Learning how to do your own laundry? Learning how to fail? They may sound like an odd combination and an even odder recipe for business leadership and success, but according to Ben Voss, shareholder and newly appointed president and CEO for Morris Industries Ltd., they’re essential for understanding how he got to where he is today.
A former CBC Saskatchewan Future 40 winning entrepreneur, 42-year-old Voss has had a varied and successful entrepreneurial career. Already a seasoned senior executive with more than 19 years of experience as president, CEO, chair or director, Voss has worked in small-, medium- and large-scale businesses spanning private, non-profit, crown, venture capital and limited partnerships.
He has worked in a startup environment, and also on the turnaround of mature companies.
And now, equipped with a strong background in technology, innovation, finance and change management, his career path has circled back to agriculture and landed him in the leadership of Canada’s largest and most successful privately held agricultural machinery manufacturer.
“This is an immense once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Voss says of the appointment. He calls Morris an “iconic company with a great history,” and he’s quick, too, to get on message, saying Morris “is really well positioned to be part of the future helping farmers to be more productive.”
Voss also believes he understands the opportunity.
“A company this size and in this stage of its development has a huge amount of resources and infrastructure to work with, but none of the anchors that hold back the large companies,” he explains. “That is highly attractive to someone like me. I am excited about challenging the status quo…
“I like to think of myself as a disruptor, and I like the idea of saying, ‘Sure, everyone else is doing it that way, but there are a whole bunch of new ideas that are more efficient (and add) more value to the farmer.’”
Voss credits his entrepreneurial spirit and his passion for agriculture to having grown up on the farm in Spiritwood, Sask., where he still has an active interest in farming and is the fourth-generation owner with his wife and three children.
Aside from his grassroots in agriculture though, Voss also attributes his success to forcing himself to pursue new ideas and to travel outside of his comfort zone.
“A lot of my success and independence came from travelling at a young age,” says Voss. “At 19, I took the opportunity to pursue a student working ag placement in Germany. I travelled and I learned how to adapt to different languages and culture. I had to really push myself and it wasn’t always easy, but I learned that you can only discover the extent of your capabilities when you push yourself.”
He laughs at his earliest learnings gained from travel, but also says he doesn’t underestimate them. “For example,” he says, “if you don’t know how to do your own laundry — you will be pushed to learn how, and quickly.”
If doing your own laundry doesn’t sound like a breakthrough accomplishment, then Voss thinks you aren’t getting the point.
Voss has continued to travel extensively throughout his career, including working as a consultant not only in Mexico, Ecuador and the United States but also across Canada, and he says travel continues to play a vital role in his success, allowing him to remove his dependencies and broaden his vision — something he feels is also key to business leadership and growth, especially when it comes to the business of agriculture.
“A change of the old guard is happening. We are transitioning away from an inward vision in Canadian agriculture,” says Voss. “We’re moving from a heavily regulated, government interventions-based system to a much more market-driven system, but it’s not a fast process; we are still working out the kinks.”
In Voss’s opinion, that is where the evolution of the industry is going to head, thanks to the influence of the internet and the way it is broadening exposure for the industry and creating immense transparency, along with market discovery.
He likes that agriculture is moving to become a communication-driven, more sophisticated industry.
“I think the transparency across our industry in what and how we are doing things is great. We are learning from ourselves and others, and getting better as a result,” he says.
Voss also believes that agriculture has maintained its reliance on relationships as the foundation of how it does business. But, he says, those relationships now need to mature and grow into a more partnership-based mentality that includes the farm customer at every level, and he says this approach will be integral to the success of Morris.
“Farmers need to trust,” Voss says. But he isn’t asking them to trust in a one-sided way.
“Companies and organizations need to be prepared to exchange transparency for relationship building. This is especially true when it comes to grain companies. Where you see relationship building going on in agriculture, that’s where huge partnerships result in huge mutual benefits and lots of profit. Where major players in agriculture aren’t willing to do that — they will simply lose out.”
When asked what he thinks it’s going to take to lead the success and vision of Morris, Voss is quick to respond that he isn’t leading alone.
“The first thing I think of is that I need to surround myself with excellent people, build strong teams and empower them with mandates that allow them to lead. I can’t do this alone and I haven’t. It is a diversification of skillsets…
“Put the right people in the right positions and empower them to succeed. From there, they need a vision and they need to understand where the company is going. That is my job. Once they know that, they take their role and deploy it into the plan.”
But more than that, he says, the key to the company’s innovation and continued success will prove to be a philosophy that Voss learned early as a farmer himself. It’s one, he adds, that his farm customers embrace.
“I would say that one of the most important cultures that we encourage is that we make sure that our team understands that it is okay to fail,” says Voss. “This is the ability for people to try something, and it is okay if it didn’t work. It’s incredibly powerful.”
Voss feels that many people don’t pursue their ideas because of fear. But failure, he says, can be a stepping stone to success, as quite often that failing helps you to the next great thing.
This tolerance for failure, however, has to be balance with the expectation for improvement, so there’s overall progress toward success. For Voss and Morris, the end result has to be that their farm customers experience the benefits of continuous improvement and industry-leading innovation.
“People will bring forward new ideas when they have the permission to, and they’ll try something that might not work. I think this is so crucial in any business or organization. If supported by your managers and leaders throughout your company, it creates a culture that will soon have your company exploding with all kinds of interesting and successful things,” says Voss.
For Voss, though, it is equally important to follow up that culture with the following philosophy:
“But fail fast and fail cheap,” he says. “If you are going to fail, do it really quickly and don’t overspend. Manage your ideas and risk.”
It’s a lesson straight from the field, he says.
“Farmers are constantly experimenting, and looking for new ways to diversify their farm, and they’re always managing their risk,” says Voss. “Like growing a new crop. Farmers will start off by growing a small amount and get to the answer quickly before losing the farm on it.”
Deploying that kind of thinking in manufacturing business, however, is what gets him the “disruptor” label.
Voss encourages every business to value both their successes and their failures, but he says few of his competitors have picked up on the opportunity that the attitude creates. It is not something he has witnessed happening in Canadian business structure. His experiences throughout the United States and abroad have proven that your success and value are judged not only by your achievements, but just as much by your failures.
Those organizations, he says, want to know that you have had the experience of risk and failure and the insights and learnings that they provide. Unfortunately in Canada, this philosophy, he says, is not as embraced.
“I learned from failed ideas and from my successes throughout my career, and I value them both,” says Voss. “Not everything I have attempted has always worked as planned, but it has helped me evolve and grow, as well as the businesses and organizations that I have served.”