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

StewardshipMichigan Agriculture Leaders On Toledo Water Ban: We Want To Be Part Of The Conversation
August 8, 2014
Leaders of Michigan agricultural organizations said Thursday that the government should not have a “knee-jerk reaction” based on last weekend’s water ban in Toledo due to fertilizer run-off in Lake Erie. Read More
ManagementRussia Bans U.S. And EU Ag Product Imports In Ukraine Sanctions Battle
August 7, 2014
Russian President Vladimir Putin has banned the import of agricultural goods from countries that have imposed sanctions on Russia. Read More
EmployeesAsmark Institute Dedicates New Training Center To Ford West
August 6, 2014
The Asmark Institute plans to recognize the retired industry leader's years of service to the fertilizer industry at the new state-of-the-art facility in Owensboro, KY. Read More
LegislationUSDA: Quick Implementation Of Disaster Assistance Programs A ‘Top Priority’
July 9, 2014
USDA has processed 106,000 payments to farmers in 40 states across the country who suffered livestock and grazing losses between Oct. 2011 and passage of the 2014 Farm Bill. Read More

Trending Articles

ManagementExpert To Discuss Farmland Value, Rent At Farm Science Review
August 18, 2014
While cropland values in Ohio increased in the past two years, they have remained flat in 2014, declining in some cases, according to an Ohio State University agricultural economist. Read More
EquipmentAdvance Your Technology IQ At MAGIE
August 13, 2014
The Midwest AG Industries Exposition (August 20-21) is the place you need to be to see, study and evaluate how new advances in the equipment, operations, crop protection and fertility sectors can help your business prosper. Read More
HerbicidesScouting Key To Next Season’s Soybean Herbicide Program
August 12, 2014
When growing soybeans, growers need to think ahead to stay one step ahead of weeds. That means examining weed threats and evaluating which herbicides work best. Read More
StewardshipMichigan Agriculture Leaders On Toledo Water Ban: We Want To Be Part Of The Conversation
August 8, 2014
Leaders of Michigan agricultural organizations said Thursday that the government should not have a “knee-jerk reaction” based on last weekend’s water ban in Toledo due to fertilizer run-off in Lake Erie. Read More
CropLife 100BRANDT Acquires Lemon Ag Services
August 4, 2014
The acquisition of Lemon Ag fits BRANDT’s aggressive corporate strategy of providing superior agronomic advice and services for customers in central Illinois. Read More
Eric SfiligojThe Resurgence Of Crop Protection
August 4, 2014
Plenty of new offerings over the next few years should see a rebirth for the crop protection products category in terms of market share. Read More

Latest News

Crop InputsBASF Is Betting On A Bright Agricultural Future
September 1, 2014
The crop protection products giant is gearing up for a busy time in agriculture by investing in both product production and development over the next couple of years. Read More
Eric SfiligojAn Erie Feeling For Ag
September 1, 2014
Plenty of water issues have been in the news lately, including the continuing drought in California. Read More
CropLife 100Pinnacle Acquires California-Based Retailer
August 29, 2014
Pinnacle Agriculture Holdings will acquire Kerman Ag Resources, Inc., which will operate under Pinnacle's Performance Agriculture brand. Read More
Allied Cooperative Grain Plant
ManagementArcadia Co-op To Merge With Allied Cooperative
August 28, 2014
Allied Cooperative has announced that members of Arcadia Co-op voted in favor of a merger with Allied Cooperative, paving the way for the consolidation which will be effective on December 1, 2014. Read More
InsecticidesBioinsecticide VENERATE Now Registered In California
August 27, 2014
Marrone Bio Innovations' VENERATE is a new tool to help California growers control crop-damaging insect pests, fight the development of insect resistance and reduce pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables. Read More
CropLife 100Two Iowa-Based Ag Co-ops To Merge
August 27, 2014
The Board of Directors and management of United Western Coop, Missouri Valley, IA has completed a merger with Heartland Co-op, West Des Moines, IA, effective September 1, 2014. Read More
FertilizerKoch Expands AGROTAIN Nitrogen Stabilizer Portfolio
August 26, 2014
Koch Agronomic Services, LLC has added two new innovative nitrogen stabilizers to the AGROTAIN product family – AGROTAIN ADVANCED and AGROTAIN DRI-­MAXX. Read More
Seed/BiotechDuPont To Build Two Seed Treatment Centers
August 26, 2014
DuPont has announced construction on two state-of-the-art centers dedicated to developing and testing seed treatment formulations, applications and seed handling techniques in an important step toward bringing new solutions to growers. Read More
Seed/BiotechLoveland Products Acquires A Controlling Interest In Ag…
August 26, 2014
Loveland Products, a subsidiary of Agrium , has announced the company has acquired a controlling interest in Agricen, a Dallas-area agricultural biotechnology company delivering biochemical-based products for efficient and sustainable plant nutrition. Read More
StewardshipUp Close Look At The 2014 Environmental Respect Award W…
August 25, 2014
The 2014 Environmental Respect Award winners were honored recently at the 24th annual event in Wilmington, DE. Read More
Eric SfiligojAg Science Rejection Carries Consequences
August 25, 2014
As innuendo and fear dog the regulatory process, agriculture can’t get the new tools it needs to combat world hunger. Read More
LegislationFarmers Dismayed As New Farm Bill Dumps Direct Payments
August 25, 2014
The threatened end of cash subsidies to the nation’s row crop farmers dates back through at least the last two iterations of national agriculture policy legislation. Read More
MAGIE 2014 ShowStopper
EquipmentJohn Deere Again Wins MAGIE ShowStopper Award
August 25, 2014
For the second consecutive year, John Deere was honored at the Midwest AG Industries Exposition (MAGIE) for its new R4045 sprayer. Read More
CropLife 100GROWMARK CEO To Retire
August 22, 2014
GROWMARK chief executive officer Jeff Solberg has announced his retirement effective September 15, 2014. Read More
InsecticidesDuPont’s Prevathon Approved For Dry Beans
August 22, 2014
DuPont Prevathon insect control powered by Rynaxypyr has received EPA registration for foliar use on dry bean crops, including dried shelled peas and beans. Read More
ManagementNCGA DuPont New Leaders Program Enters Sophmore Season
August 20, 2014
The National Corn Growers Association and DuPont are pleased to announce the second year of the NCGA DuPont New Leaders Program. Read More
FungicidesVerdesian Links Up With Mitsui, Hokusan
August 20, 2014
Mitsui Chemicals Agro, Inc., and Hokusan Co., announced the signing of an exclusive licensing agreement allowing Verdesian Life Sciences global access to its patented technology for suppressing mycotoxin contamination in wheat and barley. Read More
SprayersUniversity Of Illinois Introduces New Spray App
August 18, 2014
University of Illinois Extension has released a new smartphone app for making sprayer-related calculations. Pesticide Spray Calculator, or Spray Calc, Read More