The McGregor Co. Takes It Step By Step

Some people, like Steve Watts of The McGregor Co., are born with the “wiring” to see big picture trends and lead a diverse group of individuals toward an innovative new strategy. And he feels fortunate to have been in a role that allowed him to apply his talents to their fullest as the leader and facilitator of innovative change at McGregor for more than 30 years.

“My role was to try to be an advance scout and sort out what’s coming over the horizon,” says Watts, who recently retired at the end of the year. “What are the opportunities and the challenges and how do we make progress towards a goal that positions us well into the future.”

Organizations tend to take on the personality of their founders, and McGregor is no exception. Watts describes company founder and namesake Sherman McGregor as a leader who “was never giddy when times were good or overly concerned, at least outwardly, when times were a little bit tougher.  He was quick to bring us back down to earth when we were flying high and he was equally quick to reassure us when the going got tougher.  He taught me that the best way to lead in good and bad times was to act as though neither would last very long, and they seldom do.”

So inciting change even in the best of times is something that’s been built into the culture at the retailer over decades. But while that has created more of a culture of innovation at McGregor, it doesn’t mean that there are shortcuts available in the process. Getting an organization to act as one and change course may take adding more or less of certain ingredients, but the basic recipe Watts employed was always the same.

“Leaders who are able to make necessary changes in good times must do more than just see what lies ahead and figure out what must be done,” says Watts. “They must be able to convey a sense of urgency, articulate a course of action, and be willing to have their recommendations vetted, and potentially improved, by those who will be most affected. This requires ability, passion, confidence, and above all the ‘trust’ of those being led.”

And culturally, the employee team must mirror these attributes says Watts. “It takes a shared sense of purpose and personal sacrifice to leave our comfort zones and willingly work harder in the short run to accomplish something that we hope will be more than worth the price paid in the long run.  It takes discipline to create and abide by high standards regardless of whether or not it is temporarily easy to achieve financial goals. And it takes trust to follow others in a new direction when the need to do so isn’t always readily apparent.”

Case studies provide the best example of innovation. And at McGregor, one of the most significant changes Watts led during a period of relative prosperity occurred in the late 1990s when the company made the sea-changing decision to unbundle crop protection service and product pricing.

“For 50 years we had bundled everything we did into the price of our crop protection products, and it worked quite well,” says Watts. “There was no reason in the short term to change that, unless you looked at the tea leaves and tried to sort out what was going to happen in the future.”

Originally launched as McGregor 2000 and today known as the Farm Partner program, it created a scenario where virtually every McGregor customer using the company’s crop production consulting services are now paying separately for those services.

Undoing a decades old practice would not be easy, but the signs of change were clear. In the late 1990s, the combination of trends that came to pass would prove to be deadly for many retail operations. Growers were getting larger, more diversified and less reliant on retailers. The rapidly growing World Wide Web opened the door on product price transparency. The rapid introduction of generic crop protection products would send their value plummeting. And the emergence and early successes of biotechnology threatened to pull billions more dollars of crop protection spending out of the market.

“When we added it all up, it pretty clearly indicated to us that things were going to change, and it was going to be harder and harder to bundle all services into the cost of product,” recalls Watts.

In hindsight, leading innovation would seem like a slam dunk given the weight of evidence. But ushering change after 50 years of doing things the same way, especially during a time when the business was still successful, was not going to be an easy sell.

Leading and directing the change is a multi-step process, and being successful requires that every step be followed and followed through. It starts with the leadership, who must build the case for making change once the need is identified.

From Watts’ perspective, a new initiative will only get off the ground if it can be successfully articulated both to the leadership ranks and the rank and file employees. Of particular importance is addressing the impact that each employee can expect as a result of what’s being proposed. If the homework is done properly then “ninety percent of what I thought should be done should carry through,” he says, and the other 10% should provide positive and constructive change. If it’s done poorly, an idea could get changed far more than that or even die. Usually when that happens, it’s because we didn’t do enough homework.”

Specific to the process of making a case for change, the first thing they look at in considering the change is what kind of collateral damage the business could experience with customers or employees. “What are the negative financial ramifications of making this change in the short run?” Then the positive side is developed and applied to create a compelling argument for change – a process that, in the case of unbundling services, took years to unfold and build.

“You must be willing to make a convincing argument, and not just make a statement,” says Watts. “That means laying out your ideas to employees, receiving feedback, carefully considering that feedback, and making any necessary changes.” The case must also be able to “defeat” feedback that is neither helpful nor accurate. “You have to be able to defend your ideas. That builds confidence, rather than just saying, ‘because I told you so.’ People need to be sold on the idea and not made to do things ­– they need to feel they have had their say and that their concerns have been considered. When that happens they are much more willing to get behind what you are attempting to do, even when you are trying to make enormous change in good economic times.”

Watts says that when the process brings detractors into the fold, they can become your biggest allies. “While they don’t buy in quickly, when they do they push all their chips into the middle of the table and they do not back away after they have made a commitment,” he explains. “The ones that are a bit more skeptical and require you to defend what it is you think needs to be done bring out the best ideas and the best implementation plans.”

In the unbundling example, the initial discussions with McGregor’s 40 licensed consultants at that time did not go over without dissent. “There would be significant risk to taking marked-down products to producers to be more competitive on a product basis while charging separately for services formerly bundled into the price of our products,” says Watts. “But we put the focus square on our ability to deliver value with those services with our consulting services as the centerpiece.”

The last challenge is bringing the change to customers, and you can expect that some will not want to walk with you. “There are going to be casualties when you make a significant change,” says Watts. “We don’t look at our customer relationships in a cavalier way, but we recognize that it is impossible to make progress without some casualties. Often it is the customers who are most passionate about maintaining the status quo who aren’t going to be farming for the long term, and we are not part of their retirement plan. We can’t run our business for them – we have to manage the business to survive beyond their time in farming. We have to do it without burning bridges and we never try to create casualties, but we accept that they are going to come, and that we need do what is necessary to position the company for the future and not stay with what worked in the past.”

Firm Foundation

Having a culture of innovation as a foundation at McGregor has made Watts’ work somewhat less complex, but maintaining that culture by hiring the right employees right off the bat has proven a bit more challenging.

“I think that is probably the toughest challenge – identifying with very little information those individuals that will make the grade and those that won’t,” says Watts. “There tends to be a high washhout in our culture with new personnel, and we have maybe 20% turnover in the first two years. But in general, if we have people for five years we have them for a career.”

Culture may not necessarily prevent a less than ideal candidate from being hired, but Watts say that “it’s the culture that prunes the tree.”

Leave a Reply

Management Stories

Engenia soybeans
ManagementCorn and Soybean Yield Forecasts Larger than Expected
August 17, 2017
The USDA’s August Crop Production report contained larger-than-expected forecasts for the 2017 U.S. corn and soybean crops. At 169.5 bushels Read More
ManagementU.S. Ag Secretary Introduces SCORE
August 17, 2017
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue signed a new agreement to support new and beginning farmers. On August 5, Perdue joined Read More
Water Drainage
StewardshipNew System Could Remove Two Water Pollutants from Ag Fields
August 14, 2017
Algae blooms in the Gulf of Mexico use up the majority of the oxygen in the water, leading to massive Read More
ManagementThe DuPont-Granular Deal, Dicamba Update, and Upcoming Travel
August 11, 2017
Matthew Grassi joins Paul Schrimpf for the second week in a row to talk about DuPont’s acquisition of Granular, as Read More
Trending Articles
Iowa waterways
Stewardship2,600 Iowa Farmers Commit $8.7 Million to Water Quality Practices
August 9, 2017
Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey announced Tuesday that a record number of Iowa farmers signed up to install nutrient Read More
Greg Musson, Gar Tootelian
CropLife 100Cause of Gar Tootelian Fire Under Investigation
August 7, 2017
Over one hundred firefighters and equipment responded to a four-alarm shop fire at the Gar Tootelian, Inc. (GAR) facility in Read More
Rob Versprille
ManagementCeres Solutions, North Central Co-op Merger to Bring New Opportunities for Indiana, Michigan Farmers
August 1, 2017
More than 40,000 customers and almost 9,000 Indiana and Michigan farmers will begin doing business with the new Ceres Solutions Read More
CPS-Norwood-and-Dupont-reps
Eric SfiligojA Message to Ag Retailers: Do Tell Your Good Stories
July 26, 2017
As the daughter of a peanut farmer, Krysta Harden, Chief Sustainability Officer for DuPont Crop Protection, understands the importance ag Read More
Tim Hassinger Dow AgroSciences President and CEO
Crop InputsDow’s Tim Hassinger Named President, CEO of Lindsay Corp.
July 24, 2017
Lindsay Corp. has  announced the appointment of Timothy Hassinger as president and CEO and a member of its board of Read More
Stewardship‘Gonna Fly Now’ with Environmental Respect
July 20, 2017
One of the most memorable moments in movie history occurred in the Academy Award-winning 1976 film “Rocky.” Haven gotten his Read More
Latest News
Corn Seed
Seed/BiotechSeed Innovations Benefit All of the Seed Industry
August 17, 2017
Innovations from throughout the seed industry help address many of the economic, environmental and health issues we face as a Read More
SpreadersGVM to Introduce New Prowler at MAGIE
August 17, 2017
The newest Prowler in GVM’s line-up will be introduced next week at the Midwest Ag Industries Expo (MAGIE), August 23 Read More
AcreEdge bag
Seed/BiotechLandus Cooperative’s AcreEdge Seed Brand Gears Up for 2…
August 17, 2017
Growers in more than 26 Iowa and Minnesota counties are seeing field signs with a new brand name at end Read More
Engenia soybeans
ManagementCorn and Soybean Yield Forecasts Larger than Expected
August 17, 2017
The USDA’s August Crop Production report contained larger-than-expected forecasts for the 2017 U.S. corn and soybean crops. At 169.5 bushels Read More
ManagementU.S. Ag Secretary Introduces SCORE
August 17, 2017
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue signed a new agreement to support new and beginning farmers. On August 5, Perdue joined Read More
CHS-FFA-Minnesota
CropLife 100CHS and FFA: A Homerun Partnership
August 17, 2017
CHS hosted the Minnesota FFA for its annual FFA night at CHS Field. FFA students, educators and CHS leadership enjoyed Read More
Greg Musson, Gar Tootelian
CropLife 100Gar Tootelian Foundation Donates Half Million Dollars t…
August 16, 2017
Students at Immanuel Elementary are looking forward to the first day of school for two reasons this year. One, they Read More
Water Drainage
StewardshipNew System Could Remove Two Water Pollutants from Ag Fi…
August 14, 2017
Algae blooms in the Gulf of Mexico use up the majority of the oxygen in the water, leading to massive Read More
Eric SfiligojThe Top 10 Crop Protection Companies, Post-Mega Mergers
August 14, 2017
Everyone loves a good Top 10 list. In fact, some prominent celebrities such as David Letterman spent much of their Read More
ManagementThe DuPont-Granular Deal, Dicamba Update, and Upcoming …
August 11, 2017
Matthew Grassi joins Paul Schrimpf for the second week in a row to talk about DuPont’s acquisition of Granular, as Read More
Soybeans weeds
HerbicidesOngoing Evaluation Key to Controlling Weeds, Improving …
August 10, 2017
As the sun bears down on record U.S. soybean acres this August, farmers keep their eyes on their fields to Read More
Young Corn Plants
Seed/BiotechMycogen Seeds Offers Novel Product to Battle Pythium, O…
August 10, 2017
After a season plagued by seedling diseases caused by cool, wet soils at planting, farmers have a new option to Read More
Corn Field
FertilizerProtect Applied Manure Straight From the Manure Pit to …
August 10, 2017
Farmers who use liquid manure to fertilize corn crops can now mix Instinct nitrogen stabilizer in their pit for easy Read More
Iowa waterways
Stewardship2,600 Iowa Farmers Commit $8.7 Million to Water Quality…
August 9, 2017
Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey announced Tuesday that a record number of Iowa farmers signed up to install nutrient Read More
Natives-First-Purple_Prairie_Clover
Seed/BiotechLa Crosse Seed Continues Focus on Soil and Water Conser…
August 9, 2017
La Crosse Seed is doing its part to lead communication to ag retailers across the country on the importance of Read More
HerbicidesAg Secretary Perdue Comments on Dicamba Issue
August 9, 2017
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue indicated to reporters this week that he would like to see the industry work out a Read More
Treated-Seed-in-planter
Seed/BiotechSeed Treatment Q&A: Insight from Iowa State’s…
August 8, 2017
Technology has changed drastically since the 1990s. Televisions are thinner, phones are smaller and tractors can steer themselves. Technology has Read More
soybeans
Seed/BiotechWhen and Why to Double Inoculate Your Soybeans
August 8, 2017
Double inoculation is the act of using a double application of a rhizobial inoculant. This quickly establishes high populations of Read More