As those who know him best will tell you, there are two distinct ways to view outgoing The Fertilizer Institute (TFI) head Ford West. On one hand, West is a consummate trade association leader, with modern sensibilities for saying the right thing at the right time. But on the other hand, he is also a no-nonsense, “shoot from the hip” speaker who can quickly boil down a complicated issue into a simple plan of action.
“He was a rock after so many heart-breaking events, most notably Oklahoma City, 9/11 and more recently, West, TX,” says Mary Hartney, president of the Florida Fertilizer & Agrichemical Association (FFAA). “He could be the compassionate counselor or the stern taskmaster.”
Indeed, West’s response to the tragedy in West, TX, where a fertilizer plant explosion on April 17, 2013, killed 15 and devastated the small town, illustrates this point. As Kathy Mathers, vice president of public affairs for TFI remembers, West first called the TFI staff to action in the early evening on that date.
“Ford called me around 10 p.m., telling me about what had happened in West, TX, and asking all staffers to immediately come into the office,” says Mathers. “I got there around 2 a.m., and Ford was already hard at work on our response.”
By April 25, following a tour of the area, West and TFI released this official statement on the events of West, TX to the world: “The fertilizer industry shares America’s sympathy for the people of West, TX. The stories of lives lost, lives uprooted and a community that has been devastated are heartbreaking. While essential to feeding the world, some of the products handled by retailers require special care and handling. It is up to each retailer to work with local, state and federal regulators to ensure the safety of the community in which his or her business functions.”
But in person, remembers FFAA’s Hartney, West was particularly blunt about what the industry needed to do to prevent future West, TX, incidents from happening. “He sure didn’t sugarcoat things in talking to FFAA leaders up in Washington, DC, for Capitol Hill visits in May,” she says. “He said: ‘If you can’t afford to be safe and in complete regulatory compliance, you don’t need to be in business.’”
Jean Payne, president of the Illinois Fertilizer & Chemical Association (IFCA), had a similar experience with West at the industry meeting on the ResponsibleAg stewardship initiative formed in the wake of the accident at West, TX. “In outlining this effort, Ford said simply, ‘Guys, look – in this effort, we cannot fail,’” says Payne. “Of everything else said at that meeting, that was the crux of it.”
From Food To Fertilizer
Part of West’s ability to “cut to the chase” on issues most likely stems from his background. After receiving his Master’s Degree in Food Science from North Carolina State University in the mid-1970s, West moved to the nation’s capital to serve as senior microbiologist for the National Canners Association. “For two years, I spent my days looking at the technical side of the food business, making observations and reporting my findings,” says West.
Then in 1979, a lobbyist friend told West of an opportunity at TFI, working on health and safety issues. Not long after that, West had the chance to move into a more political role at the association. “Even with its technical side, fertilizer is largely a people-oriented industry, and I always thought I had more people skills than benchmark science skills anyway,” says West.
By 2005, when TFI was looking for a new president, West was quickly promoted into this role.
“One of his greatest assets is Ford’s always present sense of humor, backed up by his engaging smile and never-to-forget laugh,” says Jay Vroom, president of CropLife America. “I cannot count the times I’ve witnessed Ford’s ‘aw, shucks,’ personal demeanor disarm audiences and open the door for dialogue that would not have occurred with any other approach. Of course, in an age of 140 character Tweets, endless e-mails and death by PowerPoint, Ford gets by simply by direct conversation, looking folks in the eye, knowing what he’s talking about and clinching with a sincere handshake.”
In his time at TFI, West has managed to reshape the association’s relationship with the entire industry. For example, when he first took over as president, West launched a campaign to reach out to ag retailers to join TFI by restructuring its dues. “Our dues structure has been based on total fertilizer sales, no matter where members fit into the value chain, and that hasn’t changed since TFI was first formed in 1969,” said West, announcing this change in 2006. “We are changing that so dues will be based on the amount of nutrient tons going through the value system of production, wholesale and retail.”
According to FFAA’s Hartney, dealing with water issues is another area where TFI under West’s leadership has excelled. “Witness the work TFI’s done on water quality regulations, such as EPA’s efforts to impose state numeric nutrient criteria,” she says. “Whether it was in Florida, the Chesapeake Bay or the Mississippi River watershed, Ford made sure TFI led the industry and affected state associations through these rough regulatory waters – even when it meant suing EPA to win science-based solutions.”
Of course, adds Hartney, West could also look beyond his “serious” side when it was called for. “How many fertilizer leaders do you know would willingly and enthusiastically don a gorilla suit to join Nebraska Agri-Business Association board members (also in costume) to entertain members at their annual convention?” she says. “Ford West did!”
A Time To Go
A fixture in the fertilizer industry for the past 33 years, West decided in early January that the 34th year would be his last. “Effective December 2013, I will be retiring from TFI,” started a memo West sent to TFI members earlier this year.
“Fertilizer touches many hands before it arrives in farm fields and TFI provides a forum where fertilizer producers, importers, wholesalers and retailers can share their perspectives on common problems and develop approaches to meet these challenges. I am very proud to have been a part of that process.”
West also thanked his co-workers for making this process easier over the years. “I also want to recognize the dedicated staff at TFI and the Nutrients for Life Foundation,” said the memo. “Any success I have had as president is due to a combined effort of these association professionals working together for the good of the industry.”
In an interview back in 2006, West described how he viewed the fertilizer business and TFI’s role in it. “I prefer to look at the future, not at the past, when it comes to our industry,” he said. And thankfully, from all he’s done over the past three decades of service, the fertilizer industry can continue to keep looking forward while remembering how West’s tenure as TFI president made this possible.