Pictured Above: (Left to right) Rob Schmidt, Chief Operating Officer, TruAcre Technology, Muscatine, Iowa  – Tom Rosztoczy, President/CEO, Stotz Equipment, Avondale, Ariz. – Kevin Hemmelgarn, Store Manager, Apple Farm Service, Botkins, Ohio

What traits or qualities make a strong leader? The answer to that question is as different as the number of people you ask. By and large, leadership comes down to behaviors, including acting with integrity, having a visionary outlook and making choices to direct an organization, cause or group.

During the 2020 Precision Farming Dealer Summit in St. Louis, in January, a panel of precision executives, managing different sized organizations with diverse ag tech objectives, discussed what it takes to manage a precision business and how they lead their employees to success. The panel included:

  • Kevin Hemmelgarn, Store Manager, Apple Farm Service, Botkins, Ohio
  • Tom Rosztoczy, President/CEO, Stotz Equipment, Avondale, Ariz. 
  • Rob Schmidt, Chief Operating Officer, TruAcre Technology, Muscatine, Iowa

Moderated by George Russell, co-founder of the Machinery Advisers Consortium, the discussion covered putting employees on a path to success, positioning a precision business for growth and effective management strategies to increase productivity.

George Russell: There are 3 phases of precision farming on the dealership level — machine efficiency, data collection and agronomic services. Which phase is your dealership in and are you thinking about moving to a different stage?

Kevin Hemmelgarn: “We’ve always been into the service and precision end of things. We knew the direction ag was going —  customers wanting data collection. The kind of advice that comes with things we wouldn’t be able to provide at Apple Farm Service without adding an additional employee, which would be an agronomist. Those are hard to find. 

“Anybody who’s customer-facing will get training from the precision department on the sales end of things to sell things the way they need it sold…” – Kevin Hemmelgarn, Apple Farm Service

“We opted to go a faster route by outsourcing that portion to Farmers Edge, working as a partner with them and our customers, the farmers, to gather that information and get that missing link.”

Tom Rosztoczy: “Stotz Equipment has 25 John Deere dealerships in the Mountain West. When we first started our journey with precision, I went to a meeting with John Deere and they told us we should be thinking in terms of selling solutions instead of selling products. My leadership team totally bought into the idea, but we didn’t know what those solutions were. 

“We visited several of our best customers and asked them long-term, strategic questions about their business. One question was, ‘My business will be successful 5 years from now if — fill in the blank.’ The consistent feedback on that question was ‘I’m going to be successful 5 years from now if I can figure out how to make this technology benefit my operation and control my expenses.’ 

“We set about trying to develop solutions to solve those problems for our customers. We’re trying to help our farm customers be more precise in everything they do, not just one area.”

Rob Schmidt: “We sell shortline products, so we’re out selling service and support. We’re trying to support everything in the cab. We call ourselves colorblind, so we’re out there trying to offer service on any brand of equipment. We’ve found a niche in the planter market, so we’ve tried to become planter experts and make sure that planter is set up and working properly pre-season and going all year long. 

“We help farmers make sure the precision data they’re receiving helps make them better. We’ve also partnered with a crop insurance company to take data out of the cab and put it into a usable format that goes to the crop insurance carrier so their agents can autofill their acreage reports. That’s been pretty unique. We’ve been bringing on some others to be able to do true farm agronomic consulting on the ground.”

Russell: What is the business model for precision farming in your dealership? Is precision farming a separate department or a different model?

Hemmelgarn: “We used to run all of our precision through the service department. It was standalone and a lot of the service technicians were trained on precision on top of their regular jobs. We’ve added an additional precision technician and melded that into one department to be our own standalone precision department. 

“We’re working on training — using that department to train the rest of the crew. Anybody that’s customer-facing will get training from the precision department on the sales end of things to sell things the way they need it sold. Our precision guys have their own thoughts — besides the direction we get from Case IH and New Holland — on what they want to see sold because it’s easier for them to work on. Service and parts guys are being trained on what equipment should be sold, why and how to actually do some basic troubleshooting that they get phone calls for. 

“The sales department is being trained on field starts and how to do basic troubleshooting and what to sell because those are going to be their 3 functions. Our service techs are learning a little bit of the sales portion because they’re going to be asked some basic sales questions. And then they can help sell additional services while they’re out there interacting with the customer, leaving the precision technician to only have to deal with the high-end triage and more troubling problems.”

Rosztoczy: “We started with it being a separate department. I think because we were told it was supposed to be a separate department. That’s how Deere wanted it to be run and I think Deere’s motivation was to be able to track revenues and expenses as a separate department. It didn’t really work very well for us. 

“We are thrilled as a company with the opportunity to bring in a lot of bright, talented young people into our company in the precision department and then have them move up as their capabilities make possible…” – Tom Rosztoczy, Stotz Equipment

“We’re geographically spread out, so the guy running the precision ag department is far away from all the folks that work for him. It worked well from an accounting perspective, but it was difficult to manage the people. The other problem was that the precision folks in each store end up not really connected to their store, they were sort of in their own world. We’ve changed it today, so the precision folks in each store actually report to the service manager, just because it makes it easier for billing out time and
time accountability. 

“We have an overall precision manager for the company who sets direction and leads them, even though he’s not their direct manager. And he actually reports to our corporate sales manager, so that gets precision tied into the sales department as well. Each store has a leadership team and we like at least one person from the precision team to be on that leadership team, so they’re connected with all that’s going out of the store as well. The precision ag manager pulls his team together multiple times a year to do training. At the store level, the precision guy is training his teammates on precision farming.”

Schmidt: “We’re definitely a different organization because all we do is technology. If you’re not interested in the technology side, then it’s probably not a fit. But some of the things we ran into is trying to figure out how really good service people can go sell. We were trying to use those service techs and putting a lot of pressure on them to acquire new business, new territory, and realized that really wasn’t working for us. 

“We had been watching the model for about 6 months and then in the summer of 2019, pulled the plug and said we’re going to go do a service and sales model. Now we have a salesperson with 2 or 3 techs in a territory working with them. We still want the salespeople to do troubleshooting, being able to handle their way around the monitor, but we don’t expect them to be out doing all the installs, hydraulic hoses and putting down force on a planter. 

“We do want them to be able to help in-season, whether it be phone support or to jump in a cab. We learned that we had really good service people and they’re good at calling on and selling to the people who are already their customers, but they’re not very good at taking on cold calls and new territory. That was causing a whole lot of undue stress. So, we changed that model and it looks like it’s going to work well. Everybody seems to be embracing their new roles and we like what that’s doing because it makes sense.”

Russell: How have you created change in your dealership and communicated that mission to make sure you get buy-in from all your employees?

Hemmelgarn: “We’ve been taking the precision technicians and training each individual to grow and drive the business through the sales end of things. That was an easy sell to partner up each salesperson to take a precision technician out with them on their sales calls throughout the year. Introducing them to the customer, getting them used to interacting with them, and what they’ve noticed was they’re getting more sales because the precision technician knows what he’s talking about. 

“It’s starting to click in their head that this is the direction it’s going. You have to know what you’re talking about to get the buy-in from the farmer that this tractor with all this technology — we’ll be able to support it. The parts counter is a little bit different. The value in selling parts and learning about the troubleshooting, we’ve had to push and say this is part of your job, we’re going to go all-in on precision and farming is going to be computer driven. You’re going to have to know this as part of your parts department, where you used to look it up on the parts diagram, now it’s all intertwined. 

“That’s something the parts department has to learn. Obviously, we can drive that and measure it through parts sales. All the precision parts that they sell are tracked and we’re able to actually follow through on that. I’ve got two parts counter employees who were already trained up on precision. The other two have never had to touch it and they were able to always push it off to somebody else. Now that we’re starting to train those two, they know how to look up different harnesses and they’re learning to see what equipment works with what. They’re getting the buy-in, but they had no choice.”

Rosztoczy: “If we assume for a moment that we already know where we want to go, we know what the change is, we’re not talking about how we decided what the change is. Then it just becomes a question of where are you spending your time and energy as the leader? 

“If your time and energy is focused on talking about this is where we’re going, in my mind, that’s how you do it. When it comes to precision ag specifically, we started with a couple stores because it was new and so we were just kind of feeling our way through it, but as we saw what we thought the potential was, this really could be something significant for us. 

“It’s partly talking about it, and sharing success stories. For those who aren’t buying-in, I’m telling them every time you have a big win, that shows the value. And for the laggards, sometimes it comes down to me making a regular phone call saying, ‘Hey, how are you doing on this,’ until they’re tired of hearing me waiting for the phone to ring and they take care of it.”

Schmidt: “I came into a little different situation. I became CEO just over a year ago and I’d been leading in a different part of the company. We were having inventory issues, billing issues and things we really had to try to fix. So that’s where we started, and did a horrible job of casting the vision and letting people know what we were doing. 

“We’re letting them [the employees] have a voice instead of just trying to solve it. So that’s been huge for us…” – Rob Schmidt, TruAcre Technology

“About 6 months in, we could see some turmoil. We lost one employee and all of a sudden, we realized we were losing team engagement. We had spent so much time focusing on processes, fixing and providing solutions that we sort of forgot about the people. We completely changed our meeting structure, admitted we screwed up and we need to get you more involved. 

“It used to be a lot of reporting back, and we still do that, but we’ve changed so we were keeping them to an hour. We’ve now gotten them to the point where we’re doing 90 minute meetings once a week. I’m having employees score the meetings at the end. My goal for the fourth quarter of 2019 was to get them to rate all the meetings at a 9 or higher, which we were able to do by December, where before they were hating them. 

“In fact, if I see something coming that we need to fix I say, ‘Let’s make sure we bring it up as an issue at the meeting.’ That’s really helped them feel like they’re part of the solution now instead of us going here it is. I don’t even try to spend any time on solving it now. I always wait and bring it to them. We’re letting employees have a voice instead of just trying to solve it.” 

Russell: What leadership advice do you have for dealers who are just getting into the precision business?

Rosztoczy: “I had the good fortune that I didn’t start from zero. Our business is a family business; I’m the third generation, so I stepped into a business that was already pretty decent size. I have been involved a little bit with an ag tech startup and I can tell you from that perspective, my view of the people in the world like Bill Gates or Michael Dell or Mark Zuckerberg that have taken something from zero and built it into something massive, it’s mind boggling what those guys have done. 

“The ability to go from being a one or two-man deal to being able to manage 100 people, I mean that’s huge. To be able to manage 1,000 people, to be able to manage thousands of people, it blows my mind, I can’t imagine how they do it. 

“My advice would be just do it one person and step at a time, that’s all you can do. Don’t get ahead, just keep doing it one or two people at a time. The challenge that I faced as we’ve grown is every time we’ve grown as a company, I had to figure out how to grow as a leader of the company. When I started, we had 3 stores and adding number 4 was a huge challenge for me. 

We added 3 more stores a couple years ago, that’s a huge challenge and every time, I have to readjust how I think about my job and responsibilities. But it’s a lot easier to go from 3, 4 or 5 employees than to go 3, 20 or 80. So I guess that would be my advice, just go 3, 4, 5. Just be aware that as you grow, you’ll find that some of the people who you’re close with and do a great job for you can’t keep up, and it’s a very difficult, painful part of the process. 

“You’ll find that this person who’s been really good at his job up until now, it’s just not working anymore, and you’ve got to be prepared for that. Not everybody can grow as the company grows. You have to be self-aware enough of your own capacity that you grow as the company grows, and if not, what are you adding to the company to support yourself.”

Schmidt: “Make sure you know what your strengths and weaknesses are, and make sure you’ve figured out if you can overcome those weaknesses or if you need somebody else to come alongside to take those on. Maybe you’re really good at vision and driving, but you better have some guys with some brakes alongside to help make sure that you don’t go off the cliff. Make sure that where you’re going is actually going to be successful. 

“If you’re more detailed and really good at making sure processes and everything is in place, have somebody with vision and drive alongside of you, because details are going to move quite a bit slower. Maybe it’s bringing a consultant on that can help you determine that, too. But it’s trying to make sure you have that team in place that can help you determine where you’re going.”

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