Being one of the few remaining independent, family-owned retailers in its area, Woolsey Bros. Farm Supply (No. 98 on the 2011 CropLife 100), Vandalia, IL, is faced with some formidable challenges going forward as they draw near 60 years in business.
The business opened its doors in 1954 as a partnership between current Owner Herb Woolsey, fresh off a stint in the U.S. Army, and his late brother Gerald. It began as a Honnegger’s, a poultry and feed dealer that once operated in south-central Illinois, before becoming one of the area’s most-trusted ag retailers by 1958. These days, Woolsey derives the majority of its business from liquid fertilizer sales and services such as custom application. What began with a “very used applicator truck with 30-foot booms” has now expanded into a fleet of 14 applicators with booms as long as 90 feet.
The company also vends crop protection products, mainly glyphosate, as well as seed while also maintaining a healthy grain business, which is managed by Herb’s son, Ron Woolsey.
“Between all of the new technology that’s out there, and the EPA and different Department of Ag laws, it’s almost impossible to do the small family business like we’re doing now,” says Randy Goodman, facility manager. “Nowadays, we’ve got to wear a lot more hats, and that makes it harder to keep up with every single aspect of the business when the busy times hit.”
As you process that quote, be sure to emphasize the word “almost,” as Woolsey is more than holding its own against some of the larger retail outfits in their area such as FS Seed Inc. (with a branch directly across the street) and Crop Protection Services, Inc.
Despite a brutal growing season in which spray applications overall in the area were down due to the drought, this past season still saw the company spray over 200,000 acres and reach a peak of 70 full-time employees during the spring planting season. All as the number of small family farms, traditionally its bread-and-butter client, continues to shrink and the global inputs market becomes increasingly more diversified and competitive.
Changes Bring Challenges
Now with 33 years under his belt at Woolsey, one can be sure Goodman has witnessed quite a few changes in the market.
“We were the first ones to do Roundup in this part of the world, so we used to just assume when we went to spray a bean field that it’s Roundup-Ready,” says Goodman. “Now, you’ve got to remember ‘no, it’s not.’ You’ve got the Roundup-Ready, but you’ve also got the conventional and the LibertyLink beans.
“It used to be there were only a handful of chemicals out there,” he continues. “Herb told me that when he first started we had Bicep, Prowl, atrazine and Princep, and those were the major hitters. That’s what everybody used. Now, there are so many generics coming into play. You’ve got the name brand players and then you’ve got the generics, which are cheaper.
“From a retail standpoint, we’ve got to adapt to that and figure out how we can still do name brand and stick with our suppliers while competing with the generic market. But if we find we can’t compete with the market, then we’ve got to do what’s best for our customers.”
Many other aspects of Woolsey’s day-to-day operations have changed as well, such as how customers are served. Before, according to Goodman, many of the company’s grower-clients relied solely on Herb.
“When I started here, I was very surprised at how many customers personally relied on Herb for all of their needs,” says Goodman. “I mean, the whole nine yards — seed, fertilizer, the insecticide — everything. I’d ask a customer ‘What are you putting on?,’ and they’d say ‘I don’t know, ask Herb.’”
While it may be more difficult to pull off these days, that old school, family approach is a large reason Goodman believes the company remains competitive. “Customer confidence is big for us. You’ve got to have that trust,” he says when asked what he believes sets Woolsey apart. “Herb still does a big customer appreciation dinner every year, where all of our customers are invited. I’m not sure a lot of companies still go to that expense with the economy the way it is.”
Still, most of the time it comes down to the bottom line: What price is the grower paying, and how is Woolsey Brothers going to help improve the customer’s profitability.
“In my opinion we try our best to compete price-wise with the big people,” says Goodman. “On the other side of that, I’ve had people say that they’ll pay Woolsey’s just a little bit more because they know that we’re going to do what we say. Herb is a military guy, as is Ron, and he’s very, very adamant about punctuality. If we tell a guy we’re going to be there at a certain time, we’ll be there.”
Tracking Product Changes
Another challenge for a localized retailer like Woolsey is keeping up with all the changes in product chemistries. Whereas in years past a quart of atrazine, for example, would prove sufficient, now the same results can be had by applying a mere fraction of that quart. It may save the grower money and is better for the environment in the long run, but in the end the retailer loses out on potential revenue that must be gained back elsewhere.
“Now you’re applying a tenth of an ounce or less, where before the same job called for a quart,” says Goodman. “The technology is just unbelievable and it’s only going to get more intensive.”
Making matters even worse for any retailer is the exploding cost of doing business, with fuel prices and other overhead costs at an all-time high.
“For example, normally with our nitrogen we have to purchase in June to lock in our best price, but in the past couple years the best price hasn’t been then, it’s been later,” says Goodman. “So then we’re stuck with a high priced commodity and we’re going to take a hit. I guess that’s one of the hardest things for a retailer our size — trying to be as fair as we can to the customer while also protecting our profit margins. Sometimes, you’ve got no choice but to cut into those margins out of compassion.”
It’s that compassion for customers, coupled with a family feel and knowledgeable, trusted employees that currently sets Woolsey Bros. apart from the its competition — and likely will continue to do so for another half century.