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FORTUNE 500 COMPANY GOES A-COURTIN' USING RESEARCH
Why would one of the country's largest grains, foods and energy companies be looking to link up with new business partners? And why would the Gallup Organization be enlisted to conduct a poll on business relationship issues?

John Johnson
Energy, agronomy, grains and foods are core enterprises for CHS, the nation's largest cooperative. "But these businesses aren't ends in themselves," says John Johnson, president and CEO. "What we do reaches far beyond the farm gate, grain elevator, refinery and food production plant. To grow and build on CHS successes, we're bridging the strengths of our traditional cooperative supply and grain-marketing business model with new customer bases in the United States and around the world."

This path makes CHS a serious player in the corporate dating game. Or, as Johnson puts it, "The right partnerships can help us achieve business goals we may not have been able to achieve on our own. And, as the Gallup poll demonstrated, successful business partnerships are mutually beneficial relationships."
Good Relationships

WORTH THE EFFORT

For CHS, finding and working with valuable partners is historic, Johnson explains. "Nurturing solid business partnerships is an important component of the nearly 75-year success story of CHS. As we look forward, partnerships of the highest caliber will be even more important for us."

As a leading supplier of grain-based foods and food ingredients worldwide, CHS moves a billion bushels annually and is the third-largest U.S. grain exporter. CHS also crushes, refines and supplies vegetable oil to some of the world's best food brands. For example, through its joint venture company, Ventura Foods, CHS adds value through food products by manufacturing margarine, spreads and salad dressings.

As a partner in United Harvest LLC, CHS works with producers, cooperatives in the Pacific Northwest and a Japanese partner to move grain to Pacific Rim customers. Increasingly, that relationship means bringing particular varieties, such as wheat with special characteristics for Chinese steamed bread, from the farm to the customer.

In the energy sector, Cenex®-branded convenience stores are the 18th-largest chain in the United States, with system-owned and independent dealers pumping millions of gallons of Cenex-branded gas each year. CHS owns one refinery and holds majority ownership in a second to ensure a dependable supply for its retail outlets, as well as selling wholesale refined fuels to other retail companies.

THOUGHT LEADERSHIP DEMONSTRATED

With the goal of leveraging its diversity, CHS set out in 2004 to initiate an ongoing dialog with key customers and potential partners.

CHS planners went with a sure-read for starters: complimentary one-year Fortune magazine subscriptions were sent to business thought-leaders and potential business partners. Six-page editorial cover wraps were added to those complimentary issues and mailed four times during the year.

The outreach not only leveraged the company's Fortune 500 status, but gave CHS a vehicle to drive home its attributes of diversity, integrity and stability and cross-sell its products and services.

Linda Tank
"Our message is that CHS is an ideal company to invest in and a strong partner to do business with because of our diverse resources, integrity and financial stability," explains Linda Tank, CHS vice president, communication. "Each cover wrap featured a 'conversation' with John Johnson with CHS ads corresponding to the particular topic."

For the final wrap, CHS sponsored a Gallup Organization poll of 301 top executives to find out which "business relationship" issues were most important to them. The Fortune cover wrap publicized the results (see "Building Successful Partnerships" at the end of this article) and provided grist for Johnson to effectively position CHS as a worthy supplier or candidate for partnership.

To attract more media attention, CHS also established a special CHS Reporterville media-by-invitation Web site to help raise awareness of the company and experts, and to position the Gallup poll results in more depth.

"The poll demonstrated that good business partnerships aren't always about financial gain," explains Tank. In fact, she adds, poll results showed that trust and compatibility are the most crucial factors in creating mutually beneficial, lasting relationships. And when business relationships go sour, the polled executives cited an inability to collaborate and integrate, not simply operationally but interpersonally and culturally, as well.

Research also revealed the lingering impact of those infamous corporate scandals of the '90s. "We learned that skepticism about business integrity remains," says Tank. "In fact, 20 percent of those we polled said today's businesses are demonstrating an even lower level of integrity than when those scandals broke. Still, she adds, "nearly half think the situation is improving."

Pre- and post-awareness surveys demonstrated the wraps' effectiveness. Eighty percent of recipients recalled the wraps, 75 percent read them, and 70 percent said they were likely to consider CHS as a business partner after seeing the wraps. Additionally, 87 percent said they would rate CHS as compatible with their organizations (57 percent rated CHS as very compatible). And 88 percent regard CHS as financially strong/stable, 85 percent realize it's a diversified company and 85 percent say it's a company with integrity.

While the more tangible outcome of these latest CHS efforts in the corporate dating game will continue to roll out over the coming months and years, Johnson is pleased with the company's latest outreach efforts.

"Our own history plus the results of the Gallup poll indicate forming strong business partnerships with companies that share your goals, culture and values is the right strategy for our continued business success," says Johnson. AM

Bernice Neumann is a senior counselor at Exponent, the PR group at Colle+McVoy.

BUILDING SUCCESSFUL PARTNERSHIPS

A recent CHS-sponsored Gallup Organization poll of 301 top executives revealed something about what it takes to make business alliances successful.

BE TRUSTWORTHY AND COMPATIBLE.

More than a third of executives polled ranked trust (35 percent) and compatibility (34 percent) as crucial factors for creating mutually beneficial partnerships. Those in agricultural businesses were more likely to cite trust than their counterparts in retail businesses (47 percent vs. 30 percent). Beyond providing similar goods or services, they said compatible companies have similar corporate cultures, strategic direction and missions. When it came to trust vs. compatibility, the former was the more likely response (29 percent vs. 11 percent).

IT'S NOT THE MONEY.

Only 11 percent of executives polled named the opportunity for mutual gain as a contributing factor in the success of a partnership. And mutual gain only came up in 4 percent of initial mentions.

INTEGRATE OR ELSE.

Almost half of the executives polled (47 percent) said partnerships often fail without real collaboration, while 45 percent said failure occurs in the absence of integration. Business partners often realize integration by recognizing and incorporating shared business practices.

BUSINESS INTEGRITY IS ON THE UPSWING.

Despite damage done by the big business scandals of a few years ago, the polled executives perceived a business integrity comeback. Thirty-seven percent said today's businesses demonstrate a higher level of integrity than before those scandals, while 38 percent put most businesses at the same integrity level. Nearly half (45 percent) predicted business integrity would improve over the next five years.


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