Pictured Above: Kathryn Hesebeck (l) is the third generation of Johnson Tractor, a 4-store Case IH dealership based in Janesville, Wis. She discussed the challenges and advantages she faces as a woman in the ag industry and the transition of leadership between her generation and her father and uncle’s (dad, Eric, and uncle Leo Johnson) with Anne Salemo (r), CEO of Colorado-based Charter Software. Salemo took over the family software business from her father.

Anne Salemo, Owner & CEO, Charter Software

Kathryn Hesebeck, Salesperson, Johnson Tractor

Anne Salemo: What advantages do you have as a woman in sales? I’m curious from your perspective.

Kathryn Hesebeck: I do think there’s advantages. I have to remember equipment is one piece of the puzzle and our farm customers are seeing reps for fertilizer, seed, equipment, all these different areas. All of the other salespeople are men. Being a woman, they do sometimes give me an extra 5-10 seconds. They’re a little more intrigued about me being in the industry than the guys, but there are starting to be a lot of women in other aspects too. 

My grandpa was very much a gearhead technical guy and what’s transitioned from his generation to our generation is the emphasis on being a gearhead to more of the business side of things. When I come in and I’m presenting a piece of equipment, I don’t know all the nuts and bolts. I try to know what I can, but I am certainly not the expert. If a farmer asks my male colleagues a question about a technical specification, they may come up with an answer, whether it’s right or wrong. I’m too embarrassed to be wrong and can’t afford to be wrong. Because the minute I’m wrong, my credibility drops significantly. I have to bring in other people to help answer questions. 

Salemo: I’m a female business owner in this industry and 70% of our business is ag and construction equipment dealers, and there are very few women in this business. I have only met two dealer principal owners that were women in 30 years.

But what I found is exactly what you’ve said, which is they will remember a woman because they don’t have a lot of women calling on them. That definitely was an advantage for me. I can get into the discussion about how we can help them with their business faster than maybe a man could because the way men connect is through sports or through let’s say farming or through some other type of connection, golf or whatever. I found that as a woman in the industry, that actually is an advantage because I’m faster at getting to “OK, tell me about your business and where you’re struggling and is it possible that we might have something that would help you” as opposed to going through all of that. I can establish trust in a much more expert way, in a faster way, than a lot of men can.

Hesebeck: I had a company rep riding along with me, making customer calls and he was a product expert. We met with a farmer who I’ve been calling on for quite some time, so I certainly have a relationship with him and know where we’re at business wise. They got on the topic of football and they really got into it. When the other rep and I got back in my truck, he said, “You just got to talk football with this guy. Did you see how that just lit him up?” I certainly understand there’s a connection there, but that also took 15 minutes of talking about players and literally did not relate at all. 

When I make connections with customers on an side topic, I’m trying to learn about their family or other things that I can then relate to for future calls. It was just funny, he was like “You should start talking football with this guy.” No, I’d rather get to the point because the customer’s time is valuable too.

Salemo: There’s a level of trust there that can be created based upon what you would consider to be a long-term relationship. When you get a customer, you want to serve them for the long-term. The level of trust is not based upon football conversations. It’s based upon real conversations about how to help them with whatever it is that you’re doing. If they don’t have a problem to solve, then there really is no point of the conversation.

Another thing about women in the industry — it’s statistically proven that women are much better listeners and can help question the root of the problem. I don’t know if it’s because we were put on this earth to be mothers or what it is, but I feel like that is a core piece ... Because it’s true, in fact, at our monthly sales meeting yesterday, they were talking about how do you know the problem the dealer is telling you they’re having is really the core problem? We have one female on our sales team. All the rest are men and of course, she’s like “well, this is easy. You just ask them more questions.”

“The first generation establishes the business. The second generation grows it and the third generation has the opportunity to run it down the tubes ... I will not let this company run down the tubes…”

It was an interesting conversation because the director of sales knows exactly how to do it because he’s been around the block, but the two people who weren’t as seasoned, they weren’t sure what needed to be asked. Women tend to try to find the root of the problem and I honestly don’t know if it’s just because like I said, we were put on the earth to be mothers. But that’s what we do, we solve problems. 

Hesebeck: I don’t know about you, but I have to find the balance too. When I first entered the business, a lot of people asked, “What’s it like to be a woman?” I’m just another person in the industry. You are successful based on how much work you put into it, and if it takes me a little bit more effort and I have to study a little more on equipment just because it doesn’t come as naturally to me, that’s fine. But I’m going to do it because whatever I do, I want to be the best at it and I think that kind of comes down to your competitive nature.

A mentor of mine while I was interning at Case IH told me in family businesses, the first generation establishes the business. The second generation grows it and the third generation has the opportunity to run it down the tubes. I’ve kept that in the back of my mind because it’s become kind of a challenge. I will not let this company run down the tubes. My generation thinks differently and now we’re transitioning from my dad and uncle’s generation to me and my cousin Patrick’s [dealer principal Leo Johnson’s son]. My dad and uncle certainly grew the business from the single-store location to a 4-store complex now. I was in and out of the dealership my whole entire life and we’ve got a long-term employees who have been with us forever. A lot of them have seen me in diapers and so now, being at a point where I’m entering the business and eventually will transition into a management role and position, that’s where I have more challenges, more internally within our company than externally as a woman in sales. 

Salemo: That makes sense though. You almost have to be better at it, right?

Hesebeck: I have to 100% be better and know that of the salespeople, expectations are up here, not only personally but I’ve got to prove to myself and everyone else that I’m under fire more often. I need to be more aware of that.

Salemo: Do you think that’s a reflection of you being a woman or do you think that’s a reflection of you coming in to transition the business? Would it be that way if you were a man or do you think it’s harder?

Kathryn: I will be curious to see as Patrick comes back how it will be for him and to have that conversation with him because he’ll essentially be coming back similar to when I came to the business. He probably spent a few more summers here growing up working but he’ll be a man coming into the business. But I do think part of it is just being family and future leadership. 

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