A while back, I had a rare opportunity to visit New Iberia LA. I met the most impressive business man I have ever seen or heard in the last quarter century of working closely with successful business people. He was as profound in his thinking as he was in his execution. He was so focused on his vision that strategies were in place to correct actions that would be counter productive to the vision. He took his enemies and turned them into defenders of his inventory. His belief in being sovereign was so strong that he actually created cooperation with other farmers. His culture was truly based on love they neighbor; it was his duty. He found ways to make every person around him better.
You ask how can this be true and be competitive in this market place called business. A market that is changing daily with laws, financial requirements, product price points and the options customers’ seem to have available to them. How can a farmer be like your business?
Farmer John is a real farmer. He grows sugar cane. When I first meet him we were guests of a friend. We were on a tour of the real Cajun country so I was told by my host. This is not the stuff you see in New Orleans but the authentic Cajun stuff you find in the bayou.
When we pulled up the gravel driveway of Farmer John’s farm house he was on a gray tractor with front end loader moving oak branches around. He looked like your classic framer. He wore a straw hat that was torn and well worn to keep the hot sun of his face and neck. He was wearing bib overalls that looked like they had had a seasons worth of work. As we were getting out of our SUV he shut down the tractor and quickly approached us with a warm greeting that made me feel like I was the most important person in the whole world. I had no idea how my wife or the other couple with us felt. Later that night I found out they felt the same caring energy.
Farmer John gave us a guided tour of his 3000 plus acre farm. The first part of the tour was to give us an understanding of the farms vision. He said every action we take moves us closer to our vision or we don’t do it. His vision was to be a sovereign self sustaining business. He immediately wanted to demonstrate what he meant by moving closer to his vision. As we walked over to the row of tractors he was intensely interviewing each of us as to who we were and what we did as a profession. You could tell he was as much interested in us as we were him. He said you see these tractors they are all well used or were scrap at one time. He explained that his entire family was trained machinist and that they could build a tractor better than the original manufactures. They were beautiful tractors. In fact he said we invented these forks on the front of this tractor. They are designed to pick up the crops and dry it, cut it and send to the haulers after a hurricane. Not if there was a hurricane but after one. He knew his environment so well that the forks were one of their strategies to be prepared when a hurricane strikes. Wow I said that is forward thinking. The amazing part is that nobody else does it he said, they just wait for the government to help them. They rebuild or built all their tractors and equipment with only their imagination to solve the problems.
As we were walking through his crops he stopped and said looking down. “You see all the little lines in the ground that look like raised mounds? Those are red ants,” as we all jumped back with fear. “These are ant highways and these guys are our friends we invite them onto our farm. They protect our crops from other insects that are harmful and could cause serious damage to our crops. They are my personal Army that is guarding our investment.”
We all noticed that his sugar cane was greener and healthier then other farms around him. We asked why? “Very observant,” he said, with a proud glow on his face. “I have found a processing plant down the road that produces a waste that they throw away. I get it free and use it for fertilizer.” Immediately Todd my friend asked why don’t the other farmers us it? “Good question,” John replied. “But I think it is how they see themselves and what there vision is and how they make decisions regarding that vision or the lack of vision.” Most farmers just see themselves as farmers not business people who need to constantly reinvent themselves as the market and the economy changes.
I asked how you as a farming businessman improve? I said if I want to improve my golf game I go to a golf coach, if I want to improve my speaking skills I go to a speech coach. What do you do? He just smiled and said I go to the best just like you. I went to the experts at growing produce; I go to the Amish in Pennsylvania who are the best farmers in the world. They can grow vegetables in cement. I went to learn from them and lived with them for three months to learn how they think about farming. I learned from the best and it is now one of my competitive advantages.
John had his entire operation on the computer with a program that tracks ever action his business takes and they were constantly evaluating the results. Each tractor had a computer so every member of his team know where they stood relative to the vision at any moment. Asking constantly what do we need to do different to get different and better results? There was no detail left to chance.
We then asked about the price of sugar and how that effects his decision making process. John asked us to get in the car and go for a ride. We drove for about two miles pulling up to this old guard gate and to my surprise a guard. Who waived us though at the site of John. And John yelled to him as we drove by to have a great day leaving a big smile on the guard’s face.
We pulled up to this old rustic building with windows that looked to have dirt on them from the Civil war. This my friends is our co-op. We refine all our own sugar to make raw sugar crystals. We have complete control of the whole process from start to finish. We can better manage the price when we are the refinery. We took a tour of the plant that was shut down as a result of being the off season. The amazing part of this mill is the fact that they built it from scratch. The tumblers to the dryers they cut and welded themselves. Just like their vision states. He took the need to solve the problem of price by bringing his fellow farmers together to create a co-op.
Later that night he joined us for a Cajun feast. At first I didn’t recognize him because he was all cleaned up and no straw hat. When he spoke and I heard what confidence sounds like. When he spoke you really wanted listen for fear you might miss something brilliant. Throughout the night, he spoke highly of every person at the feast. There were about 30 couples and he had something great to say about each person. He would say Jim let me introduce you to the smartest man on oil in the United States. I don’t know if he was but I promise you this that if I needed to know something about oil he is the one I would call. He never said a negative word about one person, government or business that night. It was like he knew that negative thinking has a negative effect on you soul.
FARMER or FARMER JOHN?
As you move your business towards the next level of excellence you have to take time and ask yourself, am I a farmer or a Farmer John? (Do I have a vision that I believe in so strongly that I will do what it takes or make a change if it is not moving us closer to our desired outcome.) What is your vision? Do you give up too quickly when adversity sets in? Or do you have a strategy for red ants what ever the red ants may be in your business? Do you seek out the best of the best to find out what they are doing?
I hear all the time from business people that they want to be the best. First, you must have a vision. Then strategies to implement to achieve your vision. Devise and maintain a clearly stated, focused strategy.
You must execute daily the action items that will move you closer to your vision. Develop and maintain flawless operation execution. You might not always delight your customers, but make sure you never disappoint them.
Your business needs to reflect the culture of learning and growth. Develop and maintain a performance-oriented culture. Create a culture that holds high performance expectations and a great place for people to work. Farmer John’s was fun but focused.
As a leader your job is to inspire people to go where they think they could not go and to remove the obstacles that get in the way. Farmer John is a great leader, a forward thinker and a creative problem solver. Are you focusing on the obstacles or a way around them?