Executive Spotlight: Beth Ford
Friday, October 8, 2021
In 2019, at 98 years old, Land O’Lakes, Inc. did something for the first time: shipped two tons of butter from California to Pennsylvania on a self-driving truck. Outfitted by an innovative startup partner, the technology-loaded truck completed the first coast-to-coast autonomous commercial freight trip ever.
That is one of many future-focused efforts for the Arden Hills, Minn.– based, member-owned cooperative. Heading into her fourth year as CEO, Beth Ford has a constant eye on what’s next for an organization that made $14 billion in sales last year. Her goal is for Land O’Lakes to position its farmers for success heading forward.
In a recent interview, Ford discussed the future on the farm, broadband access, and shared advice for college graduates entering the workforce.
Agricultural technology has transformed farms and farming. How are these innovations affecting how you plan for the future?
Farmers are the backbone of our business, and we know that digital and data–based tools can help with their decision-making. This makes them more profitable and enhances sustainable food production. The future of ag tech innovation is a priority within all our business units, particularly in our grower-focused businesses, WinField United and Truterra, we’re harnessing data to produce actionable insights and provide the ag-tech tools most helpful to our farmers.
Land O’Lakes and our partners, including organizations such as Microsoft, have long worked together in recognition that technology and agriculture are two industries that are inherently intertwined. We are now intensifying our efforts to pioneer cutting-edge solutions to ensure the longevity of our system, the industry, and our communities for years to come.
You’re vocal in your belief that increased broadband access is a critical step to address inequities and opportunities. Why is that and what actions are needed to make that happen?
The pandemic reiterated the critical need for adequate broadband access in both rural and urban communities. Never before has the impact of the digital divide been illustrated so intensely. From telehealth availability to kids trying to connect for school and farms trying to do business, the disparities have never been more evident.
At Land O’Lakes, we do business in all 50 states and the health and vitality of our communities is the foundation of who we are. Broadband enables health care access, education, operational resilience, and success. It allows us to better address critical challenges such as climate change and building economic opportunity, competitiveness, and prosperity.
Through the American Connection Project, we’re advocating for improved infrastructure and investment in communities across the country, especially when it comes to high-speed internet access. At the very beginning of the pandemic, we helped stand up more than 3,000 locations that provide free, public Wi-Fi. It’s a short-term solution, but one that—if even helping one family—makes all the difference. For the longer term, we launched the American Connection Project Policy Coalition, a group that has now grown to 165 diverse stakeholders advocating for broadband policy and federal investment, including the University of Minnesota.
And, the support of the U of M also helped us launch our newest pillar of the American Connection Project, the American Connection Corps. Partnering with 20 other forward-thinking organizations, the American Connection Corps is connecting 50 leaders across the country to their hometowns and empowering them to become a new class of community leaders, specifically focused on connectivity, including right here in Minnesota.
Much has been written about the urban/rural divide, here in Minnesota and in other parts of the country. Should everyone, no matter where you live, care about investments made in rural communities?
It’s so important to recognize our shared destiny as Americans. Whether you live in a big city or small town, the success of every community is a common bond that unites us. As one of the nation’s oldest cooperatives, Land O’Lakes knows that championing America’s farmers doesn’t stop at the farm but extends to the communities they call home.
Investment in rural America must be collaborative, as agriculture is part of the bedrock of our national economy and security. To accomplish this, we need leaders, public and private, to bring creative, forward-thinking solutions to bear to address these needs.
Land O’Lakes is a cooperative, not a publicly-traded company. How does that structure impact your decision-making?
As a co-op, we’re about working together, and our member-owners are at the heart of everything we do. We view our unique structure as an advantage, especially in uncertain times like the ones we’ve found ourselves in since the pandemic began. Our structure gives us a greater sense of stability compared to most other traditional business models and has sustained our success for 100 years.
And in the world of cooperatives, we’re unique, operating as both a marketing (dairy) and a supply (crop inputs, animal feed) cooperative.
To best represent those dynamics, our board is made up of a mix of dairy farmers, row crop and livestock producers, and the GM/CEOs of our ag retailers. But, regardless of their day jobs, Land O’Lakes corporate directors make decisions based on the best interest of the total enterprise, the full membership, and the communities they all call home.
What should graduates from the Carlson School and elsewhere know about entering the workforce today?
What skills are important for you and Land O’Lakes to see in tomorrow’s leaders? One of the most important skills for our future leaders is resiliency. Resilience is the trait that builds confidence and helps you cast aside self-doubt and try again. It’s the trait that teaches you how to be creative, innovative, agile, and persistent. In terms of leadership, I believe the hallmark of a great leader is when people feel as though you were more focused on their success than your own.
Five Career Tips
Find work you believe in.
Doing purpose-driven work is critically important. Passion for your field—and for your job—is contagious, and is the ultimate motivator for you and your team.
Network, network, network.
Make yourself well-known in your industry. The technical aspects of a job are important, but meeting people is equally important. Become a name synonymous with motivation: motivation to meet people, to learn from them, and to become a trusted industry source.
Ask for what you want.
My mother always told me to ask for what I wanted, because no one was going to read my mind. Always advocate for yourself and for your team.
Empower those around you.
Along with advocating for your team, empower them. This is perhaps the most important advice I can give. The people you’ve put in place to support your business are your most valuable assets. Your success is their success.
Get comfortable getting uncomfortable.
Embrace challenges and discomfort. I’ve learned much more from being uncomfortable than from being comfortable. Encourage your team to do the same.