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Making a name in crop protection

Can FMC build a new company you’ll actually want to do business with?

The insiders at FMC have a plan for getting you to become a loyal customer of a company you’ve barely heard of in an industry dominated by huge names you can’t forget, like BASF, Bayer and Syngenta.

Can FMC do it? The big test may be in your mailbox right now.

As a company, FMC has been around forever, with roots dating back to 1883. As a Canadian company, though, and especially as a Canadian crop protection company, it’s so new, it’s like it’s invisible.

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Questions like, “Are you a kind of FNA or FBA?” or, “Do I need a membership?” are still getting asked.

Internal brand research confirms it, says new Canada lead Darren Dillenbeck. “It isn’t that the name has any negatives,” Dillenbeck says. “It just doesn’t have any recognition at all… The feedback is, nobody knows us.”

But the facts on the ground have changed. Suddenly FMC is the fifth-largest crop protection company in Canada, thanks to its purchase of assets and products that had to be sold off in order for DuPont and Dow to get regulatory approval of their merger.

And the business facts have changed too. FMC has ambitious growth plans for both the west and the east, plus a determination to carve out a differentiated role that farmers will connect to the FMC logo as it appears on more farm jackets across the country.

So when I met Dillenbeck in Mississauga (FMC’s head office is in Calgary), it was my main question. Is there space to create a different kind of crop protection company in Canada? Don’t we already know how crop protection companies do business? And isn’t the lesson that the companies are more similar than different?

Dillenbeck’s answer is resolute. “There’s room,” he says. “There’s opportunity.”

Dillenbeck came up through the sales ranks at Dow, getting named Canada lead for FMC in May 2018. He’s the kind of exec who thrives in sales, a job where there are endless details and distractions to sort out, and often fires to put out too, and where the only way to make your numbers is to be disciplined enough to keep your eye on the long-term plan.

FMC has ambitious growth plans for both the west and the east, plus a determination to carve out a differentiated role that farmers will connect with.
photo: Anne de Haas

When I ask how he landed the Canada job, he says it was a combination of aptitude, based on knowing the Canadian market, plus an attitude that Mark Douglas, FMC North America lead at the time, felt was right for the assignment. What did Douglas think was needed? “I’m calm and patient, I don’t tend to overreact,” Dillenbeck says. “I tend to be more pragmatic. I’m going to take my time to work through it.”

He knows it’s a description that fits farmers too. In fact, there are surprising number of parallels to farm management all through this story. Farmers would want to know what’s the business case for a new crop protection company. That’s how Dillenbeck thinks too.

He points to two key strategies.

First, Dillenbeck says, is technology. With the other major brands heavily invested in crop traits, he says FMC is really the only pure-play chemical company in Canada’s crop protection market. It’s more than hype, he says. FMC has upped its investment in research, and is the only company that can say the words that are like a chant inside its walls: “Advancing chemistry to advance agriculture.”

“We are a discovery company,” Dillenbeck says. “We have intentionally got back into that.” The move was recognized in 2018 with Agrow’s award for the top research pipeline, with lots in store for Canada.

New actives are perhaps five years from market, but Dillenbeck promises Canadian growers won’t have to wait that long to see a steady stream of innovations from FMC. Partly, that’s due to corporate philosophy, which will see the company focus on developing new uses, new combinations and new formulations for existing products. “With products like Authority and Aim, we’re just scratching the surface,” Dillenbeck says. “We’ve got to look at combinations, look at partnerships, creating paths forward.”

Internally, business development is based on looking at current actives, talking about them with farmers and dealers, and asking what weeds, for instance, or what timings may be missing, and how to address them.

In other words, innovation is being built into FMC’s structure, Dillenbeck says, and he insists it’s not just nice words.

As well, the company’s manufacturing infrastructure will also come into play, especially its plant in Calgary that can package crop protectants specifically for Canadian markets.

The second core strategy is to become “customer centric.”

Dillenbeck knows it’s a phrase that other crop protection companies have targeted, but he says again that there’s room at the top for FMC to differentiate itself, and that growers will discern and value the difference.

Dillenbeck says this winter’s new pricing system — although only FMC’s first effort in this new direction — shows a clear difference from other buying programs that, he says, try to force growers to make decisions for economic, not agronomic reasons.

And, he says, his competitors have opened the door for him by having made their programs way too complicated.

“I don’t believe in square-pegging,” Dillenbeck says, defining that as when a company effectively says, “I have the portfolio. You don’t need to look elsewhere. I’ll create a grower offer that ties you in, that binds you in.”

“You’re going to see us migrate away from that approach,” he says.

So, can growers look at the company’s 2020 buying program as a test showing whether the company can walk the talk?

FMC’s banner.
photo: FMC

Dillenbeck’s answer again is resolute. It’s a yes, although he qualifies it a bit by saying, “It’s not perfect, it’s not 100 per cent (… but…) you’re going to see a stepped improvement in the simplicity and the applicability of the offer.”

He also sets the terms growers can use for judging its success: “We don’t want to bully you… we want you to use what you feel brings you value today.”

It’s also up to growers to decide if FMC has raised the bar on simplicity and on helping them make the best agronomic choice, he says.

In large measure, it’s new turf for FMC, although the company can point to significant strides it made between 2007, when it launched in Canada with two employees and a couple of actives, and the end of 2017, when it had powered up to 16 on staff.

Because it started with only a few employees and a short product line, says Katrina Schmidt, FMC Canada marketing manager, its go-to-market strategy was largely based on forming exclusive relationships with select dealers and distributors, so the FMC products often became more associated with the channel partners than with FMC itself while the company built sales east and west, with significant growth in cereals and in pulses and canola.

But the acquisition of Corteva assets makes a difference, Schmidt says. “The landscape really changed for us… We do have a larger presence.”

FMC will stick with the dealer model, not going direct to farmer. Partly that’s because of dealer infrastructure, with approved warehouses and local facilities, but also it’s down to the belief that the dealer system creates value for the manufacturer and for the grower too.

It’s no secret that it’s been a tough couple of decades for dealers, with Roundup cutting into dealer per-acre margins. Developments like FNC and FBA haven’t helped either. Still, Schmidt says the dealer sector has responded, (those who haven’t are struggling, she says), and in this environment, FMC is the right answer at the right time, creating new opportunities for sales and support.

It’s meant a move for FMC too. “We’ve removed some of the exclusive relationships,” Schmidt says. “We’re basically working with all of the channel partners in coming to market.” But it gives the company the base for the new molecules that it is already thinking how to sell.

FMC has also built a network of territory reps that greatly expands its presence on the ground, but Schmidt is resisting the trend to take a top-down approach, using sales data to identify which farms those territory reps must target.

Instead, it’s up to the territory reps to know their territories, and then to hit their numbers. Head office will help with data, resources and coaching, but it won’t define a set of criteria for telling reps how many hours to spend on which farms. “We’re not going to do that one-size-fits-all approach.”

In the field, in the office

Schmidt’s is an approach that relies on high-energy hires who can thrive in that kind of environment, and again, it displays the strategic focus that has gone into building FMC, much of it stemming from Dillenbeck’s early talks with the U.S. company about how to put wheels under a bigger FMC presence in Canada.

It may be rare in agriculture, but this was clearly a case of a small FMC taking over a much larger chunk of the pre-merger Dow-DuPont.

FMC Canada’s workforce grew from 16 to 75. Three quarters of those were transfers from DuPont, but FMC also needed to fill another 15 roles, a big job in itself.

Again, Dillenbeck had a clear preference, i.e. to hire from his competitors. He’s unapologetic. “We went and poached some quality folks.”

It wasn’t quite what you might expect, though. Yes, candidates got marks for knowing the industry and the business overall, but mostly the hiring was done with a focus on attitudes, not just aptitudes. “We can teach the skillset, but attitude is difficult to teach,” Dillenbeck says, so questions like “Will they fit?” and “Are they coachable?” became the decision points.

That was only the beginning of Dillenbeck’s work, though. Not surprisingly, putting together an organization the size of the new FMC has been challenging. Or, as he says, “It’s been daunting. I knew it would be tough, but I really started to see what the challenges would be.”

Those challenges included setting up all the policies that a modern business needs. “Even a vacation policy,” Dillenbeck says. “We had the U.S. experience to draw from, but basically we had to design everything.”

Which raises another consideration. In corporate terms, the days of a small FMC able to fly under the radar are gone. Now that Canada is among FMC’s top 10 business regions, it’s in focus. “All of a sudden you’re included in the investor presentations, and in dialogues with senior executives,” Dillenbeck says.

“You’re going to be noticed,” he says. “It better be for something good.”

With much of the hiring and the design work now in hand, the focus is moving outward.

Will farmers notice a difference? Dillenbeck says yes.

And, I ask, will his competitors notice? How will that play out? “Frankly,” says Dillenbeck, “I don’t know if it hurts us whether they’re paying attention or not.”

There’s that pipeline, he says. “That’s where we’re going to dominate.”

About the author

Editor

Tom Button

Tom Button is editor of Country Guide magazine.

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