Land O’Lakes CEO Beth Ford, from the cornfield to the C-suite

Now, as the first female CEO of Land O’Lakes — and the first openly gay female CEO in the Fortune 500 list of largest US companies — Ford remembers a conversation with her mother years ago that taught her that “while we may not have everything, we have enough, and given what we have, much was expected of us.”

“She said, ‘Do you understand what is expected of you? Do you understand how much you have? Don’t disappoint,’ and I was like, ‘I’ve gotta work hard to not disappoint,'” Ford says.

Ford has a vision for Land O’Lakes. She wants to transform people’s perceptions of the butter and cream company and refocus attention on the efforts it’s making in the ag-tech space.

“My vision is to continue to invest in technology,” she says. “You have to have agility. E-commerce and e-business and technology is disrupting all industries, including agriculture, and there’s an opportunity when you have an insight-driven, technology-focused company, as I believe Land O’ Lakes is.”

The future of Land O’Lakes

In July, the United States slapped tariffs on $34 billion worth of Chinese imports, a move China called the beginning of “the biggest trade war in economic history.” In response, China imposed tariffs on billions of dollars worth of US exports, including cotton, dairy and soybeans.

“Grain farmers, growers, and producers across the US are all affected by the uncertainty churning around trade negotiations and retaliatory tariffs,” Ford says. “Export market access is critical to these farmers and the agriculture industry and we’re seeing a slowdown due to uncertainty in the trade environment.”

Ford says she’s spoken with soybean farmers and others concerned with the tariff politics.

“What I would tell you is that our farmer members are supportive in understanding that the administration is trying to do something on intellectual property theft,” she says. “They want to make sure that they have appropriate trade agreements, and I think that they’re supportive.”

More than anything else, she says, these farmers need resolution and clarity — quickly.

“Time is critical,” she says. “So then what’s the most important thing the administration can do? They can move with speed and resolve these trade issues and resolve those tariff issues.”

Being a first

When the announcement about Ford’s promotion to CEO went out, the press release celebrated her achievements, but it made no special mention of an important “first” in Fortune 500 history.

With Ford’s promotion, she became the first openly gay female CEO to lead a Fortune 500 company.

In the months since, she’s heard from people about how much that “first” has meant to them.

“People have come up to me and said, ‘Thank you,'” she says. “And it’s not just the LGBTQ community, it is just people in their normal life saying, ‘Thank you for being your authentic self and encouraging others to do that.'”

Ford says she’s never faced discrimination in her career, but she’s definitely considered its potential impact on herself and her family.

“I had made deliberate decisions for some places where I felt as though it may not be as friendly,” she says. “I said, ‘The job looks great. You’re a wonderful leader. I can’t be here because I don’t think this will be great. My spouse is a woman, and I have a daughter.”

Thinking about the dwindling percentage of female CEOs in the Fortune 500, she says progress can’t be truly made until the overall number of women leaders increases — something that she sees as “a shared responsibility” for management teams and their talent development programs.

On that path to the C-suite, she calls back to an important lesson, yet again from her mother: “Beth, if you want something, ask for it.”

“You expect you’re going to be recognized because you’ve done the hard work, and that isn’t actually how it always happens,” Ford says.

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Land O’Lakes CEO Beth Ford explains why farmers need broadband

Good morning!

Ellen McGirt standing in for Alan Murray, who is still enjoying a well-deserved staycation. I’m not sure if he’s baking, however.

If not, he’s in the minority. As the pandemic shut down the retail restaurant business, it fired up home kitchens across the country, which became one of many sudden problems for Land O’Lakes, the $15 billion farmer-owned cooperative.

“What we normally do, is we make what we call advanced state butter. We manufacture it, and we put it aside for key season,” says Land O’Lakes CEO Beth Ford. “Key season for dairy is Christmas and Thanksgiving when we’re all home baking. Well, now everybody’s home baking.”

Alan and I caught up with Ford on this week’s episode of the Leadership Next podcast (Apple/Spotify), and she shared the kind of rapid innovation that became necessary for the business, and their more than 1,700 dairy farmers, to survive during the quarantine. The consumer piece was easier to fix—sell, don’t store, the butter. But the milk that typically went to restaurant markets had to be repurposed, fast. One of many ideas a new, internal skunkworks team came up with: a co-manufactured new mozzarella cheese product, packaged on behalf of the farmers, and available in grocery stores near them. “The agility of the team has been pretty phenomenal,” she says.

Ford talked about how technology is transforming the dairy industry—that conversation alone will change the way you think about how a farm actually operates. But she sees her job as CEO as inextricably linked with the need to create vital businesses in healthy, rural communities. One thing she knows will help is robust internet. For one thing, the kinds of innovation happening on family farms—from crop yield and animal health data to climate insights—don’t matter much if they don’t have broadband.

“Oftentimes I’ll go [visit a farm], and somebody will have this wonderful invention, their own data and analytics and everything. I say, that’s interesting, but we can’t use it because nobody has broadband out here,” she says. “So it’s not like, ‘my kid can’t stream Netflix.’ This is, ‘I can’t auto-steer the tractor and I can’t pull in this data.’”

But nothing else good happens without broadband, either. The pandemic has made a challenging life even more fraught. Businesses are struggling, kids can’t access virtual school, communities are increasingly food insecure, and entire communities have lost access to health care as rural hospitals have closed. “This is simply unacceptable,” she says. “It leaves us so uncompetitive, it’s unbelievable.”

Ford’s work includes an innovative alliance with Google, another with the Mayo Clinic and other health care providers, and she has shared her big vision for a wired-for-access heartland to every governor in the country, along with Congress, and the White House.

She says it’s part of her job. “We’re owned by farmers. I see their families all the time. We’re owned by local retailers. I see their families, and I’m in their communities all the time,” she says. “And while we put in time…I always say to my board, this isn’t about time. This is about being the conveners. It is awareness, advocacy, action—awareness, advocacy, action.”

More news below.

Ellen McGirt

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