19 Sep Owner Feature: Clay Houchin
Transparency, service ethic drive California retailer
Clay Houchin is the CEO of one of the last family-owned ag retailers in the San Joaquin Valley of California. The company that started out as a grain warehouse in Bakersfield, California, in 1963 is now Buttonwillow Warehouse Company, a full-service ag retailer with 12 locations stretching from Santa Maria northward to Chowchilla, the heart of the region’s diversified ag production.
Handling the reins of Buttonwillow — also an owner of Aligned Ag Distributors (AAD) — is in Houchin’s DNA; his grandfather started the company and father Don remains active in decision-making. Working with the region’s farmers is his family’s legacy, and that’s part of why he applies a strategy to his work that an increasingly small number of leaders like him do. He’s not afraid to get his hands dirty when his customers need him. In fact, he thrives on that kind of work and takes it as seriously as anything he does. It’s fundamental to how Buttonwillow serves its grower customers.
Buttonwillow Warehouse Company
“We’re one of the last family businesses in the retail crop protection arena. I’m third generation family member and I’m here every day, taking customer calls and visiting growers on their operations,” Houchin said. “I don’t subscribe to the belief that I should know what they want. The best thing I’ve learned is to ask them what they need, and if you’re lucky, they’ll be open and honest with you and you can start to form some trust and transparency in the relationship to make it long-term.”
‘You can never go wrong doing the right thing’
Houchin approaches his leadership at Buttonwillow with a clear mission. There are nuts-and-bolts agronomic issues that his customers need addressed. But there are also more business-wide expectations growers have for Buttonwillow as their ag retail partner. While the problem-solving process may vary and require assembling a different, unique team each time, Houchin stresses transparency every time he fields a customer phone call or steps into the field. It’s something he’s seen contribute to a productive workforce, too.
“You can never go wrong doing the right thing. When I engage with the customer, they view it with higher expectations because of my role here. So I don’t try to have all the answers immediately, but involve the right people from our team,” said Houchin, who’s officially worked at Buttonwillow for 21 years, time that was preceded by a decade of summer work as a youth. “I have to make sure that I’m consistent, always transparent and truthful. It’s not always going to be the answer a customer wants to hear, but at least they know I’m consistent and transparent. I want to always be a known commodity to our customers and provide them some stability. For farmers, there’s not much else that’s consistent other than the sun comes up every morning.”
Houchin applies a philosophy of service to and transparency with grower customers to a simple goal: “We want to make sure we’re on the acre and fulfilling our obligations to the grower with his or her best interest at heart,” Houchin said.
Sustaining his workforce
That philosophy also extends to the Buttonwillow workforce. In a time when labor is on just about every ag retailer’s short list of major challenges, Houchin has sharpened his focus on workforce development and training. He’s got two main objectives: sustain his workforce to meet short-term labor obligations and develop workers — and their loyalty — through formal training and onboarding programs that prepare them to contribute to the high bar he’s set for serving his grower customers.
“As I’ve gotten older, I have realized that training is paramount. Turnover is a killer in this business. For a long time, we weren’t doing our part to properly onboard and train people. I found out that I wasn’t really giving them the skills and training on the front end to effectively do their jobs,” Houchin said. “Seven years ago, we started the Buttonwillow training and onboarding program that lays out specific requirements and milestones for new employees. Buttonwillow pest control advisors (PCA) and certified crop advisors (CCA) must obtain their PCA or CCA licenses and complete internal training that well surpasses the requirements of those certifications.”
The rigorous three-year process has shown real results: before its implementation, the company saw only about one in three early-career crop advisors complete all necessary certifications. Today, around 70% of “level one” advisors reach that point and go on to lead agronomic service for Buttonwillow customers.
“The program is a visible vote of confidence in every Buttonwillow team member, and that often translates to worker loyalty and long-term employment and service to the company,” Houchin said. “It demonstrates our commitment to staying on the cutting edge in maintaining the highest level of service for our growers.”
Transparency moving forward
Moving forward, Houchin said he’ll continue to stress transparency and service in leading Buttonwillow. He’ll rely on AAD to help him navigate the uncertainty of the crop protection product marketplace and apply his focus on continuing to evolve Buttonwillow to maintain the highest level of service to his growers. He’ll rely on AAD to help him do more to service every acre.
“Aligned Ag Distributors has given me more time to focus less on negotiating and programs and more on my business,” he said. “It’s enabled me to focus on the business of doing business, talking with my customers and finding ways to meet their needs.”