by Peg Zenk
Strong customer focus - that's what attracted Blake Murnan to take a job with Agriliance after graduating from Iowa State University back in 1992. Now, after being with the company in various positions for almost 14 years, Murnan acknowledges that his employer's broader "people" focus is what's kept him there.
His story is a common one among Agriliance employees. Plenty of training and support, opportunities for advancement or job change, and a feeling that their contributions are valued, are common themes you hear. It's what draws top-notch people to the company and what keeps them there.
In Murnan's case, he was wooed to Agriliance's Inver Grove Heights, MN, offices just out of college to work on positioning AgriSource, the company's information management software, which provided local cooperatives with crop production and financial information, planning and technical agronomic support. An agronomy major, he had hopes of becoming an Agronomy Production Specialist (APS), but the company had no openings in the right geography for him at that time. They hired him anyway, and he worked with agronomists, while learning about valuable information technologies (IT).
He says four years at AgriSource zipped by, then he was given the opportunity to move into an APS position at Belle Plaine Coopera-tive, just southwest of the Twin Cities. "I felt like getting more field experience was critical for me at that point in my career," he recalls. "The next four years I spent working with customers at the cooperative level provided some of the best education and work experience I've had. The sales experience, learning to market myself, working with people, the product knowledge and agronomic experience I gained - it has all been so valuable to me in my subsequent positions."
Those other jobs included working on crop nutrient marketing, as a product specialist for AgriSolutions seed and grain treatments and micronutrients, and his current role in Agriliance Marketing Services, working with AgriMine, the company's sales and marketing analysis tool.
"In this position, I'm able to draw on so many of my past experiences - working with co-op customers and staff, knowing the products we're tracking, understanding sales and marketing strategies and making use of my knowledge of IT systems," he says. "Every step along my career path has been a valuable one because it hasn't just happened. It was part of my career plan, and my supervisors have always helped me to get where I wanted to go next."
That emphasis on personal growth, along with job performance, allows people at Agriliance to pursue career development more actively. Sherry Koch spent her first two years with Agriliance in temporary agronomy jobs until she found a good fit at the Dakota Ag cooperative in Mooreton, ND. Starting out as an APS, the communications major says she took advantage of all the training opportunities that she could in order to deepen her agronomy knowledge.
"During my 14 years as an APS, I took every class I could," she says. "I wasn't disappointed in them, either. We were always getting new and useful information and cutting-edge ideas."
Taking a sales and marketing course convinced her that she could excel in sales. So when the opportunity came up to manage a seed department, she jumped at the chance. "I was starting from zero, since seed sales were really non-existent at the co-op prior to this. But I knew there was a great opportunity for the co-op by expanding into seed, especially with all the technological changes the industry was going through at the time. I also saw it as a great chance for me to prove myself." Which she did, taking seed sales from nothing to nearly $1 million in six years.
That kind of performance and willingness to tackle big challenges recently landed her a promotion to Retail Sales Manager - a new position Agriliance and Croplan Genetics created last year to provide more customized sales and marketing support for cooperatives. "Covering a region that includes parts of North and South Dakota and Minnesota, I work with cooperative APSs to assess their sales performance and provide strategic support. If cooperatives need more help in this area, we can offer to do more sales coaching or even step in and function as sales manager for however long they need it."
Not every employee has the drive and personal motivation that Murnan and Koch have. But Agriliance has a proven record of finding more than their share of ambitious professionals. That's due largely to its well-organized, five-point recruiting program. Agriliance recruiters work year-round to find and connect with promising young job candidates as well as more seasoned ag professionals throughout the industry.
1. Campus visits. They conduct annual interviews on 36 college campuses for both full-time positions and summer internships.
2. Internships. "Our large internship program is a very effective way to expose college students to our organization and the opportunities it can offer them long-term, as well as provide them with great hands-on work experiences," says Jim Tiedke, director of retail sales and service for Agriliance and Croplan Genetics. "We try to get college students after their freshman and sophomore years into crop scouting with our APS staff. Juniors and seniors are often exposed to marketing by learning to make sales calls and are given the chance to earn a commission based on what they sell."
Following up with interns from year to year helps to get more repeat interns, he says. "We try to get them into our summer program early, then hopefully they'll be able to work two or three summers with us. If we like what we see, we'll also try to make them a job offer early - sometime before they have graduated."
3. Trainee positions. For those college graduates who have all the theoretical knowledge but may be lacking technical and practical experience, Agriliance offers three- to six-month trainee positions. "Helping to operate an Answer Plot and organize field days and training sessions or working at a local cooperative with a mentor in sales or agronomy is often just the kind of practical experience they need, before we can move them into a full-time position elsewhere," says Tiedke.
4. Web sites. Five company Web sites, along with one outside career-based site, provide the company with exposure and a necessary link with today's young job searchers. "We post all our positions on these sites and take resumes on them, as well. They've become a major recruiting tool for us in recent years," says Tiedke, "especially since younger candidates are used to using the Internet and are more comfortable with this format. We get a lot of leads this way."
5. Referrals. The company welcomes job candidate recommendations from current employees. If that person is hired, the employee who nominated them receives $500. "We know our current employees are a valuable resource in this process, and if they take the time to help us identify the right person for the job, it's worth something."
Their methods works. Since last September, Agriliance recruiters have filled 124 openings for positions as APSs, agronomy department managers, sales managers and product applicators. "We have a total of 540 people in our APS program, alone, and are now working to fill over 60 current openings," says Tiedke. "An important requirement that we have of the APS," Tiedke continues, "is that they must be, or be in the process of becoming, a Certified Crop Adviser (CCA)."
RULES OF RETENTION
Managers within Agriliance are constantly challenged to hire and retain the best people. This company mantra is supported by some practical management philosophies that not only encourage productivity but allow for employee growth and career development, as well.
• Never pass up a good hire. "When we see someone who is a good fit for our organization and has the skills and background we're looking for, we hire them, even if we don't have the perfect opening for them at the moment," says Tiedke.
Koch and Murnan are successful examples of this philosophy. They were hired as part of the Top Recruit program that placed them in temporary jobs until the right positions became available. Both started their Agriliance careers working with AgriSource.
• Provide plenty of training and support. "We have certain training programs that all our people need to attend throughout the year," says Tiedke. "But beyond that, we offer lots of supplemental training that our people say they want when they complete their career plans each year. That helps us to customize our training programs, and they vary from year to year."
A typical year's training menu will offer employees sessions on developing marketing strategies, improving personal sales skills, sales management, general people management, and specific technical agronomic subjects.
• Help plan a career path. Annual job reviews are combined with career planning for all Agriliance employees. "It's really important that employees feel they can talk to their supervisors about their career goals," says Tiedke. "We regularly ask our people 'Where do you want to go in your career and what do you need in order to get there?' Then we help them develop a plan, and make sure they get the kind of training they need."
• Promote from within, when possible. Keeping good employees challenged and rewarding their successes has meant Agriliance managers promote from within the company, whenever they can. "Mapping out career plans with our people certainly helps managers do this. No one likes to lose a good person, even to another department. But it's understood that keeping good people happy with their work, and keeping them in the system are what's most important.
"Even if there isn't always the immediate opportunity for promotion, there are a lot of other opportunities for growth," notes Tiedke. "Our organization offers more job diversity than most. People can move from field positions in agronomy to seed sales to product marketing - and many do."
• Try to accommodate personal needs. Retaining employees longer also means occasionally having to accommodate changes in their personal lives. Marriage and changing family obligations can alter career paths, and progressive companies are open to adjusting responsibilities or job scope rather than lose valuable people, says Tiedke. "Our industry diversity and geographic coverage help us keep people who might otherwise have to quit because they get married and need to be in a certain location, or have new families and need to reduce their travel time."
That was the case for Koch, recently, who decided that the demanding evening and weekend schedule of her APS work was becoming harder to balance with the time her growing family demanded. "I needed to be around more in the evenings and on weekends, and I felt comfortable talking with my supervisor about that a little over a year ago," she says. "When the new Retail Sales Manager position became available in my area, he made me aware of it and encouraged me to apply.
"I've always been encouraged to look to the future and plan my next job step," Koch says. "I have plenty of challenges to tackle in this new position, and know it will keep me busy for quite a few years, but I do think a little about what could come next. It's nice to know there are other opportunities for me within the organization. It helps keep me excited about my work." AM