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People are the lifeblood of any company. From CEOs to interns, each individual impacts customersí perception of the company as a whole. Perhaps that explains why Dow AgroSciences, Indianapolis, Ind., places so much emphasis on its summer intern-training program.

For one week last May, 38 college students - including five 2001 graduates serving as sales trainees - were barraged with dawn-to-dusk activities designed to prepare them for life in the field. Assigned to teams that represented the sales district in which they would work, interns learned how to assist sales reps in marketing products and programs, investigating complaints, and collecting testimonials from growers and dealers.

After two days of orientation in Indianapolis, the program headed north to the Dow AgroSciences Midwest Research Farm near Lafayette, Ind. There, interns received classroom instruction in Dow AgroSciencesí corn and soybean crop protection products, as well as looked at the competitionís products.

But it was the activities in the research farmís fields, not the classroom, which left the biggest impression on interns. Area sales representatives, district sales managers and market specialists played the parts of dealers and growers with concerns or complaints. It was the studentsí job to question them in an effort to find a solution to the problem presented.

Further demonstrating the importance of the program to Dow AgroSciences, other top officials from Indianapolis joined in the role playing. Even Midwest/Atlantic States general manager Doug Vail played the part of a grower from whom students were to secure a product testimonial.

żHaving all the upper management people here from the Midwest/Atlantic States local business unit is really neat," says Corrina Schafbuch, who participated in the 2000 program as an intern and returned in 2001 as a sales trainee. "It really leaves quite an impression because we are just college students and you see the top guys from Dow AgroSciences spending all this time with us."

Schafbuch, an Iowa State University graduate preparing for sales training in southeast South Dakota, said she was impressed when top management remembered her from her internship the previous year.

"They make you feel just like one of them," she adds. "Even though Dow AgroSciences is a huge company, they are normal people just like everybody else. You find out you can have a conversation with them."

Vail says leaving a positive impression on the interns is important to the company and the industry. College students are recruited for the program because they have the personality, educational background and potential to be future employees in the crop protection industry.

"The one thing Iíve heard about the value of our program is the hands-on component of role playing," Vail says. "The program really displays and sells our company model to the interns. About half of our people come out of the intern pool. We invest a lot in them at the time of their internship; this program is much more than a glorified plot tour."

Matt Wolle, a University of Minnesota graduate, entered the Dow AgroSciences intern program in 2000 after serving an internship with another crop protection company. He was back as a sales trainee in 2001 and was assigned a territory in northwest Illinois as a sales representative.

He called the weeklong program "invaluable," adding that the variation of ways information was presented to the students kept things interesting and applicable to real-life, in-the-field situations.

"I donít think a lot of companies necessarily like doing an intern program because they find itís expensive and they donít know how effective it is. But everything we do here - from the binders of information they provide us and the networking with the companyís top management to the role playing that we do - is just awesome," Wolle says.

"When I did my other internship, it was just like one big information dump. We received nothing but lectures. But here we are placed with teams and our coach is a district sales manager, and the discussions and role playing are interactive."

Steve Gehrls, district sales manager for the Des Moines district, helps organize the programís content and schedule with Customer Agronomist Bruce Maddy, who conducts the classroom teaching and designs the in-field, role-play scenarios. Students are recruited at job fairs to serve three- and six-month internships. Gehrls adds the program is an excellent way to observe the internsí skills and talent. They become a valuable resource to the company, and itís important that they are fully prepared for fieldwork so they present a positive image of the company to its customers.

"We are striving to deal with customers face-to-face, and the dealers want to work with knowledgeable people," Gehrls says. "We could just hire people and dump projects on them, but then they couldnít answer simple questions or handle information-gathering in the field.

"We want our interns to be able to do these activities so sales representatives and dealers can rely on somebody to help them during the busy season. Dealers can call on us to check out a farmerís field - whether itís a testimonial or potential issue. Interns have a base knowledge of agronomy and know how to interact with farmers because of the training they receive."

Maddy adds that recruiters look for students with good interpersonal skills. The program provides interns a base knowledge of agronomy and Dow AgroSciencesí products, and shows them how to apply that knowledge to help dealers and growers.

"We try to balance the program," Maddy says. "We want them to have product knowledge and we supply it in a manner thatís appropriate to their level. The other half is giving them the opportunity to use it in real-world situational role plays and relay that information in a way thatís important to growers and dealers.

"Itís more than knowledge. Itís the application of the knowledge that sets our intern program apart from others."

Elisha Priebe, a 2001 Purdue University graduate, served two internships with Dow AgroSciences prior to accepting a sales trainee position in northeast Indiana. She says she liked the responsibility that came with her internships.

"I got the guidelines beforehand and was taught what I needed to know, but I was also given some flexibility to be responsible for my projects," she says. "I think thatís a really good tactic because a lot of young people today are spoon-fed and are not allowed to go through the growth stages that come with being responsible for your actions. They do an excellent job of training us, then giving us the confidence to be salespeople in the field."

And when it came time for Priebe to enter the work force full time, her internships left quite an impression.

"From my two previous internships with Dow AgroSciences, I really came to love the people, the company and the products they have. It was the only place I interviewed," Priebe says. "Itís where I wanted to work and I hoped they felt the same way about me. The intern program really helped me find my place." AM

Darrell Bruggink is an account supervisor, public relations for Bader Rutter & Associates in Brookfield, Wis.

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