The Big Read
Wilbur-Ellis CEO: ‘Our legacy gives us confidence in our ability to confront current challenges but also to exploit the opportunities'
Today, the company has 4,400 employees in North America and Asia-Pacific, with US$3bn in annual revenues. But its origins were humble. Founded in 1921 by Brayton Wilbur Sr. and two friends, the company began in a two-room office in San Francisco on California Street – the same street where its HQ is located today.
Since then, the company has developed into an international marketer, distributor and manufacturer of agricultural products, animal nutrients and specialty chemicals and ingredients.
Wilbur-Ellis has been family-owned since it was founded in 1921.
Buckley said that status that has been part and parcel of why the business has remain steadfast in its growth and continues to expand today.
“We have been successful for so long as a family run company. We are preparing for the fourth generation to begin to move into positions of authority either in the company or as active shareholders. We don’t see a need to change the status, we are able to operate and make the investments we want to make to continue to grow our business successfully as a private company. It is all working and, therefore, there is no pressure to change.
“The big challenge in publicly owned companies is the 90-day pressure, where everything builds up the earnings call, and a lot of public firms, after that earnings call or due to investor pressure, have to change course. So it is more difficult to really be thinking long term than it is at a private company.
“We certainly are rigorous in our approach to financial results and making sure we deliver because that will ensure we are in business for another 100 years but the timeframe can be different – we can decide to increase operational costs, with an expectation of a future payoff, and endure perhaps less good financial results while we are making those investments, and we can do so for a longer period of time than a public company can.
"So I believe the focus on the long-term while being rigorous in the short-term in relation to financial results is a great combination. That way of operating give us a huge advantage, and I think it is partly why we have been able to survive for 100 years, when only a very small percentage of companies do.”
Looking at a timeline of company milestones and US and global agriculture industry developments that Wilbur-Ellis has tracked for the anniversary, one event that really stands out is the commercial release of the first genetically modified soybean into the US market by Monsanto, back in 1996.
“That is a great milestone. It is pretty germane today as we talk about sustainability, regenerative agriculture and trying to minimize inputs in agricultural operations across the globe. Genetically modified [crop production] significantly decreased the amount of herbicides that were being used and consequently sold by companies like Wilbur-Ellis into the marketplace. It was truly transformative and I think opened up a world of possibilities and made it that much more important for our agronomists to understand not just chemistry but also biology, all the way down to the genetics. You had to become an even more complete advisor to your farmer customer that you were before,” said Buckley.
The CEO noted a number of other events and decisions taken in that 100-year timeline that were just as transformative for the business: “There was a lot of activity in fishmeal and the company was even working on Cannery Row and had brands of sardines but [in the 1950s] Wilbur-Ellis saw that the fishmeal business was moving to South America and it decided to do likewise, buying up lots of equipment in California and shifting it lock, stock and barrel to Peru, with the company becoming a leader in that marketplace. Then, in the early 1960s, the founder [Brayton Wilbur Sr], eying up what he thought were storm clouds on the horizon, decided to have the company pull out of the market despite its leadership position, and, within a year or two, we see that the Peruvian fishmeal industry was nationalized.
“So to have that history where big moves like that were made, to have that kind of pedigree and legacy gives us confidence in our ability to confront the current challenges but also to exploit the opportunities.”
What are those challenges?
“It is always a question of optimism and pessimism about how you confront things that are changing, and while we certainly have a dynamic marketplace, sustainability is a big theme today, looking at the impact of agriculture on climate change, the contribution of animal and crop production to CO2 in the atmosphere, those are quite significant challenges but also opportunities for our industry.
“We, as trusted advisors to our customers, can play a big role in that, continuing to help the sector, as livestock ranchers and farmers have always been good stewards of the environment, of their land, and the animals they work with. But I think [sustainability pressures] have really ramped up, in the past few years, both in terms of visibility and urgency, and we can support them in figuring out what technologies and practices can give them good yields, a good business and also have the biggest benefit for the economy.”
There has been increasing investment in AgTech, but only in the past few years, with venture investors coming into the sector, noted Buckley. The focus now is not only on the seed and the crops but also on fermentation technology and the manipulation of microbes, for example, to produce chemicals that can protect crops from pests and disease.
“We, of course, have our Cavallo Ventures investment arm to support such innovation.”
Federal monies can be supportive of what industry needs to try to do, for instance, in relation to the agriculture sector managing carbon output more aggressively or in relation to enabling research on different soil practices and how carbon can be best sequestered, said Buckley.
“A good combination would be the government creating and supporting the setting up of a functional marketplace that could value that work and that fundamental research, and I think then that the private market can leverage that very dynamic 'fail fast, fail often' Silicon Valley approach - what the venture companies are doing - to come up with solutions for those kinds of challenges.”
As part of its anniversary celebrations, June 29 will see the company launch a new Wilbur-Ellis Innovation Award for teams of university students, initially in the US, with US$25,000 as the top prize. The award is intended to generate creative, innovative approaches to feeding a growing world population.
“The prize is a tribute to the legacy of the company. Innovation has certainly been a part of our history; it has been in our DNA for a long time.”