07 Dec Owner Feature: Ian McGregor
From sheep to crop protection: A story of constant evolution
Ian McGregor’s ancestors were part of the westward expansion of the U.S. in the 19th century, though their eventual entry into agriculture didn’t go as originally planned.
Once sheepherders in the rolling hills of the Palouse region in the Pacific Northwest, the family eventually found their way into crop production and the crop input business by the middle of the 20th century. Given his family’s history, it’s natural that McGregor, now president of The McGregor Company, takes an entrepreneurial, innovative view in managing the 140-year-old independent ag retailer based in Colfax, Washington.
“When four McGregor brothers emigrated here from Scotland, they didn’t have any money and there was a lot of empty grazing land. They started out working for sheepherders who didn’t have much money but could pay them with lambs. They gradually acquired open-range grazing land that way,” McGregor said. “During the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, they had the option to buy land and as family lore would have it, settled on the courthouse steps to acquire land for 25 cents to $1.25/acre at a time. They thought that was horribly overpriced.”
The McGregor Company
The McGregor family was among the first in Pacific Northwest agriculture to introduce fertilizer to increase crop yield potential. Ian’s grandfather Sherman created the crop input business for The McGregor Company around mid-century and partnered with a local university researcher who’d “had his funding cut because of his audacious theory that we needed to use fertilizer to replace some nutrients in the soil.” The family added a ranching general store in 1949, and the new ventures would fuel gradual growth over the decades that followed. Today, there are 35 McGregor locations in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.
“Our quest is to make sure we provide relevant service to customers and meeting them where they want to be met,” said McGregor, who added the company also operates ancillary businesses in the trucking and ag technology sectors. “It’s been a constant evolution for our business from range sheep to crop production, then crop inputs, research and digital technology. But we’re always focusing on making sure no matter how we grow and diversify, we are always meeting our customers’ needs. It’s a constant challenge to remain relevant to our customer.”
Balancing scale and service
McGregor works to guide his family’s generations-old ag retail business with a focus on balance. Size is important in today’s ag retail sector, but so too is service. And those can sometimes be mutually exclusive; with larger size comes dwindling service, while retailers of smaller size can maintain service but sometimes lose out on the benefits of increased scale. His goal is to walk the fine line between the two — size and personal service — in providing the best possible service to customers.
“There’s a spring wheat field a couple hundred feet from my office window. We know our customers, value the connection we have with them and make a concerted effort to understand their challenges, what’s relevant to them and how we can work best with them,” McGregor said. “We feel like we’re the right size to be successful in being close enough to the farm level to listen intently, but have the scale and size to provide our diverse customer base what it needs.”
Specifically, McGregor has invested 25 replicated sites on a 330-acre research farm dedicated to agronomic research on new products and practices like micronutrients and interseeding. And McGregor sees his company’s ownership of Aligned Ag Distributors contributing to his ability to deliver what products his customers need.
“Our feeling is we want to deliver something new to the customer and truly be that trusted advisor. The research farm enables us to bring growers something we’ve proven that works and is relevant to their operations,” McGregor said. “Aligned Ag helps us make sure we are putting our growers in competitive positions with high-tough, high-service partnerships.”
Following the right evolutionary path
Managing a 140-year-old company — the 6th oldest incorporated business in the state of Washington — isn’t always easy for McGregor. He’s got a long heritage to uphold, and he’s also responsible for guiding the company forward. It takes a respect for the tenets of service to agriculture on which the company was built, but with an eye on the future.
“My passion is making sure that even though we’re a 140-year-old company, we have to constantly evolve our business to make sure we’re able to serve customers the way they need served. It’s a constant battle to stay relevant to the customer,” McGregor said. “We try to be deliberate with the services we deliver to our customers and make sure we maintain our team with folks deeply rooted in our communities and humble enough to listen to what our customers need.”
McGregor’s ownership in Aligned Ag Distributors has become an increasingly important part of maintaining the right balance between size and service, as well as between innovation and meeting customers’ needs. As growers in the Pacific Northwest consolidate and grow, their needs change. Through Aligned Ag, he said he’s equipped to continue meeting those needs through buying power and market intelligence.
“Aligned Ag helps us fundamentally put our customers in positions to be competitive,” McGregor said. “It enables us to maintain ourselves as independent, regionally focused businesses with the scale our customers need, but with the attention only we can provide them. Aligned Ag