March 2008
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At AFC Annual Meeting: Speakers Share “Being Closer to the Customer” Theme

By  Alvin Benn

One of the best ways to continue profitable operations in business, including farming cooperatives in Alabama, is to get out of the office and check with customers on their turf.

That was one of several suggestions offered during the 71st annual meeting of the Alabama Farmers Cooperative in Auburn on Feb. 14.

Jim Erickson and Terry Barr touched on several subjects during their addresses, but the bottom lines were similar— don’t wait around for business to come through the door.

“I couldn’t agree more with the ‘being close to the customer’ aspect,” said Erickson, who spoke on “Board and Management Relationships.”

Erickson said research done by leading businesses in the United States showed the best companies found ways to maintain a solid relationship with those who keep their bottom lines in the black.

A few years ago, Erickson told the audience, United Airlines gave tickets to its top executives who were told to “go out and talk to your customers.”

Erickson praised the commercial, saying it not only helped promote air travel, but also pointed to an important aspect of profitability.

“Southwest Airlines is another good one when it comes to getting close to customers,” he said. “It’s one of the 100 best places to work for in the United States. It’s an excellent company that knows how to motivate their people with the variety of things they do.”

Motivation comes in many forms, Erickson said, and one involves trust between employer and employee.

“It’s a two-way street,” he said. “You can’t be trustworthy unless you are trusted.”

Erickson produced knowing expressions in the packed meeting room when he said something they all knew— Alabama Farming Cooperative customers are also investors so they have more than a passing interest in the profitability of their Co-ops.

He also said those who run farming cooperatives practice and appreciate “hands-on” management and “aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty.”

“You can’t know the needs of your customers without walking around and finding out who they are,” Erickson said.

He said communication between employer and employee is an “essential link” to business success regardless of size and scope.

“People tend to react bitterly to attacks on their self-esteem,” Erickson said, noting hiring good managers is one of the best ways to avoid that problem.

Terry Barr, chief economist for the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, spoke about the importance of the United States in the world’s marketplace.

“When the U.S. slows down, the rest of world does, too,” he said. “It’s important for us to stay strong.”

Mixing statistical data with down-home observations about the economy, Barr brought laughs when he described the difference between a recession and slow economic growth.

“Slow growth is when your neighbor loses his job,” Barr said. “A recession is when you lose your job.”

He said optimism is one way to avoid a recession because “we can talk ourselves into one if we’re not careful.”

Barr said large inventories represent one reason for the slowing economy in the U.S. and indicated it could be two years before the housing industry is able to bounce back from its current woes.

China currently accounts for about 85 percent of business growth in the world, Barr said, and U.S. farmers need to remember the crops they grow will always have a market somewhere.

“The world’s economy depends on this year’s crop,” he said, noting the shift to ethanol to help ease fuel problems is putting a strain on corn producers.

“We have great opportunities in that area, but the worst thing to happen is to have a poor yield,” said Barr who held several positions at the U.S. Department of Agriculture during his 14 years there.

Devastating droughts in the country, especially in the Southeast, have done little to inspire optimism in the U.S., but Barr said he has faith in the future and his audience seemed to share that faith when he finished his talk.

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.