March 8, 2021

As realities and plans changed without warning, ag businesses stayed focused on growth

By Mike Karst, Senior Partner

I don’t think there’s a single one of us who can say 2020 went according to plan. 

For Entira, the abrupt change in the nature of our client projects alone was a strong indicator of shifting priorities, as our work in 2020 took a much different turn than our outlook going into the year would have predicted.

When the world went into lockdown mode, planting season was almost underway in many regions of the United States. Ag retailers were scrambling to fulfill orders and get inputs to growers. Once the dust settled it became clear this new reality was here to stay awhile. Attention turned to revising plans—starting with how to get through the current season and followed by how to be better prepared for the future.

Despite the weird new circumstances, the goals for every ag company remained the same—to finish 2020 still standing on two feet and to continue the evolution of growing the business.

By the middle part of 2020, we found ourselves working with clients on new product launches and new market pursuits. And while this level of strategic planning is a core discipline of ours, it’s not what was on the radar coming out of the gate in 2020. We were geared up for internally focused projects and helping companies with such priorities as rightsizing their sales organization, implementing systems changes, and conducting focus groups with growers.

Instead, nearly 90 percent of our work in 2020 was centered on helping clients plan strategically for developing new businesses. Many were looking to make dramatic changes to their business plan.

Why this sudden shift to an external focus? Was it urgency around contingency planning? Was it the feelings of confinement from four walls all around? Was it desperation to take control of SOMETHING?

There could be many explanations, but I think the main reasons our clients had a sudden interest in long-range planning were simple: They finally could and they had no other choice.

Having Time to Think

This past year that felt off kilter in every sense of the word allowed for something that before was elusive and fleeting—time to plan.

Ag professionals did more long-term planning—the kind that normally gets pushed to the back burner when dealing with urgent fires to extinguish—because they finally had the time. Fewer hours and less energy spent on daily commutes and business travel allowed us to think beyond small, incremental changes and plan for more transformational growth.

Being more efficient with our time led to greater productivity, opening up bandwidth to concentrate on far-reaching problems and to think bigger on broad goals and initiatives needed to achieve them. For once, we were able to stop and focus on what mattered most.

Regaining a Sense of Control

Amid the uncertainty, chaos and confusion, ag businesses still faced great pressure to improve revenue. There were the reactionary moves to get a handle on the business—how to make grower calls, how to interact with wholesale and manufacturing reps, deciding whether to lock the doors or allow people in the buildings. Supply and logistics were a huge uncertainty, and retailers had to make plans for all the what ifs that could destroy the season. What happens if an applicator or a truck driver gets sick? What if we can’t get inventory from point A to B?

Those short-term contingency plans got everyone through the busy season, then attention was able to shift to what comes next. Entira, like many other trusted advisors in various capacities, spent a great deal of time coaching customers on working their plans and staying focused.

Outlining business development plans provided clients with a sense of control and prepared them for a highly unpredictable environment. When nobody knew what the coming days, weeks or months would bring, planning felt refreshing and gave people confidence they’d be ready for whatever was on the horizon.

Pivoting with Changing Realities

The word “pivot” was a recurring theme in our makeshift reality of 2020. The ability to be flexible and adapt without much notice was one of the most critical success factors in getting through the hardest times. The most agile companies reacted immediately to set employees up to work remotely and quickly implemented alternative solutions for serving customers in a socially distanced manner. Those who didn’t have systems already in place stumbled a little more. But they eventually figured it out, because they simply had to.

Overall, farmers fared pretty well in 2020, bolstered by stimulus payments that helped ease burdens and losses. As 2021 begins, Entira has a growing sense that farmers are much more willing to talk about new ways to grow their crops. I have to believe that the tough times forced the issue, and they want to learn about other options. Now’s the time to get those new solutions in front of growers.

One thing is certain, relationships mattered more than ever to get through hard times of 2020. Trusted partnerships with suppliers, vendors, and customers helped the transition to new modes of business operations more seamless. And these relationships will continue to be central to business planning.

Now, before you go thinking I have an unrealistic, rose-colored perspective on the events of last year, allow me to set the record straight: Despite the slower pace and “more time to think and plan,” 2020 was full of stinkers. I miss making connections in person. The lack of interaction was a big struggle for an industry largely built on personal relationships. While the improvised methods we used for connecting filled the need, they most certainly were not ideal. Constantly being on guard with safety, while good practice even when we’re not in a global health crisis, required a lot of planning ahead and created angst. And virtual meetings—while convenient, they are low frills and prone to technical difficulties, and just no match for the real thing.

It felt good to flip the calendar to 2021, and I’m optimistic about the future of our industry. Things are still evolving, and we have to keep working the plans to stay ahead of new challenges that will arise.

Looking ahead to 2021, what can we count on, and what will have the most significant impact on our planning and execution? Where will growers focus their resources, and how will new leadership, consumer trends and the continuation of the pandemic factor in? In upcoming issues we’ll continue sharing our outlook on what’s in store and what’s sure to be another notable year for the history books.

The effects of the pandemic are real and may continue to unfold in the months and years ahead. I would welcome the chance to visit with you about your experiences. If you’d like to discuss your situation and strategies for pushing through the pandemic (and its aftermath), please give me a call at 901.753.0470 or email mkarst@entira.net.