Company: Founded in 1936 and based in St. Francisville, Ill., AgriGold provides corn hybrids and soybean varieties to farmers in 400 counties in 13 states.
Background: John grew up on a family farm in Olney, Ill. He was active in his local FFA chapter and served as the Illinois FFA president from 1977 to 1978.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in agricultural eco, University of Illinois.
Career: After college, John worked with the Illinois General Assembly State Senate Republican Staff and the Secretary of Agriculture’s Public Liaison Staff in Washington, D.C. In 1984, he joined the AgriGold team and became the general manager in 1998.
Favorite leadership author: Jocko Willink. Both of his books, “Extreme Ownership” and “The Dichotomy of Leadership” are great reads to help you find balance as a leader.
What does your role as general manager entail?
AgReliant Genetics, our parent company, has two seed brands: LG Seeds and AgriGold. AgriGold is the brand that works directly with growers, and I’m responsible for the vision and direction of the brand. That can include everything from product development to marketing to expansion. When I started, the company was really small, so I did a little bit of everything. I spent a lot of time helping with the research side of the brand, which was one of the best things I ever did. It’s one thing to grow up on a farm, but to know the seed business is totally different. I learned so much about research as well as almost every aspect of the company.
What is AgriGold’s competitive advantage?
The seed industry, like all industries, is going through major consolidation and change. The challenge is to make sure we’re relevant with growers versus our competitors. There are only four companies left that have worldwide research: Corteva, Bayer, Syngenta and AgReliant Genetics. We have unique genetics, which gives us an advantage over the regionals. Also, we are known for our agronomy team and agronomic advice.
What do you see as the biggest benefit of the AgriGold internship program you created?
During my time in D.C., I realized the value of internships and providing young people with exposure to your company. We started the AgriGold internship program shortly after I joined the company. Last year, we had 70 interns. When you look at resumes across the industry, it’s amazing how many people had their start with AgriGold. Internships are one of the best ways to interview a potential hire.
You’ve worked with several record-yield-breaking farmers. What traits do they have in common?
We became involved with the National Corn Growers Association’s yield contest to see if we could take what those farmers were doing and apply it on a commercial scale. These farmers do two or three things. No. 1 is they are not afraid to try something new. No. 2 is they have a focus on ROI. With the current ag economy, there’s two ways to make money as a farmer: improve your yield or reduce your input costs. Well, usually reducing input costs is not going to increase your yield. We work with growers who are interested in ROI.
How has your company overcome economic challenges? What can farmers do in light of the tight margins many of them are facing?
One of the biggest things we’ve had to do is understand every aspect of the business and find out where we can do better. For example, one thing almost every business is fighting right now is transportation costs. Semis and drivers are in short supply. So how can we be creative with transportation costs? That’s what I love about the business world. Right now, is probably more challenging than ever in my career, but at the same time there are more opportunities. If you can work through these issues, you’re going to win. It’s the same with growers, if they can figure out something unique to streamline, you’re going to win.
What trends are you watching in the seed industry?
Farm consolidation. With lower commodity prices, a lot of older farmers are just saying, “Hey, it’s not worth it. I’m going to sell or rent my ground.” We’ve talked about consolidation for years, and it is now happening at an accelerated rate. We want to make sure we’re focused on the right growers, which are the ones interested in growing and have a succession plan. I meet with a lot of large growers, and I’m shocked at how many have no succession plans. If you’re not focused on the right customer, you could wake up one day and be out of business because all your customers have retired or sold their farms.
As farmers head into the 2019 growing season, what advice do you have?
Be patient. Since we’ve had a really wet spring after a tough fall, I know everybody’s going want to try to mud their crop in. Be patient and let the weather play out. Most people can plant their farm in five to 10 days. The right opportunity will come. If you don’t have a perfect stand, you are shot out of the gate.
What is some of the best leadership advice you’ve ever received?
I had the opportunity to work with John Block and Richard Lyng, who both served as Secretary of USDA. One thing I learned from them is balance. As a young person, you want to take everything so seriously. Richard Lyng was really good at knowing when to make a statement and when to step back and not
push so hard.