RECENTLY RETIRED CASE IH EXEC JIM IRWIN NAMED AGRIBUSINESS LEADER OF THE YEAR
His 40-year legacy at Case IH reflects the lessons he gained on the gridiron. Build relationships with everyone on your team. Trust and respect your teammates. Lead by example.
That has been Irwin's philosophy throughout his four decades in the farm equipment business, all with the same company. The way Irwin sees it, the company behind Case IH, customers and dealers are all on the same team.
IT'S ABOUT RELATIONSHIPS
"This business is all about the people," Irwin says. "And I've had the privilege of developing great relationships with Case IH customers, our dealers and my fellow employees. That's what I think about as I reflect on my tenure here.
"In fact, my greatest satisfaction is the progress this company has made in serving and supporting our dealers and customers," he adds. "Because our success depends on theirs."
That may not sound like a man who officially retired from Case IH in early 2005, waved good-bye to Wisconsin and headed for the desert Southwest. However, anyone who knows him knows that just because he has packed up and moved to Scottsdale, Ariz., that doesn't mean he's no longer concerned with the company.
"Jim has a lifetime's worth of invaluable experience as a leader in this business," says Frank Anglin III, who succeeded Irwin as vice president of Case IH's North American Agricultural Business. "He has intimate knowledge of dealers and customers, knowledge that has successfully guided him in his decision-making throughout his career. Thankfully, Jim's willing to continue sharing that expertise with us, even in his retirement."
MANAGING THROUGH MASSIVE CHANGES
In Irwin's case, "expertise" might be an understatement. He helped manage the company through not one, but two of the largest mergers/buyouts in the history of the agricultural industry. In 1985 Tenneco, then parent company of Case Corporation, purchased the selected assets of International Harvester's agricultural equipment operations, merging the identities of two prominent brands to create one Case IH.
Then in 1999 Case Corporation and New Holland merged to form CNH. Though common in the auto industry, the CNH philosophy was new to the agricultural equipment arena. The new company announced a strategy of bringing to market different brands that share a single design platform -- with differentiation based on key customer-defined brand attributes.
"We know that brands are very important, just as important as the product," Irwin explains. "People can connect and rally around brands, and we've worked hard to bring that idea forward at CNH."
Irwin describes balancing the speed of the company's integration plans to achieve financial synergies with the measured pace needed to manage change for dealers, customers and employees as "keeping one hand on the throttle and one foot on the brake." It's clear he knows how to strike that balance, because CNH's financial performance has steadily improved in the five years post merger, due in significant part to contributions from the North American agricultural business and despite a number of years of overall market downturn. In 2004 CNH was solidly in the black, generating a net income of $125 million.
Under Irwin's steady hand, Case IH North America achieved 20 straight months of year-over-year retail improvement in tractor and combine sales.
FLATTER IS BETTER
Back in the early '90s Irwin called for a flat and centralized North American sales and marketing organization that was linked to the field. He helped create an innovative field representation system designed to bring decision making as close to the dealer level as possible and help the company understand the dealer's business.
Today this field organization -- or Case IH Business Managers (CBMs) in the company vernacular -- serves as the first line between the customer and the dealer and the company. CBMs not only represent the company in the field but also serve as business advisers to dealerships and improve the efficiency of decision-making. Irwin's sales organization achieved the highest average level of "people satisfaction" in the company for the period of 2001 through 2004.
Irwin obviously believes strongly in maintaining solid relationships with Case IH dealers and customers. And he worked hard to keep the lines of communication open.
"It was a loosely guarded secret among dealers that Jim was at his desk every Saturday morning, ready to field dealer calls regarding what's going well and what needs improvement," says Claudia Garber, marketing communications manager for Case IH and one of Irwin's direct reports. "And one of his biggest pleasures was receiving letters from customers describing how they've benefited from a Case IH product or the service provided by either a dealer or a Case IH field representative. He shared those kudos with his staff to let us know when we were doing a good job."
Says Irwin: "That's the ultimate vote, when a customer says that you're doing a good job or your dealers are doing a good job. When that happens, you realize that the philosophy you've tried to instill in the organization -- that we're all part of the same team -- has taken root." AM