For nearly one hundred years, farmers and businesses across the United States have turned to Illinois-based cooperative Growmark for reliable, high-quality agricultural products and services. The organization is renowned for its ability to “execute extremely well,” explains Brent Bostrom, Growmark’s vice president and general counsel. And the company is creating strong, forward-looking strategies to ensure that Growmark continues operating at the forefront of the industry for years to come.
Growmark has been “on the lookout for growth opportunities and acquisitions for the past several years,” says Bostrom, who has been with the company since 2004. Growmark’s acquisitions have moved it into new geographies in the US, Mexico, and Canada. The cooperative also jointly owns a grain terminal on the Mississippi River with a global agriculture business.
“We’re a farmer-owned cooperative, but farmers are also our customers,” Bostrom continues. “We want to give our farmers access to the best possible markets for their corn, soybeans, wheat, and other products.”
Growmark needs to be “in touch and in tune” with customers’ needs, Bostrom says, whether that’s expanded markets in which to sell their crops or resources for adapting to the various technologies increasingly dominating the agricultural industry. That has prompted the company to launch its current strategic planning effort.
That strategic effort centers on the four-pillar GROW strategy, which applies to all Growmark employees:
“This pillar is focused on customer service,” Bostrom explains. “We’re very good at that already, but we’ve set a goal to really up our game and become truly world-class.” There are three keys to providing outstanding customer service: employees’ knowledge of the company, employees’ understanding of customers’ needs and challenges, and a consistent set of service standards.
“We call them service excellence standards,” he says. “There are several values of customer service that are important to our organization, including trust and responsiveness. Agriculture is getting more complicated and sophisticated, and our members can’t be experts on everything. We want to be that trusted source of expertise they turn to for answers.”
Resources of Unmatched Value
Recently, Growmark conducted a thorough evaluation of its different products and services—and “that is a long, long list,” notes the VP—to ensure that all of those products and services “align with exactly what the customer is looking for.”
That evaluation included a number of customer surveys, Bostrom says, but Growmark leaders also met with groups of customers from different segments of the business to talk about “what we’re offering, what we could do better, what we’re offering that they’d want us to continue to offer, and what we’re not offering that [they’d] like us to offer.”
Optimized Supply Chain
“We sell a wide range of products—seed, nutrients, crop protection products, various types of fuel—and those products are sourced from all over the US and the world. They go through a lot of different supply chains and transportation processes before they end up here and get distributed locally,” Bostrom explains. To minimize inefficiencies and waste within that complex supply chain network, Growmark has created a new position: director of supply chain.
“We’ve already realized substantial savings by optimizing the supply chain,” he says, “although of course we still have a lot more to tackle in that area in future.”
“We’re not one of the Microsofts or Googles of the world,” Bostrom acknowledges, “but there is a lot of room for innovation in our industry. We want to reach out to business partners that are involved in research and development, companies that are developing new technologies, and establish win-win business relationships with those innovators.”
Growmark has established a physical Center for Innovation, networked with more than one hundred other companies interested in innovation and agriculture, and held a tournament challenging employees to come up with new ideas.
“It was like the NCAAs, with brackets and everything,” Bostrom says of the tournament. “We had an innovation committee that evaluated the merits of all ideas, and we are actually implementing a couple of the top ideas into our business.”
Putting It All Together
As leaders like Bostrom know, a strategy like GROW only works if employees across the organization adopt it in their everyday work and attitudes. To that end, Growmark has developed programs to help employees learn about and engage with the organization’s new approach, including a carnival day to familiarize employees with Growmark’s culture campaign and a yearlong onboarding program for new hires.
Bostrom has emphasized the importance of the GROW strategy in team meetings within the general counsel’s division (GCD), encouraging his team members to discuss the strategy “even before it was fully baked. I certainly believe in involving more people in the process,” he says. “It results in more ideas, better ideas, and a better finished product.”
Bostrom continues, “We want to get the whole team on the same page with this new strategy and develop what we call GCD guiding principles. Some of those principles have been in place for a while now; we just wrote down what we were already doing so that we have some official rules of the road.”
Bostrom knows that he and his team have a long road ahead of them yet. Some people are resistant to change, he notes, even when that change is for the better. But he also knows that by consistently rolling out the GROW strategy and communicating with their business partners, the legal division will be more than prepared to help drive Growmark into the future.
“That is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned: the importance of being dependable and reliable,” Bostrom says. “I play pickle ball, tennis, ping pong—anything with a paddle or racket. I love all those sports, but my game is not a flashy one. I don’t have the hardest serve in the world. I don’t make the most spectacular shots in the world. But in the end, all I need to do to win is hit the ball back one more time than my opponent.”
“Our firm has been fortunate to work with and learn from Brent, a true believer in farmers and their families. With those values in place, he has been successful in helping lead Growmark and its member companies through both good and challenging times.”
—Craig S. Young, Managing Partner