Pursuing Excellence

A few years back, I was sitting in the office of Steve Koep, whose career has run parallel to the maturation of modern application equipment. Back in the day, he worked closely with Al McQuinn at Ag Chem Equipment, and today he is working for the company that purchased that revered organization, AGCO Corp.

Steve is one of my favorite interviews — painfully honest, quick with a jab, and full of insight. We were talking about consolidation and the maturation of the machinery market, and Steve said: “You know, Paul, there really isn’t any junk out there anymore. The companies that have survived to this point are making good products — that’s really table stakes in the agriculture equipment market.” To lead the pack, he said, you need to offer something more. At the time, he was referring to the need for equipment companies to provide responsive, top-shelf service.

But the point could be broadened to the entire agriculture market, where consolidation and maturity has served to weed out the weak players and, in most areas, has left behind the true survivors. We are at the point where the retailers that are left are running good businesses. They have honed their sales and marketing and service practices. They are partnering with manufacturers and customers. All this has become table stakes. The question is, what do retailers do to continue their ascendency to excellence, to separate themselves from the competition?

My perception is that it is happening in incremental steps at ag dealerships across the country. And it’s not just one thing — retailers are finding out what their customers want, what’s important to their communities, and delivering it with a full-on, top-down commitment.

Last month, I got to judge self-audit packets submitted by retailers vying for an Environmental Respect Award. As the packets were narrowed down to the very best of the best, the key difference-making aspect of winning organizations is the obvious top-down commitment to environmental stewardship. Their families, their communities, and the entire country are relying on that commitment to environmental safety and security.

And as I think back to the past year or so, I can recall numerous conversations with retail managers who have been working hard to find that difference — making a program, product, or business approach to put their organization above the rest. One retailer was generating profitability by offering programs featuring biopesticides. Another was installing a robust logistics program to improve in-season efficiency and coordination, leading to better customer service. And each was driven from the top of the organization on down through the ranks.

A progressive western retailer was telling me last month about its new foray into precision agriculture. New software and a dramatic new approach to field management meant a winter and spring of training, talking to growers, mapping fields, and setting the stage for the first season. It has been a top-down effort, filtered down and driven by leadership through each level of the organization. A full-on commitment.

But that’s the difference that leadership and commitment make. And it’s what every retailer needs if it hopes to stay in the game for the long haul.

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