Operator Of The Year: A Culture Of Excellence

Operator Of The Year Ted Borge, South Dakota Wheat Growers Scott Hier

One of the key take-aways for Mark Sharitz in the four years the AGCO Application Equipment Division has sponsored the Operator of the Year program is that the industry’s best applicators definitely don’t work in a vacuum.

“When I look at the winners over the past four years, there are two common threads,” says the director of marketing for the AGCO Application Equipment Division. “First, the operators themselves are conscientious, self-starting, self-reliant individuals who are driven to deliver results for their customers and — in turn — their companies. Second, and equally important, they work for organizations that foster an environment that enables them to achieve the highest level of performance and professionalism.”

Case in point is 2009 Operator of the Year Tod Borge of South Dakota Wheat Growers (SDWG), and his nominator, Scott Hier, vice president of agronomy for the organization.

“We’re blessed with a lot of great operators, but Tod stood out because of his involvement at work and in the community,” Hier says. “Here, he’s the old guy the younger guys look up to. He’s a mentor. But he’s also a single parent who is active with his kids, and he serves on the local fire department. He cares, and he gets involved.

“There are a lot of guys who are able to go out and do a lot of acres, and do them well,” Hier adds. “But that’s table stakes. Our job is to work with employees like Tod to give them the tools they need to go above and beyond, and deliver even more to our customers.”

Premium Training

One of the critical ways SDWG is doing this is by providing training that goes beyond technical proficiency and operational safety. Five years ago, the managers of SDWG attended a Dale Carnegie training course. They loved it, and decided all their employees could benefit from the program.

“If you’ve been here a year, you’re expected to go through the course,” Hier says. “We want our people to develop strong relationships with our customers, so we bought into the Dale Carnegie techniques. The first wave was a big success. The wives and kids even said they saw a huge difference after the guys went through the course.”

Train Of Thought

Investments in such training programs are a perfect example of the kind of corporate culture that creates opportunities for employees to excel, says Mark Waschek, an Apple Valley, MN-based recruiting consultant and partner in Ag1Source.

“As an industry we send a lot of people to training in agronomy,” says Waschek. “But rarely do I hear that someone went to training on how to be a better manager or how to better work with customers or employees.”

Companies should remember that operators are touch points with their customers, he says. Training them to deal with customers not only makes good business sense, it also creates a better work environment because it gives them more confidence to do their jobs. “A lot of times, operators are the people who will visit the growers,” says Wascheck. “But many times, most of their training is focused solely on the technical and safety aspects. Operators are not trained on what to do if you accidentally run over some corn and the farmer comes over and starts yelling at you.”

While a corporate commitment to training is important it’s certainly not the only factor in creating a positive work environment that allows employees to hone their skills and better themselves. Waschek says open communication, building trust, and recognizing individual and team accomplishments are also critical.

Brad Essick is manager of the Slater, IA, location of Heartland Co-op. Essick nominated the 2008 Operator of the Year, Kyle Jones, who always “goes the extra mile to get the job done the way it’s supposed to be done.”

Essick says he makes sure that he’s on hand first thing to make field assignments so everyone knows what they need to do. But then he gets out of the way.

“They all can contact me if they need to,” he says. “It’s important to put your trust in the guys to get the job done. I don’t have to look over their shoulders, and I don’t want to. I think trusting the guys to do their jobs on their own makes a more positive work atmosphere. Nobody wants to be micromanaged. Developing a team atmosphere where you can trust each other is an important way to make your operation successful.”

A Job Well Done

Aside from encouraging people to pitch in to accomplish tasks, perhaps nothing fosters a successful team atmosphere more than public recognition of accomplishments. In July 2007, Heartland Co-op began celebrating every 120-day period free of injuries at each of its more than 50 locations with a dinner on the company, Essick says. The employees look forward to those dinners, and the West Des Moines, IA-based company has been injury-free since it instituted the program.

“It’s important to recognize all the hard work that applicators do,” Waschek says. “In this industry, at many times of the year, operators are the first ones in in the morning and the last ones out at night. Recognizing them — and their families, because their families sacrifice, too — can go a long way toward fostering an environment of excellence that builds loyalty. And it’s important to recognize their efforts in front of their coworkers.”

“Operator of the Year is probably the most important program we invest in every year. It’s certainly the most rewarding to me personally, and to our company,” says AGCO’s Sharitz. “There are so many outstanding operators who are absolutely committed to delivering exceptional service and results to their customers. We think it’s important to recognize these individuals not only for their work and their accomplishments but to also hold them up as examples of excellence for the industry.”

Sharitz urges ag retailers to take the time to recognize their best operators by nominating them for Operator of the Year consideration. Retailers and managers can submit their nominations online at www.applylikeapro.com through October 31.
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