|Program Offers Intensive Education in Managing Large Farm Operations|
Many farmers and ranchers today manage operations rivaling or exceeding the scope and complexities faced by CEOs of non-agricultural businesses. Managing personnel, evaluating new market opportunities, adapting to changes in technology and the regulatory environment, setting priorities on the use of capital – these and a host of day-to-day issues demanding sound decision-making clamor for the producer’s time and attention.
Many of those looking for a way to get their arms around these and other challenges established The Executive Program for Agricultural Producers (TEPAP). Now into its third decade, TEPAP has more than 1,400 producer-participants on its alumni list.
The annual program is sponsored by the Farm Credit System, John Deere and DTN, and is administered by Texas AgriLIFE Extension and Texas A&M University.
TEPAP attendees spend a week in intensive classroom sessions with an A-list of prominent faculty members from universities and organizations specializing in a variety of management issues. Some of the faculty also own, manage or have a role in commercial farming and ranching operations.
But the program doesn’t end after any day’s final class. Instead, participants attend individual study and round-table discussion sessions with classmates – meetings that can last long into the evening. So while the program is held at a first-class location, the Barton Creek Resort & Spa in Texas hill country west of Austin, it’s not a "fun-and-games" exercise.
"The study is intensive and the days are long," said Dr. Danny Klinefelter, TEPAP’s director and an agricultural economist at Texas A&M. But at the end of the program, participants "will be better able to manage the issues facing complex farm and ranch business."
Comments from attendees support Klinefelter’s assessment.
"The objective and focus of the program are exactly what large producers need," said New York producer Dale Hemminger. "The opportunity to spend a solid week learning from and challenging the best in the industry was the most dynamic experience of my career."
For any who want an extra dose of TEPAP challenge, a second week-long unit is available for those who have completed the first. The units traditionally are held the same week, so attendance is spread over two different years. More than 80 percent of those who start the program finish both years.
According to Klinefelter, TEPAP participants have covered the spectrum of commodity producers, differentiated-product and niche-market operations, and qualified suppliers for coordinated-supply chains. They have represented a variety of business arrangements and have included everything from single-site farms and ranches to multi-county, multi-state and even multi-national enterprises.
However, nearly all have been closely held family and owner-managed operations. About 10 of each course’s participants are women.
Klinefelter doesn’t claim the program is for everyone or that it will meet everybody’s expectations. However, he readily spells out what TEPAP is designed to do, citing the seven principles around which it is built:
• The only truly sustainable competitive advantage is the ability to learn and adapt faster than your competition.
• Strategic management is the ability to anticipate, adapt to, drive and capitalize on change.
• The best organizations spend as much time analyzing what they need to stop doing as they do evaluating new opportunities.
• The most successful businesses are learning organizations. This means everyone in the business needs to recognize someone, somewhere has a better idea or way of doing things. Accordingly, savvy operators need to feel compelled to find that better alternative, learn it, adapt it and continually improve on it.
• When the rate of change inside an organization becomes slower than the rate of change outside, its end is in sight. The only question is when.
• The main difference between the top 10 percent and the rest of the top 25 percent is their timing, in terms of when to enter, expand, cut back or exit a business activity.
• The future will always belong to those who see the possibilities before they become obvious to the typical producer.
Klinefelter practices what the program’s principles preach by holding a debriefing session with participants at the end of each week-long unit.
"Rather than reacting to a few strong negative or positive comments, I want a consensus opinion of what feedback I need to give the faculty, which faculty members or topics need to be changed, and what topics that aren’t included need to be added," he explained.
"Continuous improvement in the program is just as important as it is in (each participant’s) business," he noted.
Regardless of how good the faculty is, Klinefelter believes participants learn as much from each other as they do from the instructors.
"Every year I talk to participants who have been thinking about doing something (new or different) for years, but family, friends or neighbors have convinced them it was too high-risk or had been tried and didn’t work. Then, they meet someone at the program who already is doing it," he observed.
One of the interesting follow-up steps taken by program graduates has been the formation of peer-advisory groups. They meet periodically to use other members as sounding boards, to challenge each other’s thinking and to broaden perspectives. Some program alumni have formed business alliances or service bureaus allowing them to achieve greater economies and employ expertise that might be too costly for a single operation.
TEPAP graduates also have formed the Association of Agricultural Production Executives (AAPEX), which holds a three-day annual conference at different locations throughout the nation. The yearly meetings are designed to provide continuing education and networking opportunities for program alumni.
The program isn’t cheap (the 2011 fee of $4,000 per unit included all meals, lodging, program materials and transportation between the Austin airport and the meeting site), but Klinefelter believes the cost is low relative to comparable business school executive education programs.