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LOOKING AHEAD: For Wilbur-Ellis, change is a constant. The new CEO John Buckley will offer a fresh perspective on the business with an eye toward the future.

Leadership change brings new perspective to Wilbur-Ellis

John Thacher, the outgoing head of the major ag retailer, discusses his move into the chairmanship role.

Changing leadership at a company can bring new direction and opportunity. Wilbur-Ellis, a diversified international firm with a strong ag portfolio, recently had a change at the top as John Thacher moves from his role as CEO into the executive chairman position. The company went outside its ranks to bring in a new CEO — John Buckley — most recently with France's Air Liquide, but he's got an ag pedigree too, with time spent at Rohm & Haas Co. and Dow Chemical.

Farm Progress talked with Thacher as he makes the move into his new role after 12 years as CEO to discuss this change and what it means for the company, and its customers.

"We're in an iterative process right now," Thacher says. "Clearly the CEO is responsible for the operation of the business and that has to have clear accountability; where the chairman adds value — especially one actively involved in the company like myself — is on a strategic level."


NEW ROLE: John Thacher, executive chairman, Wilbur-Ellis, moves into that role after nearly 12 years as CEO. John Buckley is moving into the role of CEO for the diversified firm.

Wilbur-Ellis has three major businesses — making, marketing and distributing agricultural inputs; making, marketing and distributing animal feed nutrients; and a specialty chemicals and ingredients business that mainly operates internationally and provides unique products and solutions to its customers. Founded in 1921, ag remains a big part of what Wilbur-Ellis does and it has retail outlets across the country.

Buckley will bring a new perspective to his role as CEO, Thacher says. He will work with all divisions to help them achieve their key objectives. Where Thacher says he comes in is in the ability to help steward new ideas for the company.

"With our three primary businesses, we want to think about trends that we're seeing in the market and determine the strategic approach," Thacher says. Just back from a 10-day swing through Asia, Thacher saw new opportunities at the company, but Wilbur-Ellis doesn’t just leap at every new idea that comes along.

"We have a methodical process where we arrive at specific actions, and I'm a proponent of this," he says. "We want to have strong leadership and look at opportunities intellectually and analytically. We have subject matter experts inside the business and the CE0 provides additional support for those initiatives."

Thacher says that for any company, the key challenge is allocating capital to support different initiatives. With its three-business approach, there will be multiple opportunities to invest in the future. A key area of focus will be at retail. This is where farmer-buyers may be looking at new distribution models, ordering online and seeking other sources.

Customer connection
Wilbur-Ellis looks forward to the challenge of continuing to add value to its customers as the landscape changes. Thacher has been down that road having lived through the supercharged ag markets in the first decade of the new century. “Wilbur-Ellis has significantly restructured its businesses to better position itself,” he says. “We are building out competencies and we are continuing to develop and invest in our businesses.”

Another part of the future is thinking downstream about the business and how technology could have an impact. Thacher points to gene editing and how that may have an impact on retail. "We're looking at the technology, the skillsets that are required, and what we may have to learn, and then frame it up in our businesses," he says. "Being highly efficient is becoming table-stakes in our business, while new technologies like gene editing will likely produce a new set of impacts. There will be a tremendous amount of information to sort out in the future, and we look forward to aggregating this and then developing superior solutions for our customers.”

As part of its role to keep connected to technology, the company also has a venture capital business — Cavallo Ventures, Inc., which invests primarily in ag tech too. Most recently it bought stakes or outright ownership in several companies including ACG. ACG is a Minnesota company that has developed innovative ways to track different parts of a farm operation from equipment to contractors to harvest and scale management.

This is a fast-moving business and Wilbur-Ellis is positioning itself for the future. As Thacher moves on to the role of executive chairman his work is not finished, though his role will evolve. For Buckley, a fresh set of eyes on this diversified business will be in order for this market. Farm Progress will talk with Buckley after he's settled into the role for a few months.

To learn more about Wilbur-Ellis visit wilburellis.com.

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