27 Oct Owner Feature: Bob Willard
Mid-Atlantic ag retailer evolves, adapts to meet customer needs
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. The first half of the old proverb reached fruition just a few years ago for Bob Willard and his team at Willard Agri-Service in the form of broken product supply chains and difficulty maintaining a qualified, high-performance workforce. But he’s not about to let the second half come true.
That’s why Willard has led his team with a renewed sense of preparedness and evolving to keep ahead of sometimes uncertain supplies for key crop protection and nutrition products and the workforce to get those products where they need to go in the right times for his company’s grower customers in Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
“Our growers have evolved and adapted. So, we’ve evolved and adapted,” said Willard, who serves as President for the company alongside brother Billy who serves as CEO. Willard Agri-Service was founded in 1970 by the brothers’ father De, a Mid-Atlantic agriculture veteran with over 70 years of experience. “We have to be able to jump and react for our customers. They expect that from us, and we do everything we can to never let them down.”
For Willard, that means proactively managing people and product supplies, something that just about every ag retailer in the country would rank among his or her top challenge in the last two to three years. But he’s driven in that objective by a simple philosophy, one that isn’t always the most lucrative for his company but ensures his customers know they can depend on their retail partner.
“One of the rules I have is we can’t be out of anything. The work we do is highly seasonal, and sometimes everything happens in six or eight weeks, during which time we just can’t be down or out of product. We do everything we can to ensure we have what our customers need,” Willard said. “Our success rate with our workforce is high because we work with people who grew up around or on farms. Having the right people is essential to our success.”
Strategies to overcome product supply challenges
Willard employs a number of strategies to accomplish his company’s primary goal. It takes long-term planning, often thinking out months ahead of when he did just a few years ago, to ensure product availability. And even when planning further ahead, it’s not a silver bullet for his occasional crop protection product supply issues.
“Today, we lay out everything we need, look at all of our orders and think six months ahead of time. Even then, we’re sometimes scrambling to get what we need,” Willard said. “Our customers today are smart businesspeople and know their costs as well as they ever have, and when they call us, they expect us to have what they need. Sometimes that takes some unconventional thinking and action on our end.”
Employing different buying strategies
As an owner of Aligned Ag Distributors, Willard benefits from the business intelligence and buying power the group offers independent, regional ag retailers like his company. It’s helped enable him to deploy different buying strategies in securing products his customers need, even if it means stepping out of his company’s comfort zone, he’s able to stay true to his mission of always having what his customers need.
“We work within the Aligned Ag system to get everything we need, but sometimes we have to pivot and look to alternative suppliers. We’ve worked with suppliers as far away as Illinois and Iowa to get what we need,” Willard said. “Aligned Ag helps us get what we order, but sometimes we have to get creative together.”
Adapting to changing customer needs
Willard Agri-Service started out as a custom application and harvesting business. But now, custom application that Willard said was once 100% of the company’s business is now 38% of what it does for its customers. Normally, a farmer buying his or her own sprayer would mean the loss of application business. But Willard has led an effort to retain that business with Load N GO. It’s a logistics package that provides customers access to the company’s crop protection and nutrition facilities.
Load N GO has helped Willard’s team not just retain and grow business with existing and new customers, but also create new efficiency and productivity for grower partners.
“Load N GO took off better than we thought it would. It saves so much time and trouble in the field and they don’t have to measure and mix chemicals in the field,” Willard said. “It takes that work out of the hands of applicators by having everything premixed and ready for them to quickly load into their sprayers on the farm or in the field.”
Most importantly, Willard said Load N GO is a representation of his company’s commitment to evolving and adapting to continue to stay on the acre with every customer.
“It’s not the custom application business that we built the company on, but it’s a step we’ve taken to evolve alongside our growers as they evolve themselves,” he said. “In the old days, we wouldn’t have known how to continue working with a grower if he or she bought a sprayer. We’d just say goodbye. But these progressive growers want more control of their operations today, and we can provide that with Load N GO.”