able to set up an environment at Agrium Retail where people could be very successful - and provide well for their family - when they performed well," he said. "Even through the confusion of acquisitions and integrations, those who were doing a good job for our customers were able to make a good living."
Hindsight provides perspective on how the agricultural changed during Gearheard's career. He pointed to how technology has impacted ag retailers.
"Changes seemed to be very gradual," he said. "But then you look back and say that was a big one. GMO technology probably had the biggest effect on retailers. It was a painful change because chemical applications dropped off. It took us awhile to adapt."
With precision agricultural practices, advances in equipment and cutting-edge technologies now essential to many growers, retailers have continued to adapt. Gearheard said retailers will continue to play an important role in grower success.
"We share the same objectives," he said. "But retailers must be knowledgeable and able to deliver the right solutions to remain relevant, otherwise the grower will leave them behind."
Established in 2001, the Eberspacher Lifetime Achievement award was renamed after the late Jack Eberspacher who served as ARA President and Chief Executive Officer from 2001 until his death in 2009. The award is ARA's highest individual honor, designed to recognize career-spanning achievements in and contributions to the agricultural retail industry.
"I'm extremely honored and surprised by this recognition," Gearheard said. "I looked at the past recipients and I'm humbled to be included on that list."
Past recipients include Ford B. West, former President of The Fertilizer Institute; Jim Thrift, former Vice President of Regulatory Affairs and Corporate Relations for ARA; Bill Griffith, founder of AgriCenter; and Al McQuinn, founder, former Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Ag-Chem Equipment Co.
"Richard exemplifies the characteristics ARA is seeking to recognize with the Eberspacher Lifetime Achievement award," said Daren Coppock, ARA President and CEO. "Mergers, acquisitions and consolidation are challenging aspects of this business and he went about it the right way - with respect, humility and humanity."