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Throughout his career, Bernie Staller has pursued a goal of effective and responsive leadership. He retires this fall after 13 years at the helm of the National FFA Organization and 26 years at the National FFA Foundation. He bids farewell to an organization positioned to ensure a bright future for all members.

As Staller steps down, he looks back on more than a decade of stable financial management, a six-month operating reserve, a 19-year membership high and record-breaking national convention attendance topping 51,000.

When Staller assumed the newly created position of chief operating officer, responsible for both the National FFA Organization and National FFA Foundation in 1991, student membership had declined for 15 years. Organization finances were dwindling. Indeed, FFA, like much of the agriculture sector, faced its severest and most sustained fiscal crisis. Membership had plummeted 25 percent to its lowest level since a record high of 509,735 in 1977.

In typical Staller fashion, he promptly went to work asking the right questions and involving the right people to identify and resolve the crisis, realigning the organization's direction.

Staller and his team launched a dramatic reorganization, streamlining national office staffing and operations while boosting efficiency. At the same time, he broadened the range of services to state FFA associations, local chapters and the agribusiness industry. Of critical importance to the plan was the establishment of a clear and concise vision for FFA and a mission to make it happen.

When the National FFA Board of Directors realized that rehabilitating the venerable former FFA Center outside Alexandria, Va., carried an inefficient multimillion-dollar price tag, Staller developed and directed a search process for the board that led to relocating the national FFA business operations and staff to Indianapolis in 1998.

He personally oversaw on-budget construction and the $5.2 million capital campaign for the new center, a project financed entirely through corporate and private donations.

A year later, with the goal of enhancing and improving the national convention experience for FFA members and their teachers, Staller created a process that assisted the National FFA Board in making the decision to relocate the convention. His processes included a scorecard allowing the relocation committee to fairly and accurately evaluate potential sites based on event needs to maximize each student's educational experience.

The National FFA convention is the largest student gathering in the nation, attracting more than 51,000 attendees and generating an estimated $30 million for the host city.

These accomplishments have netted substantial savings and increased services to members, teachers and industry alike.

FFA inherits the wisdom of Staller's push for an electronically driven resource for teachers that would complement and enhance Local Program Success. In 1998, FFA released the first Local Program Resource Guide on CD-ROM, providing teachers and local chapters with easy access to the materials and information needed to conduct their business.

Well known throughout the sponsor community, Staller has guided industry investment in its own future. Under his direction, first as executive director and then chief operating officer, the National FFA Foundation set fundraising records during each of the past 26 years. Since he joined the Foundation in 1977, annual contributions have blossomed from $700,000 to nearly $9 million in 2003. During his tenure, the Foundation raised more than $110 million in support of FFA and agricultural education.

Larry Gundrum, retired senior vice president of operations for Kraft Foods, praised Staller's insight while he served on the Foundation's Sponsors' Board. "I truly appreciate the leadership and strategic view that Bernie brings to the whole FFA organization. He truly is a dedicated leader, and he did a wonderful job leading the organization."

Attracting the best and brightest ag students, Staller has positioned FFA as an integral part of agribusiness' human resource development chain. He recognized the FFA National Agricultural Career Show's enormous potential in affording personal contact between agribusiness and FFA members and their teachers during the national convention. Benefits abound for all. Students learn of numerous and diverse career opportunities within the food, fiber and natural resource industries. FFA advisors review new and emerging technologies for incorporation into the classroom. Industry has the chance to showcase their organizations before the resource base for its future employee searches.

"The National FFA Foundation helps corporations realize that by supporting FFA members, they nurture the future leaders and advocates of the food, fiber and natural resource industry," states Staller.

FFA showed Staller how to realize his potential many years ago; he went on to help students in turn see their own.

One former national FFA leader fondly recalls the debt she owes Staller. Peg Armstrong-Gustafson, 1977-78 national vice president (Central region), has remained in contact with Staller through the ensuing years. "Working with Bernie was absolutely wonderful," the Iowan recently remarked, citing "the importance of integrity.

"He always led by example by telling the truth and showing respect for others, and always doing the right thing."

Gustafson, who is in the commercial real estate business with her husband in the greater Des Moines area, credits Staller with her understanding of the fundraising profession and the nonprofit world. "Working with him prepared me for something 26 years later, when I headed up the Iowa State University Foundation. Being donor-centered was as applicable then as when he taught us back in 1977."

Staller taught her the value of humility. "He's always been there in service to others rather than himself. Bernie is an exceptional individual in his passion for youth and optimistically believing in the future. That has not wavered in the 30 years I've known him. He was, and is, a visionary."

Following a recent phone conversation with Staller, Gustafson was energized. "He is a professional marketer who understands product, service and the customer. That is rare. It is intuitive to him."

What will the future hold for FFA and the industry? It's a good question, answered best by noting that Bernie Staller's farsighted leadership ensures that the National FFA, America's premier youth leadership organization, sustains its goal of student success established more than 75 years ago.

"FFA has and will continue to change with the times," says Staller, "but it will not waver from its core focus of student success through agricultural education. The mechanism that sends 80,000 students to college each year is intact and getting stronger every year."

The future of FFA also hinges on the continued success of fundraising activities, which in turn depends on FFA program relevance, in Staller's opinion. "The agriculture business world wants students who are going to be highly qualified and capable, and of good character.

"Their relationship with FFA is partly philanthropic ... they know FFA is a good group and they want to give something back to agriculture and society. But a lot of corporate support of FFA goes a long way beyond that.

"It is really support to begin the pipeline that is going to put students into this industry. Ten years later, they'll come out as college graduates and be fully employable."

FFA enjoys clear advantages in the strong FFA corporate sponsorship base that Staller leaves behind. The National FFA Foundation Sponsors' Board, a 30-member panel of corporate executives who voluntarily devote time and effort to provide input to the FFA program and who raise a great deal of money remains integral to the organization.

"We spend a lot of time asking them what we need to do, about the issues we face and learning about the problems yet ahead," Staller remarks.

FFA will remain strong as long as it continues to listen to the industry, as it has for the past 60 years, Staller insists. "Naturally, we must do it in context with what's going on in the schools."

The competitive future of the American food, fiber and natural resources industries depends on top-quality human capital and effective communication, he added. "As long as we continue to expand everyone's appreciation that agriculture is global, and as a value-added supplier, FFA can build America's role in this industry."

He foresees more consolidation, specialty and value-added crops, including nutraceuticals, and a world population increasingly dependent on the science of agriculture and biotechnology to enhance their lives.

In 10 years, FFA membership will be fully 50 percent female, Staller predicts. Already, females make up more than half of agriculture college enrollment.

As for FFA at its 100-year mark, he sees a bigger, broader organization even more attuned and responsive to the needs of the agribusiness community, still producing outstanding, capable and highly qualified employees on their way to becoming leaders in a changing world. AM

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