Clint Schnoor — President, Agri-Service LLC
Years with Company/Industry: 8
Current Owners: The Terteling Co.
Major Line: AGCO
Shortlines: Kubota, Manitou, Land Pride, Patz, Stinger, Nikkel Iron Works, LMC, Ezee-On, Brandt
2013 Revenues: $120 million
"Prior to coming to Agri-Service, I worked in operations for a very large mortgage banking and real estate company for several years. The founder of Agri-Service, Cleve Buttars, is my father-in-law and we compared notes regularly as his company grew and the company I worked for also grew considerably. We always talked about the opportunity for me to come and work for him. In fact, he recruited me on several occasions and I told him no quite a few times because I was happy with what I was doing.
“Then, in late 2008, we got more serious about it. He was looking to bring somebody else in to assist in running what he had built into a very sizeable dealership at that point. I finally joined him in early 2009.
“My background has always been operations and large company management. In my former job, I was responsible for 4 states and had about 400 employees who reported to me.
“When I came to Agri-Service, I hadn’t been around this industry a whole lot. My dad worked for Northwest Farm Credit for a long time, so I had some insight into the ag industry and I grew up in an ag community, but had never been in the farm equipment business.
“I went through Spader Business Management’s Total Management course and some Jerkins aftermarket courses. They gave me a good perspective on the business and allowed me to network with other dealers out there and get to know people who are in similar roles as myself.
“The biggest thing I walked away from the course with was industry benchmarks. That was probably the best exposure I got.
“The course helped me understand the financial metrics of a typical equipment dealer and what’s being compared from dealer to dealer. That along with industry data from the Assn. of Equipment Manufacturers, Spader and Jerkins, has helped me compare our dealership with our peers and understand how well we do as an organization.”
“I started in the role of COO and really was able to work right along with the CEO during the first part of my career here. Some of the staff knew I was Cleve’s son-in-law, and that added to the skepticism of my employment with the dealership. I felt like I needed to earn the respect of the employees and the other managers and not just expect it. I went out of my way and made an honest effort to develop rapport with them.
“My advice is to immerse yourself in every part of the dealership that you possibly can. You’ve got to learn it, you’ve got to live it, you’ve got to breathe it…”
“I’ve always felt that when you come into a higher level position you need to prove yourself. In my opinion, you can come into it and be the know-it-all, or you can come in as somebody who wants to learn how the business runs. I’ve always found the latter to be the better option.
“I really wanted to learn from everybody in the organization, regardless of their job title, about how Agri-Service did business and how the ag equipment dealership functions. I found it incredibly important to really immerse myself in different roles. And that was my own choice. I wasn’t told to do that.
“I had additional responsibilities, but wanted to be able to understand how our dealership ran from selling parts at the parts counter or receiving inventory all the way through the service department and then working with the sales team to sell a piece of equipment and even in the finance department figuring out how we finance and settle the sale. It helped me develop rapport with the staff, and I feel like there was a better acceptance level and a better understanding of what I was there to do.”
Working Through the Process
“Probably the toughest thing for any owner or CEO in succession planning is deciding that you want to do it because it changes how it takes place. That’s got to be the first step. From there, succession planning should be a process. It’s not an event; if it’s an event it’s going to be detrimental. If it becomes a process, as it was for us, I think it works out very well. I don’t think you can successfully complete a succession plan unless it’s forced upon you in under 24 months to have it done really well. As for Cleve and I, we had the opportunity to work side-by-side for a long time and I had the opportunity to participate in whatever meetings he would allow me, and really that’s the key point of it.
“If you’re wanting to train your replacement, which is what you’re doing in succession planning, you should be immersing them in everything that you do. Then that individual can understand why certain choices are made and learn your management style. Which, even to this day, Cleve and I are very different in our management style, but at least we have a common understanding of what we’re both trying to do.
“We hadn’t fully changed titles during that 24-month timeframe, but Cleve had pretty much exited the normal day-to-day management of the business. From a structural standpoint, we went through two succession plans somewhat. We became an employee owned company at the beginning of 2010. From a financial standpoint, we did an exit financially for Cleve at that point. Then last October we went through the sale of the company, including buying out the employee stock ownership plan to the Terteling Co. At that point my role changed from COO, which meant I was pretty much handling all the day-to-day operations, to president of the company.”
Lessons from the Boss
“One of the best things Cleve did for me was giving me the opportunity to build relationships with our suppliers and making sure I was introduced to and had the right contacts at our manufacturers. When there was a conversation happening with one of them, Cleve made sure I was involved. It was the same with our banking relationship. I was involved in all conversations with outside vendors, whether it was our banker or accounting firm.
New Leadership Brings
Change in Approach
“It’s important to realize there are different ways to get to the same goal. You’ve got to be comfortable with that because it comes back to different leadership styles and how people accomplish things or process things,” says Clint Schnoor. “So when somebody was so used to one approach and then you change that approach for them, sometimes it’s difficult to deal with. If the result is exactly the same, it really doesn’t matter.
“Everyone involved needs to understand that people can be very different. Cleve and I are different in personality, different in style, different in likes and dislikes, so if the employees are used to how Cleve reacts to a situation, they have to relearn how I’m going to react to something.
“For example, from the personnel management side of things, Cleve is a guns-a-blazing very direct person sometimes and he’s reactionary. And for me, that’s not me at all. I am very much more process-oriented. I like to get the information, process it and then decide how I’m going to approach a situation instead of just immediately going ahead on with it. That’s very different between the two of us.
“He’s also very charismatic; he’s going to celebrate the high or a win with a lot of fanfare and he’s going to treat the negative the same way. As for me, if we win I’m happy but I’m not going to go dance in the street. And if something goes wrong I’m not going to go yell at anybody either.”
“He made sure I was working with the right people and then reinforcing to them what the plan was. He did a great job of that. I was always introduced as, ‘This is our COO, and he is my eventual replacement. This is who you’re going to be talking to in the future, so let’s forge those relationships.’
“From a day-to-day standpoint, he was very good about teaching me how he went through various processes. He’s an incredible salesman, so he taught me and mentored me in some of his techniques of how he sold and handled customer relations.
“Something I’ve learned from this experience is if you don’t know something, don’t be shy about asking or relying on the advice of other people in the organization. Take advantage of their talent and knowledge to learn what you need to know. Don’t just try and figure it out on your own. I think that is fairly good advice for anybody, but I know I found out the hard way. For some things I should have relied on some of the wonderful minds we have working for us and just asked for the information I needed.”
“Clearly defining each person’s role is absolutely essential, and it’s something we didn’t do well. Sometimes we would think a role had been passed on and we would end up stepping on each other’s toes a little bit. Along those lines, it’s also important to fully commit to succession. I think this is the hardest decision any person makes in their professional life, when they want to retire and how they want to do it. Some people decide too late and some people decide too early and this can present problems either way.
“If you are the person looking to retire, you need to move out of that role. I think it’s important that you really make the decision that you want to do it, otherwise you can run into problems down the road if you change your mind about retirement.”