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

Young Corn Plants
ManagementTimac Agro USA Acquires Michigan Ag Retailer
January 20, 2017
Timac Agro USA, an agriculture supply company specializing in high-efficiency plant and animal nutrition products, has acquired St. Louis,MI-based A&E Ag, Read More
Sonny Perdue
LegislationTrump Formally Picks Perdue As Agriculture Secretary
January 19, 2017
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump officially announced Sonny Perdue as his choice for secretary of agriculture on Thursday, selecting a former Read More
ManagementPresident Trump, Wisconsin Review, and a Dow-DuPont Update
January 18, 2017
Editors Paul Schrimpf and Eric Sfiligoj reflect on a new administration, a recent winter show, and crop protection company mergers. Read More
Werner Baumann, Bayer AG, and Hugh Grant, Monsanto
Industry NewsReport: Monsanto, Bayer CEOs Among Latest to Make Trump Tower Pilgrimage
January 18, 2017
The chief executive officers of German chemical giant Bayer AG and U.S. seed behemoth Monsanto, Werner Baumann and Hugh Grant, Read More
Trending Articles
AgriSync
Matt Hopkins17 Agriculture Apps That Will Help You Farm Smarter In 2017
December 9, 2016
Ag professionals are working smarter, not harder, than ever before. Smart farming technologies have enabled them to reduce costs, maximize Read More
R4023 Sprayer, John Deere
CropLife 100Ag Retail Equipment Report: The Green Party Continues
December 7, 2016
In the annual race for sales in the ag retail equipment marketplace, the color schemes for participants are a little Read More
Mike Stern
Precision AgClimate Corp. CEO Talks Retailer Support For Digital Ag
December 1, 2016
CropLife Magazine’s sister publication, AgriBusiness Global, recently sat down with Mike Stern, CEO of The Climate Corp., following the Monsanto subsidiary’s Read More
Precision AgTrimble Debuts End-to-End FMIS Platform
November 28, 2016
October’s inaugural PrecisionAg Vision Conference left this author with many thoughts and things to ponder in the coming months. Probably Read More
CHS Primeland
CropLife 100The 2016 CropLife 100 Report: Reviewing The Many Bulls And Bears Impacting This Year’s Marketplace
November 28, 2016
For virtually all of 2016, the nation was wholly focused on the big Presidential election. Some folks aligned themselves with Read More
Monsanto sign
Crop InputsMissouri Governor Meets With Bayer CEO To Discuss Monsanto Merger
November 21, 2016
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon visited Bayer AG global headquarters in Leverkusen, Germany, on November 18 to discuss the proposed Bayer-Monsanto Read More
Latest News
Eric SfiligojNo Alternative Facts: Dicamba Cropping System Applicato…
January 23, 2017
During President Donald Trump’s inauguration, much fuss was made over the use of the term “alternative facts” vs. some of Read More
Young Corn Plants
ManagementTimac Agro USA Acquires Michigan Ag Retailer
January 20, 2017
Timac Agro USA, an agriculture supply company specializing in high-efficiency plant and animal nutrition products, has acquired St. Louis,MI-based A&E Ag, Read More
Soybean field
Crop InputsNufarm Teams Up With John Deere Financial
January 19, 2017
Nufarm and John Deere Financial have teamed up to help farmers grow a better tomorrow. This program helps make purchases Read More
Sonny Perdue
LegislationTrump Formally Picks Perdue As Agriculture Secretary
January 19, 2017
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump officially announced Sonny Perdue as his choice for secretary of agriculture on Thursday, selecting a former Read More
ManagementPresident Trump, Wisconsin Review, and a Dow-DuPont Upd…
January 18, 2017
Editors Paul Schrimpf and Eric Sfiligoj reflect on a new administration, a recent winter show, and crop protection company mergers. Read More
Industry NewsBayer, MS Technologies Get China Approval For Balance G…
January 18, 2017
MS Technologies and Bayer have received import approval from China for Balance GT soybeans. The new Balance GT Soybean Performance Read More
Werner Baumann, Bayer AG, and Hugh Grant, Monsanto
Industry NewsReport: Monsanto, Bayer CEOs Among Latest to Make Trump…
January 18, 2017
The chief executive officers of German chemical giant Bayer AG and U.S. seed behemoth Monsanto, Werner Baumann and Hugh Grant, Read More
Giant Ragweed
HerbicidesStudy: Focusing On Weed Seedbank Can Help Manage Herbic…
January 18, 2017
Researchers writing in the latest issue of the journal Weed Science provide important insights on the control of herbicide-resistant giant Read More
Management3 Financial Trends To Watch In Agriculture
January 17, 2017
I recently had the opportunity to attend a meeting of credit managers for Midwest ag supply and input companies, in part Read More
Andersons Retail Store
CropLife 100The Andersons To Close All Retail Stores; Shutdown Does…
January 16, 2017
In a stunning announcement to the Toledo area, The Andersons Inc. said on Sunday that it would close its two Read More
Trimble TMX-2050 In-Cab Display
Eric SfiligojPrecision To Lead Agriculture In 2017?
January 16, 2017
Another new year is upon us! And I’m certain I speak for many in the agricultural world when I say Read More
Corn
Eric SfiligojThe Mood From Madison? In A Holding Pattern
January 16, 2017
Last week, I had the chance to attend the annual Wisconsin AgriBusiness Classic show in Madison, WI. It’s been a Read More
Syngenta Sign
Crop InputsAccenture Helps Syngenta Transform Its Global Logistics
January 13, 2017
Syngenta, a leading agriculture company, has collaborated with Accenture to design and implement a new digital logistics operating model across Read More
Fall Creek Seth Harden The Nature Conservancy
StewardshipLocal Farmers’ Watershed Initiative: Continuous Improve…
January 13, 2017
The goal in the Big Pine Watershed Project is to more intentionally do what local farmers and responsible ag retailers Read More
HerbicidesEPA Expands Enlist Duo Herbicide Registration To 34 Sta…
January 13, 2017
The U.S. EPA has expanded the geography for application of Enlist Duo herbicide from 15 to 34 states. This means Read More
Olson Ag Enterprise
CropLife 100Wilbur-Ellis Acquires Nebraska Seed Retailer
January 13, 2017
Wilbur-Ellis’ Agribusiness, a recognized leader in precision agriculture technology and the distribution and marketing of plant protection, seed and nutritional Read More
ManagementDeere-Precision Planting Update and the Ag Secretary Wa…
January 12, 2017
Editors Paul Schrimpf and Eric Sfiligoj provide the latest on the court date for John Deere/Precision Planting and the quest Read More
Monsanto sign
Seed/BiotechMonsanto, NRGene Form Agreement For Big Data Genomic An…
January 12, 2017
Monsanto Co. and NRGene have announced that the companies have reached a non-exclusive, multi-year global licensing agreement on NRGene’s genome-analysis Read More