Beth Ford, CEO of Land O'Lakes at the company's headquarters in Minnesota.
Ackerman + Gruber
June 21, 2020 6:50 AM EDT

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Land O’Lakes’s headquarters are a short drive from the Minneapolis neighborhood where George Floyd was killed by police, setting off global protests over racism in the United States. For the many Fortune 500 companies based in the Twin Cities, the tragedy exposed dramatic inequalities in a region that prides itself on its progressiveness. Beth Ford, the CEO of Land O’Lakes, had already been working to improve diversity at the $14 billion agribusiness and food company. In a symbolic gesture, in February, the company removed the Native American woman that had long served as its logo on its butter and cheese products.

In a recent interview Ford, 56, talked with TIME about how the company, a member-owned cooperative, and the Twin Cities corporate community need to address systemic racism in the area. She also discussed how the COVID crisis has exacerbated the “dire” need for internet connectivity in rural America, a surge in Land O’Lake’s chicken feed business, and a record demand for butter, thanks to baking taking off during quarantine.

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(This interview with Land O’Lakes CEO Beth Ford has been condensed and edited for clarity)

What is it like to lead an organization so close to that epicenter of the events that have set off a worldwide call to address systemic racism?

This has been painful, enlightening and painful. And very difficult. This is so present, right in our community. I live in the Twin Cities. Everybody has this kind of really great feeling about Minneapolis, but we know that there’s this disparity in outcomes. What’s it like? It’s emotional, it’s challenging, it is an opportunity for our team to engage differently, to listen to each other. And then to really say what will work, how can we be part of working through solutions to these issues.

What has been the reaction of the local business community?

I don’t know that we have engaged enough with the Black community. We have to listen to that leadership and then try to help change. We need to listen more as a community. We have multiple Fortune 500s here. [Including Target, 3M, General Mills, and others.] We’re known for this great education platform. We know we’ve had disparate outcomes. This is just unacceptable. And it’s not because there hasn’t been attempts, but we clearly have to do something different. It’s not working.

What have you done internally in recent weeks?

The reality is as a company, we’ve been trying to work on diversity issues, all of us [via] employee resource groups, our African ancestry group, Hispanic group, Asian, LGBTQ. We did listening sessions with our employees because I don’t know their journey, I don’t know what it must be like, that fear, the issues that they’ve had. And we need to hear that. And within our own four walls. Do you feel included? It’s one thing to say we have a diverse management team or diverse population, It’s another thing to say they feel inclusion, that they feel connected, that they feel listened to.

It is painful, it is very, very difficult.

Shifting to your business, where have you seen strengths?

The butter business has been unbelievable. We’re all at home, we’re eating and making and baking and cooking. And it has stayed elevated. In a normal season, Mother’s Day or Thanksgiving and Christmas are the times you have a surge in butter demand. We have some areas that it’s like 150-200% of normal.

How have you kept up with demand?

We’ve had to reduce our SKUs [stock-keeping units—different varieties.] I was saying to one of my brothers, ‘Jim we’re not doing cinnamon butter right now.’ We have to reduce to our core; stick butter, salted, unsalted, some of our spreads. And this is during what we call our flush period, the peak time where cows are most comfortable. It’s cool at night, they make the most milk, volumes are surging. Normally, we are making butter and storing it and freezing it for the peak that happens in November, December. We haven’t been able to store anything. We’re coming off the line going right into retail and having to allocate even with that.

How much butter will you sell this year?

280 million pounds. It will be by far the biggest record that we’ve set in butter. [The company recently revised its forecast to closer to 290 million pounds, saying the situation was fluid.]

What else is selling well?

Our Kozy Shack pudding business is doing very well. Our cheese, our snack products around cheese, because people are not only baking or cooking but also they’re into snacking.

I understand people are buying chickens or what you refer to as “backyard flocks.”

Everybody’s getting their own chickens. We got to a point where it was so much volume that we couldn’t even have the bags available for our chick feed.

Is it just chickens? Are people buying goats?

Well, I don’t know about the backyard for the goats.

You have a big business selling both seed and feed to farmers. Traditionally, that’s been done in person. How has that business been conducted during the stay at home period?

It’s such an important question because we have been talking for the last three or four years that agriculture in general was one of the last industries that had not been as disrupted by e-business, by online. For both seed and feed, it’s kind of been viewed as a belly-to-belly business. You have to be present at the farm gate. Now we’re all working from home. We have been investing for the last three years in e-business platforms. This moment has been an accelerant for this switch. There still will be a need and a desire for that farm gate touch—that conversation about your animal, your acre, your farm is really still important.

Farmers are often older. How has that impacted digital adaptation?

We’re still seeing an increase. It had been slower, this adaptation, and there was this belief that farmers weren’t there and weren’t supportive. But what we see in our research and certainly what we’ve seen now is a much greater willingness to leverage tools and technology. By the way, this is the way many of them are living their lives. They’re ordering things from Amazon for their families. So this is not new to them.

How concerned are you about lack of access to broadband in rural areas?

This should be considered like electricity and like mail delivery. This is the way we live our lives. Twenty-four million Americans lack access to broadband, nineteen million of those are in rural communities.

But more recently what we’ve found is that as you look at the mapping, it may be 42 million Americans that lack broadband and a significant amount are in rural communities. What you have is a lack of the basic infrastructure that supports a community.

This problem precedes the current moment?

In the past, before COVID, because there’s no access, do you know many of these communities were putting hot spots on school buses and parking them in their community? And then parents or kids would drive up next to the bus to try to get free Wi-Fi to be able to finish their work. Or there might be a Dairy Queen in town, or a gas station. And after school they take them there and that’s where they do their homework. This is simply unacceptable.

And COVID has made it worse?

This is a significant issue, and has been and right now this is the proof point of this challenge. We’re all working from home, schools shut down, kids are trying to access their education from their home. And at the same time, how do we make sure that there’s access to doctors in the COVID and pandemic situation when there’s no hospital and you have to drive two hours and you may or may not be able to see a doctor.

What were you doing before and after COVID to address this?

We’re pushing for federal investment of $150 billion dollars, which is what it will take to close this gap. It’s another thing when we have an urgent situation. What we will do is work through our local retailers and with our own sites in rural communities to turn on free Wi-Fi, partner with Microsoft to put boosters out there so that if you don’t have something that goes outside the building, you have that capability. Put parking spots where somebody can show up and use that free Wi-Fi for periods of time. We then partnered with the Mayo Clinic, the Cleveland Clinic, Health Partners, Center Care. We have multiple other partners in this initiative.

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This has been a brutal couple of years for farmers. How are they doing?

I think you have to be an optimist to be a farmer. It can be too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry. You have tariff issues, you have strong dollar issues. Now you have this COVID situation. You can be a brilliant farmer, brilliant, and you can still lose money. In 2017-18, the average income for a farmer was $43,000. The median was minus $1,500. They have been working for multiple years, not making money. And now we have this crisis. So what am I hearing? The farmers are so resilient. They’re out in the field, they’re farming. The dairy producers are producing their milk. They go at it every day.

Do we as a country pay enough attention to the condition of farmers?

This isn’t just a rural issue. This is the food supply for the nation. This is an American issue. The food supply is a pillar of our national security.

What was your childhood like?

I am from Sioux City, Iowa. I have a family of seven other siblings, I am right in the middle. We were very much a working class family. My father, who has since passed, was a truck driver and a used car salesman. And my mother, who is still with us, was a nurse. I started working at age 12 in the field, detasseling corn. I shared my room with my three sisters, shared a bed with one of my sisters, I got one drawer that was mine. I think that there’s a blessing to that. You understand the value of hard work. You start to work for what you need, and what you want. We were not unlike any other family in our neighborhood.

What was your first corporate job?

I was in the oil industry for ten years, worked for Mobil Oil on the tanker, the marketing and refining side. I worked the night shift, it was me and the dudes. I was not uncomfortable there. I came in from a working class family and I thought of them more like my father, my uncle, who were drivers. They’re raising families, you treat them with respect.

That’s a rough and tumble business.

I have millions of stories. I’ve had guns pulled on one of my drivers and my driver shot. I’ve had a tanker go over. I’ve had an oil spill. One funny thing was you go through oil spill response training, it was me and 25 men. One part of that is you go up in helicopters to try to figure out how you chart oil spills. And a guy says—we’re at the helicopter, he was like “I’m going to yell out your name, you’re going to yell out your weight.” I was like, “What? I’m going to write it down on a piece of paper for you, I’m going to give it to you, between you and me.” And so he types it in, I’m over his shoulder, he types in what I’ve got and he writes it in five pounds heavier. And I said “You’re five pounds heavier.” He said, “Every woman lies about her weight.” I said, “Not when it’s life or death, for God’s sake!”

You were a foreman in your early 20s. How do you command respect at such a young age?

First of all you have to have some level of humility where you say “I don’t understand, could you explain this to me?” The reality is that it’s about showing up as a consistent person, not being pushed around or not being inconsistent with the way that you judge good performance or poor performance. It’s about showing up as an authentic, consistent person.

What kind of behavior in the workplace won’t you tolerate?

I will not abide by someone who is nasty. This is a collaborative culture. Nasty—I’m not having it. I’ve had situations where the good performers, really top performers, were nasty. And I don’t tolerate it. They’re gone. It’s so bad for a culture. The reality is they cause more harm than good.

Anything else?

I’m not somebody’s Mom, so don’t come to me with “I am not getting along with Joe or Sally.” Absolutely not. I am uninterested. And if you do that, God help you. No, no, no. Be an adult for goodness sake.

 


FORD’S FAVORITES

BOOKS: Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Leadership in Turbulent Times. Churchill’s Memoirs. I like [Ulysses S.] Grant. They inform business leadership. And especially in this particular environment. And then you realize, we’ve been here before. I find this so helpful to remind yourself that these things have occurred in the past. We’ve moved past them.

APP: I have three teenage children. And so a lot of the things that are indispensable are scheduling apps for their schedule that I get to see. The other one that is more indispensable to me personally is the way that I tend to track my physical activity.

STRESS RELIEF/EXERCISE: I’m a very structured person, I get up at 5:00, I go down and work out at 5:30, quarter to 6. That is a stress reliever for me. I do some of my best thinking. And your physical fitness helps your cognitive ability and it helps you stay present. Recently I’ve been really working on boot camp, a half hour or more of full intense, high intensity. And then lifting weights for another fifteen or twenty minutes. I tend to do that a lot or run or row.

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