Genuinely in business: How Dow Agro built its company culture

Guide Insight: OK, so it’s a cliché that business means people working with people. It’s also how you create success. Just ask Dow’s Brad Orr

Of all the global ag input suppliers, Dow AgroSciences has arguably changed the most, transitioning from a company whose Canadian presence was dominated by Treflan, a herbicide that nobody sprays today, into a diversified operation with a strong national presence and significant market share in crop protection, plant genetics, traits and more.

There’s just as good a case for arguing, however, that Dow has also changed the least. It’s still differentiated from its major competitors in the same way, based on its culture.

Growers know it intuitively. To them, Dow feels different, and a trip to its head office in Indianapolis confirms it. Compared to Monsanto, it isn’t as preppy, or as upwardly mobile as Syngenta, or as European as BASF or intellectual as Bayer.

Actually, it could be hard to know exactly what word to use to describe Dow, except, of course, for the fact that Dow has already come up with it.

“Genuine,” says Brad Orr, just finishing his first year as head of Dow’s Canadian business.

In fact, Dow has a small handful of such words — also including collaborative, resourceful and responsible — that it routinely tests itself on, including via feedback from growers.

“Building the culture of an organization, and its performance on individual projects, are related,” Orr explains.

But there’s even more to it than that. Crucially, Orr says, culture influences your relationship with your customers, and how you anticipate and satisfy their needs.

For farmers looking at whether they might import high-level, Dow-based thinking to drive their own businesses over the next five years, this may even be where to start.

Of course, the rule of thumb is the same for agribusiness as it is for farming, with 80 per cent of your effort needing to go into getting the best, most efficiently produced crop to market. With global sales of roughly C$9 billlion and with 9,000 employees worldwide, Dow AgroSciences understandably puts most of its hours into ensuring that its pipeline is full.

Now that the company has diversified into everything from Nexera canola to the new Dow Seeds, and from crop protection to the Enlist trait that makes corn and soybeans tolerant to the Enlist Duo combination of glyphosate and 2,4-D choline, plus other product lines including nitrogen stabilizers such as N-Serve, this has become an exceedingly multi-disciplinary task.

From a people-management perspective, it is also a challenge. Not only does Dow need experts on hand in all those different fields, but each segment also demands a share of the finite management, marketing and sales resources that Dow can muster on any given day.

It’s much the same, Orr agrees, as for farmers who diversify and now must not only pay attention to their grains and oilseeds, but somehow find the hours to monitor a specialty crop as well.

The business argument is clear. Dow has aggressive growth targets with the goal, within five years, of becoming recognized as a top-tier Canadian input company in a market where farmers have a wide choice of competitively priced technologies, and where they will only buy the best.

One route would be to sweeten its loyalty benefits, using marketing programs that increasingly reward farmers to up their Dow purchases.

It’s called a share-of-wallet approach, tied in to the thinking that it’s cheaper to grow sales with an existing customer than to go out and get a new farmer on your list.

All companies consider it, and Orr concedes Dow does too. “We all have our lists of cutomers we want to acquire, those who are loyal, those who have slipped.”

But Orr doubts how far that thinking can go. Attractive as it might seem, it would put the company at odds with its customer base, which prizes its independence and its ability to retain choice.

Instead, says Orr, the path forward is to focus more on its portfolio. “You have to give yourself the right to ask for the sale,” Orr says.

Increasingly, that means not specializing only in crop protection, or only in traits or genetics.

In a market where customers will only buy the best technology, and where none of the sciences can be expected to always produce the best solution, the necessary choice is to aim for world-class capability in all three, despite the additional people demands it creates.

“This is a humbling business,” says Orr, raised as a Manitoba farm boy, but now with 26 years with Dow, starting as a summer student while in university and followed with postings in Manitoba, Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

“Mother Nature humbles us. Every time you find a solution, you have to look for a new solution.”

That’s not to say, however, that “relationship marketing” doesn’t work. In fact, it’s that kind of thinking that helped drive Dow’s recent genetics announcement in Ontario, where for the past five years it has sold corn and soybean seed through the two predecessor brands it had acquired — Mycogen and Hyland.

Now, all its sales will be through a combined Dow Seeds, partly because  combining the two seed lists will result in one, more competitive catalogue with a larger research team behind it, but also because combining the sales lists will increase the new brand’s ability to have agronomists and other sales support on its customers’ farms.

The decision leaves the U.S. as the only Dow market selling genetics under different brands, and it marks a strategy to raise Dow’s genetics sales in Canada.

“Having two brands was slowing us down,” Orr says. In the corn market, where Dekalb and DuPont-Pioneer have a combined 80 per cent market share, and where Mycogen and Hyland have a combined eight per cent, Orr is promising that Dow will grow its sales aggressively and become “the clear alternative within five years. There will be three large companies… we can get there.”

That strength in Eastern Canada, combined with the company’s leadership in cereal herbicides in the West, plus its market share with Nexera and the growth of its traits sales, will then support growth across segments and enable the company to focus even more on relationships with its grower customers.

It’s a plan based on hard numbers and a goal that Orr articulates for staff and, increasingly, for customers. “Five years from now, Dow AgroSciences will be viewed as a leader in introducing innovation,” Orr says. “We will be seen as a top-tier company.”

Because Dow is convinced that it will take excellence in multiple disciplines to achieve that, Orr knows that tough decisions lie ahead, forcing him to choose which resources go to which initiatives.

“It’s a good problem to have,” Orr says, adding, “You always have to evaluate what’s core to your business, and what will create success by creating the most customer success.”

It also means there’s another pipeline that Orr is carefully monitoring. It’s the flow of new employees into the organization, and the growth of those already there.

Increasingly, that’s a multi-generational workforce, with the same opportunities and challenges that farmers see in their own operations. It takes careful thought to create an environment where the different generations can work together despite differences in work styles, expectations and personal goals.

Increasingly too, it’s a workforce with more gender balance. Women make up half of Dow’s western regional sales force, and Orr says that’s only a beginning. The clear evidence, he says, is that fostering that kind of diversity leads to better decisions.

Again, the parallels with the farm come to mind. Orr’s team continually evaluates not only the progress but the aspirations of its people. As on more farms, it also finds ways of keeping the channels of communications open, so individuals have a clear role in defining their own development plans.

“It’s an ongoing dialogue,” Orr says, and the company uses tactics ranging from internships to temporary assignments at its Indianapolis headquarters to work on specific assignments.

Hitting these HR targets is as vital as any other business numbers.

Overall, though, it’s part of a core belief that human relationships can be optimized for success, whether those are relationships with customers, partners or staff. As a leader, Orr says, he needs to recognize what he can control, and what he can’t. “If you try to control things you can’t control, that’s not very genuine.”

(With files from Amy Petherick)

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Tom Button

Tom Button is editor of Country Guide magazine.

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