Retailer Of The Year: Global Perspective, Local Service

The Ontario, Ore., retail facility is a hub for three locations with bulk fertilizer, crop protection storage and custom application ( Margy Eckelkamp )

As a $6 billion vertically integrated, privately held agribusiness, the J.R. Simplot Company’s footprint stretches from the phosphate mine to the dinner plate. And in its supply chain, the last touchpoint of the raw materials from the company’s eight phosphate facilities is its Simplot Grower Solutions (SGS) division. The ag retail group has 90 locations in 14 states and western Canada, and it is charged with executing on the company’s mission of “Bringing Earth’s Resources to Life.”

Simplot Grower Solutions has been named the 2018 Retailer of the Year by the Agricultural Retailers Association, and the award is also sponsored by Bayer and AgPro.

The retail division was first started in Twin Falls, Idaho, in 1945 as “Simplot Soil Builders,” but that name transitioned to Simplot Grower Solutions in 2002. Today, more than 1,700 SGS employees provide products and services for more than 300 crops, using multiple cropping systems, and across a variety of soil types. The business has six core platforms that have emerged from an “Influence the Acre” campaign started in 2009: crop nutrition; crop protection; seed; diversified products; ag technology; and the newest, financial services.

As only the seventh CEO in company history, Garrett Lofto is stewarding the entrepreneurial spirit that founded the company and building the business for growth. In regard to its ag retail business, he says the group is rooted in adding value to the farmer.

“Simplot Grower Solutions has a fantastic team of people that get it done every day. When we look at input agriculture and the retail space, what we’re trying to do is serve the unmet needs of our customers so we remain relevant with them,” Lofto says. “From our perspective, we have to bring the grower products and services that add value to their farms.”

SGS boasts an impressive employee retention rate with an average tenure of eight years, and the average SGS crop adviser’s is more than 12 years. Across the division, more than 200 employees have served more than 20 years.

Simplot Grower Solutions Fast Facts

“The two most important relationships in any retail business are the relationships with your vendors and with your customers,” says Dave Dufault, vice president with Simplot. “We thrive with a hands-on, high level of service, and we back that sale up—from the crop adviser to the person answering the phone at the office to the person making product deliveries. We have a lot of relationships within that customer’s experience, and that’s important.”

Here's Dufault's recent interview on AgriTalk with host Chip Flory: 

There’s an ongoing effort to bring in new talent and foster their growth.

“We try to provide young crop advisers with mentorship from our more experienced crop advisers,” says Rick Sottile, market manager, South San Joaquin Valley, SGS. “This includes ride-alongs to check fields and work with customers together. It helps to demonstrate how to talk face to face with the customer—how that’s supposed to look and how it’s supposed to sound as they share their knowledge with farmers.”

SGS employs 120 CCAs/PCAs and has 22 employees dedicated as technology staff. The company has three technology products: SmartFarm, Field Stripes and Simplot Advisor. SmartFarm brings technology resources to create site-specific solutions through soil testing, satellite imagery and more. It’s a precision ag platform for advisers working with farmers to identify management zones, use specific prescriptions and variable-rate apply crop inputs. Field Stripes are “no-risk product trials” where farmers put out field trials with side-by-side comparisons, and if the trial doesn’t result in an economic benefit, the grower doesn’t pay for it. Simplot Advisor is an app paired with SmartFarm to bring mobile capabilities for analysis and decision-making, including: scouting, soil sampling, lab results, product prescriptions, Worker Protection Standard documentation and more.

With its expansive footprint and employee head count, the company is committed to safety. All of its retail locations are registered with ResponsibleAg, and 61% are ResponsibleAg-certified.

“I’m proud of our folks doing the right thing each and every day,” says Greg Lierman, a 25-year employee and area manager, Lower Snake River Basin, SGS. “We owe it to our employees, our customers and our communities to be safe, and being certified by ResponsibleAg is a platform which proves that—whether someone is looking or nobody is looking—we’re doing the right thing.”

Retail locations have weekly “Monday meetings” to address concerns and or seasonal topics. Launched in 2015, the “CARE” initiative led to a 30% decrease in recordable incidents in just two years.

Simplot CARE

Technology has provided tangible benefits in Simplot’s retail business—earning greater efficiencies and improving the customer relationship. For example, by moving to centralized dispatching, the Northern Plains group increased efficiency and reduced costs by more than $1 million.

Customers, such as Chris Payne in eastern Oregon, report technology has helped the experience with SGS be even more service-focused.

“The amount of technology they have sets them apart, and their ability to use that technology is better than everybody else,” Payne says. “When we need something—a spreader pass, an application, anything—everything is within 24 hours.”

Payne works with Rod Steele, a crop adviser out of Ontario, Ore.

“One of the tools I use a lot is the scouting app in Simplot Advisor,” Steele says. “I can email reports directly to the grower, which doesn’t replace a one-on-one conversation, but it creates a log and a way to keep records. When I call and follow up with the grower, we can both see the pressures now versus a week ago or even compared to last season.”

As part of its mission, SGS aims to maximize yields and optimize inputs—with economics and the environment always top of mind. This encompasses crop fertility (and the company’s commitment to 4R Nutrient Stewardship), crop protection and water. Crop consultant Gary Toschi explains this includes working with growers to adopt new tools such as drip irrigation, which is 95% efficient, and replaces flood irrigation, which is only 65% efficient.

One of Toschi’s customers, David Mettler with Kirshman Farms Inc., in Lamont, Calif., explains he’s integrated in the farm’s day-to-day.

“I’ve been working with Gary for 18 years, and we do a lot of soil testing and remote sensing to manage crop inputs, and he’s incredibly helpful to us with the cost-to-expense benefit ratio,” Mettler says.

As part of its environmental stewardship, SGS markets more than 10 specific cover crop mixes to match the soil and the purpose.

“Sustainability is something we have to live every single day,” explains Lofto, the CEO. “Our employees take sustainability very seriously because it’s all about how we do more with less. It’s critical to our customer hopefully putting more money in their pocket so that they can reinvest in their operations and grow their business.”

In the past 12 years, the retail division has grown three times over. Dufault explains this is driven by the company’s perspective on its daily business.

“It’s not the number of tons we sell or the number of pounds or gallons of product,” he says. “What we’re really doing with each acre is we’re feeding more people, and that’s a different way of looking at things, but it’s something that everyone can take pride in.”

Dufault says the forward-looking perspective is also propelling where the company is headed in the future.

“Scott Simplot, our chairman, one day asked me, ‘What’s it going to look like in 30 years?’ And I answered that the way we’re going to farm is going to be so much different than today. The products we use are going to look different. And our output will go to a different consumer,” he says. “We will find ways to help the grower adapt to technology, new products, new methods of farming, and that’s where we’re going to excel in the future.”

Looking ahead, Lofto says the business will continue to evolve as the company grows, but the relationship with the grower will remain as the central focus of that growth.

“We see growth, and we see efficiency gains, but as we look to grow our business in the U.S. and internationally, what our business is with Simplot Grower Solutions does not change—it’s the relationship with the grower.” 

Simplot Grower Solutions Retailer of the Year