Up Close and Personal: Getting to Know New CropLife America President Chris Novak
It’s been a long road through the agriculture industry for Chris Novak. Like many ag executives, he grew up on a small farm, but his dad’s main source of income during Novak’s formative years was as a crop protection product salesperson for the former Farmland Industries Cooperative.
“His territory covered a good share of eastern Iowa, so when I was growing up, there was a regular flow of chemical sales reps coming through the house,” Novak recalls. “While I think the farm was his first love, he also truly loved being out and calling on local coops and working with them.”
As it so often happens with successful, driven people, Novak’s career has come full circle. His foundation of experience and executive training was built on work as a leader of and within farmer-focused organizations — most recently as CEO of the National Corn Growers Association. But in August he took the helm as the fifth President of CropLife America, representing the manufacturers, formulators, and distributors of crop protection products on Capitol Hill and helping to shape regulatory policy and direct communication initiatives.
Novak has big shoes to fill as he succeeds Jay Vroom, who held the position for three decades before retiring Aug. 17. With the rash of member consolidation and a fresh batch of attacks on pesticide science in recent weeks, there will be no shortage of hard work ahead.
Novak’s first career goal growing up in Iowa was putting away bad guys as a prosecutor, but agriculture was always in the picture. He put himself through the paces in 4H and FFA, urged on by an ag teacher that channeled him into state and district-level officer positions. With undergraduate work completed at Iowa State University, Novak made the choice to “stick with that agriculture thing a little bit longer.”
The opportunity to do just that came from the office of U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley in the form of an internship in Washington, DC. The internship led to a full-time position as the Senator’s Agricultural and Environmental Legislative Assistant. After nearly four years with the Senator, Novak took a position at the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), first as a lobbyist in Washington, then he returned to Iowa as NPPC’s director of environmental programs.
After five years with NPPC, Novak made the decision to pursue a law degree at the University of Iowa. But even when that goal was achieved, agriculture once again came calling.
“I was intending to return to DC, but following law school I landed in St. Louis at the American Soybean Association (ASA) as Special Assistant to ASA’s CEO Steve Censky,” Novak says. After three years at ASA, Novak began seeking an opportunity in agribusiness to fill what he felt was a hole in his experience on the corporate management side. He was alerted to an opportunity with Syngenta, then newly formed from the merger of Novartis and Zeneca, in the area of biotech communication. He would spend three years working in Wilmington, DE, with, among others, Robert Woods, who himself would go on to chair CropLife America (then the American Crop Protection Association) from 1995-97.
A reorganization at Syngenta offered Novak the opportunity to return to Washington, but family choices led him to return to the Midwest, taking on an opportunity with the Indiana Soybean Alliance as Executive Director. Working with four different boards and a staff of 20 provided him with the opportunity to manage an organization and craft a strategic vision for the organization. Four years in Indiana opened the door to an offer from the National Pork Board in Des Moines to become its CEO, where he spent the next six years.
Four years ago a former FFA colleague on the search team for the next CEO of the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) put his name in the mix. “I was missing the policy engagement aspect of the work, so when I was offered the job, I decided to return to St. Louis,” Novak says.
NCGA was a great opportunity, but when the CLA position opened up, Novak saw it as a great opportunity to complete the circle that started with his earliest exposure to agriculture from his father. “This really connects the dots from my past, all the way back to my dad’s work selling fertilizer and chemicals,” he says.
In his various roles, Novak has sought to help bring better focus and efficiency to the organizations with whom he’s shared his leadership talents, leading to better member service and improved staff performance.
“The opportunities and challenges of a new position have always driven me — how can I use my skills and perspective to help strengthen an organization?” he says. “The organizations I’ve been with have been able to accomplish a significant amount of change in a short period of time. By creating a sharper strategic focus, I’ve been proud of the substantive contributions that I’ve made to the organizations that I have served.”
Novak’s NCGA experience is a good example. He focused his efforts on helping the organization channel its vast strength into action on specific policy areas and led some key member initiatives.
“I inherited a strategic plan that had 23 goals and 150 objectives,” Novak says. “It was a good list of all the things we had the potential to work on and touch, but it was not prioritizing the work in a way that expresses what we are investing in and what is truly important.”
The strategic plan that was rebooted through 2015 and released in 2016 featured just thee substantive areas of focus: build corn demand; enhance production and sustainability; and drive consumer trust. A fourth area of focus was added as an internal goal: improve organizational effectiveness. One of the specific objectives of that plan was adding 4 billion gallons of additional ethanol production by 2020.
Under his leadership NCGA worked on initiatives to upgrade the fuel infrastructure. “We worked with pump manufacturers to ensure that pumps were capable of dispensing higher blends of ethanol,” he says. “We also invested in working with retailers to put new E15 pumps in place. This has driven additional gallons of ethanol in the marketplace.”
NCGA’s sister organization, the U.S. Grains Council, has worked to build export opportunities, which has created additional ethanol growth in recent years as well.
At the same time, Novak looked to repair the frayed relationship between NCGA and the livestock industry, which took a hit with the rise of the ethanol market. “We’ve made significant strides in reaching out and working with our livestock partners — we recognized that it is a critical customer relationship that provides an opportunity to expand market demand for corn, one of our three key organizational objectives.”
Big Challenges Ahead
Novak expressed appreciation for the work that his predecessor has done from both an organizational and policy point of view. He will be reunited with some former colleagues and will more fully engage with a number of individuals with whom he’s collaborated over the years. “There’s a lot of strength within the team to build on,” he says.
From a policy standpoint, he applauded Vroom’s leadership on key issues, including the Pesticide Registration Improvement Act extension, work on the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act, and FIFRA. “Jay has it set up such that the organization will make significant progress as we wrap up the Farm Bill, then begin to lay the groundwork for identifying and working on our next biggest priorities,” Novak says.
There will be a lot to choose from, including managing a consolidating member base and figuring out a fit for biopesticides and ramping up communication in the wake of the latest round of attacks on pesticides and still unsettled legal wrangling with existing pesticide and environmental legislation. The recruitment process provided a lot of key background, as have visits with CLA leadership, including current Chairman James Blome of Bayer.
But there is still much to learn. Novak intends to approach the challenge the same way he has when entering other positions. “For me, the opportunity has always been to come into an organization listening and learning from the members, staff and stakeholders and allies, and I’ve gotten a great start on that,” he explains. “That’s job one, developing a sense for where members feel the organization has been strong, and where it has room to grow.”
On the communication front, he says members continue to be concerned about consumer attitudes toward the products they make and the growing threat it poses to product availability to agriculture. Novak is also very interested in the impact of technology on crop protection use — technologies that detect pests in real time and that could impact product application regimens. He’s also interested in watching the development of biological products.
“Each technology has the potential to change the nature and structure of the crop protection business,” Novak says. “As we look down the road and see our companies evolve, it will not just be about being in the crop protection business but offering a portfolio of crop protection products and services — this will impact our approach to serving the membership.”
In the end Novak is committed to advancing CropLife America the same way he has succeeded elsewhere — by getting people and organizations to work together for a targeted, common goal. The U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, which Novak played a key role in consensus building and creating, is an example of such collaboration. He’s also open to the idea of more intensive collaboration and sharing among the key agriculture input and distribution organizations.
“It’s been a long and winding road that’s brought me here, but I believe the experience I gathered over the years and applied at NCGA will be beneficial as I work on the challenges confronting agriculture and the crop protection industry,” Novak says. “The combined marketing, communications, and agribusiness management perspective I bring will allow me to walk into this position with a broad perspective and bring some new ideas to the table.”