News

Beth Ford, Fortune 500 CEO, Approaches Leadership as a Team Sport

For the first time since being promoted to Land O'Lakes CEO, Ford talks in depth about her journey to the top and how she's steering Minnesota's $15 billion ag cooperative into the future.

Beth Ford, Fortune 500 CEO, Approaches Leadership as a Team Sport
Land O'Lakes CEO Beth Ford (Photo by Ackerman Photography)

When Beth Ford was a spirited child at Epiphany grade school in Sioux City, Iowa, no doubt the Catholic nuns recognized she was a smart student with tremendous potential.

But about 45 years ago, they may not have fully grasped the competitive drive that Ford was developing in her own home as the fifth of eight children.

Flash-forward to 2019, and Beth Ford, 55, is leading about 10,000 employees in more than 50 countries as the president and CEO of Land O’Lakes Inc. The company generates about $15 billion a year in revenue. She’s among only two dozen U.S. women serving as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. She joined the cooperative in 2012 as chief supply chain and operations officer.

Where and how did she develop the self-confidence and drive to succeed at the highest corporate level? She smiles, seated at her ivory-colored oval desk in Land O’Lakes headquarters in Arden Hills, and points to the dynamics in her family. “When you are in the middle of eight children, you need to learn to throw an elbow if you ever want to eat,” Ford says with a laugh.

“I was very competitive with my older sister Judy, who’s one year apart. And I was competitive with my older brother Michael.” She recalls the nuns asking her how she was similar to her older siblings. Those questions did not sit well with her mother. “She would be like, ‘Beth, leave the room,’ and then proceed to tell the nuns: ‘Don’t ever compare my children.’ ’’ Ford’s parents married when they were very young. “My father has since passed,” Ford says. “He was a truck driver. At one point, he sold used cars. We were very much a working-class family.”

“She absolutely was the most qualified. It was critical that we have a proven leader.”
—Pete Kappelman, former board chairman, Land O’Lakes

She describes her mother, Carol, as a profound influence on her character and career. “My mom is the best role model I’ve ever had in my life,” Ford says. “My mom would always say, ‘Don’t be a people-pleaser.’ I don’t fall into the people-pleasing thing. If I do that, then I’m not going to live up to what I think is most important.”

She also characterizes her mother as “unbelievably resilient and strong,” and notes that her mother fashioned three careers for herself as well as raising eight children. “My mom was a nurse,” Ford says. “I was delivered when she was in RN training. Then she got her master’s and she became a psychologist and therapist. She remarried. My folks had divorced. She became a minister. She always said, ‘I worked on the body, their mind, and then their soul.’ ’’

Ford adopted her mother’s lessons to be yourself, work hard, aim high, and dust yourself off and move forward after you encounter a setback.
 

History-making CEO

The grounding that Ford got in her Iowa family set her on a path to earn an MBA at Columbia Business School in New York, excel in executive positions in several industries, and achieve so many business goals at Land O’Lakes that she was the heir apparent to succeed veteran CEO Chris Policinski in 2018.

When Land O’Lakes announced in July that the board of directors had selected Ford to become president and CEO, the cooperative’s news release didn’t mention that Ford was the first woman to serve in the top job. The news release concluded with the sentence: “Ford and her spouse, Jill Schurtz, have three teenage children and live in Minneapolis.”

In the days following her selection, Ford attracted national media attention because she was the first openly gay woman to become a Fortune 500 CEO.

One aspect of Ford’s ascension that was overlooked is the fact that she was promoted to the CEO position by an all-male board, including many who live in rural America.

As a cooperative founded in 1921, the farmers and local co-op managers who serve on the Land O’Lakes board are elected at the grassroots level by members.

Pete Kappelman, a dairy producer from Two Rivers, Wis., was chairman of the board when Ford was selected. A board member since 1996, he says Ford was chosen purely on the basis of merit, and her gender and sexual orientation were not considerations for the men on the board.

“We needed somebody to run Land O’Lakes for the benefit of all of our membership, and she absolutely was the most qualified candidate to do that,” Kappelman says. Gender and sexual orientation were never even part of the CEO leadership discussion, he says. “Of course, we were aware of them, but that’s not what’s important. It was critical that we have a proven leader.”

He cites his family dairy operation as an example to reinforce his point. Three women and two men are co-owners of Meadow Brook Dairy. “What matters is: Can they do the job? Will they be there? Will they get it done? This is exactly the same,” he says, referring to Ford’s promotion based on her track record at Land O’Lakes since she joined the cooperative.

Reflecting on the board’s decision to promote her, Ford says, “They want competence and performance and they expect that.” Ford had developed a good relationship with the board over time, so she was well known when Policinski was nearing retirement. “I think that there was confidence in my ability to take the role because I had been working with them for seven years, and they had seen my ability to drive business results,” Ford says.

In a member-owned and member-governed business, Kappelman says, there is a high premium placed on Land O’Lakes leaders communicating effectively with the members and Ford did so. “She delivered financially, we could tell that her teams responded well to her,” he says. “So we knew she was a successful business manager. But she related so well to the board and members. She knows how to talk to people about things that are important.”
 

Rapid climb

Ford arrived at Land O’Lakes in January 2012, with extensive operations management and supply chain experience at International Flavors and Fragrances, Mobil, Pepsi, and Scholastic. It was that expertise that prompted Policinski to hire her.

“Very quickly we added more responsibilities,” Policinski says, noting that Ford was given leadership of research and development and information technology areas. By November 2015, he says, “We gave her P and L [profit and loss] responsibility for two of our three main businesses,” Dairy Foods and Animal Nutrition.

“My mom is the best role model I’ve ever had in my life. My mom would always say, ‘Don’t be a people-pleaser.’ I don’t fall into the people-pleasing thing. If I do that, then I’m not going to live up to what I think is most important.” —Beth Ford

In December 2017, Ford was handed responsibility for another major business unit, Crop Inputs. This segment includes the WinField United merger business, and covers seed, fertilizer, and ag technology solutions to increase yields.

At this stage, Ford was chief operating officer and running all three of the Land O’Lakes businesses. The board of directors and other stakeholders could watch how she was leading and what kind of financial performance she was producing.

“She proved herself to be a strong leader at every step of the way,” Policinski says. “She can elevate to a strategic perspective and get the lay of the land very quickly. But she’s also very comfortable getting right down into the details of the business and driving the business forward.”

Before she became CEO, one of the efforts Ford led was improving profitability through more coordinated decision-making. “You have to make integrated decisions to make trade-offs about what you should manufacture, when, and where it should ship,” she says. All of those individual activities have cost and operating dynamics, and Ford argues everybody needs to fully understand the company targets and be aligned with the same incentives.

Beth Ford

Title: President and CEO, Land O’Lakes Inc.

Became CEO: August 1, 2018

Joined Land O’Lakes: January 2012

Previous Employers: International Flavors and Fragrances, 10/08 to 1/12; Hatchette Book Group, 9/07 to 9/08; Scholastic, 8/00 to 9/07; PepsiCo, 8/97 to 8/00; Perseco, 1/96 to 8/97; Mobil Oil, 6/86 to 1/96

Education: Bachelor of Business Administration, Iowa State University; Master of Business Administration, Columbia Business School

Hometown: Sioux City, Iowa


“So that’s what we switched,” she says. “It wasn’t a situation where, ‘This department does this, and this department does this.’ Instead, it is ‘We are in this together in a fully integrated partnership.’ ”

She also says she initiated a reset on how the dairy research and development team did its work. “There are technical elements of the dairy portfolio that allow us to play differently in partnership with other companies,” Ford says.

“We make the cheese powder that goes on Cheetos,” she says. “One of the technical challenges Frito-Lay had was reducing salt content in some of their products.” Instead of going to a third party to address the issue, Ford says the rebuilt R&D dairy team solved the problem because it had the technical competence to do so.

She did a deep dive on the Purina Animal Nutrition business, and changes resulted in tripling profits over two or three years. “First of all, Purina’s brand, the unaided awareness is similar to Starbucks,” Ford says. “Yet we weren’t taking advantage of the marketing elements.”

Land O’Lakes CEO Beth Ford, who grew up in the farm state of Iowa, regularly visits with cooperative members. She advocates for public policies to strengthen rural communities, including more support for education and health care. (Photo provided by Land O’Lakes)


She invited people from across Land O’Lakes to look anew at the opportunities Purina could pursue, which investments could be made, how marketing could be altered, and which partnerships could be forged with different retailers. This assessment led the company to do what Ford describes as “Let’s take the dumb out.”

For example, she says, “We would do things operationally that cost us money that were not smart and were not necessary.” The model she used to examine some of these business practices was cost-to-serve. “We would allow everybody to place an order whenever you want it,” Ford says. “Then they can order a pallet or a full truckload. You can imagine the cost differential of putting labor against one area vs. another. It’s substantially different. Yet we weren’t pricing it that way in the marketplace.” Changes were made to both operate and price more effectively.

In early 2017, Ford was instrumental in the Land O’Lakes acquisition of Vermont Creamery. “She saw the need, along with her team, that we needed a new growth platform in addition to the businesses we had,” Policinski says. “Beth really led that from stem to stern—the need for it, the identification of it, and the transaction itself.”

Calling it the “cutest little goat farm ever” that pairs nicely with Land O’Lakes dairy farming roots, Ford says, the Vermont Creamery deal “brought us to a different part of the grocery store where it is the high-end deli, the different deli cheeses.” Consequently, she says, “it allows us to price differently.”
 

A business role model

Ford’s accomplishments were rewarded with a promotion by the Land O’Lakes board, but she also has become a national role model with strong ties to the Midwest.

That’s apparent on the campus of Iowa State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1986. She’s served on the Ivy College of Business Dean’s Advisory Council since 2003, and she frequently speaks to students on campus.

She arrived on the Iowa State campus in Ames after her high school years that were jam-packed with activities. At Heelan High School in Sioux City, Ford played on the Crusaders basketball, tennis, and track-and-field teams. “I was involved in everything,” she says. “I was in French Club. Name the club. I was very active.”

An overachieving student, she planned to major in political science at college. But she switched to business after concluding she might be unable to earn much as a political science graduate and likely would have to go to law school. She was paying her own way through college and wasn’t eager to take on the financial burden of law school.

“I was a janitor, I cleaned toilets when I was in college,” Ford says. “Then, on campus, I was an elevator operator. I had a third job, working as a cashier at the ma-and-pa store.”

She also managed to squeeze in enough time to serve as the college student body’s Supreme Court chief justice. She belonged to a sorority, breaking into song in her office: “I’m an Alpha Gamma Delta.”

Land O’Lakes Business Profile

The cooperative was formed in 1921 when 320 dairy farmers joined together to market and distribute their dairy products. Today, Land O’Lakes is a Fortune 500 company that is headquartered in Arden Hills. In 2018, it generated $14.9 billion in sales. Land O’Lakes is divided into three major business segments.

Animal Nutrition: Purina is a well-known brand in the animal nutrition market, and Land O’Lakes sells food for a range of animals, from cattle to dairy cows and horses.

Crop Inputs and Insights: Seed and fertilizer are included in this unit, which also provides technological solutions to improve crop yields.

Dairy Foods: Consumers are very familiar with this segment of business, which includes the sale of butter, cheese, and milk in grocery stores and supermarkets.

 

Beth Ford spoke at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual Agricultural Outlook Forum in 2017 in Arlington, Va.(Photo courtesy of Alamy)


Ford had ample opportunity to develop grit in college. “I had this huge Oldsmobile that my dad got me,” she recalls. “I think he spent $50 on it. Every week, I would have to put in more power-steering fluid. I was in a sorority and I’d come out of the house after I’d put on these jeans and an orange vest and an orange hat. And I would remember these women coming out of the house and just making fun of me.”

What she lacked in social and financial capital, she offset with intelligence, moxie, hard work, curiosity, and self-deprecation.

“Beth is an outstanding role model for women students,” says David Spalding, Iowa State’s business dean, noting that Ford has spoken to student audiences three times in recent years. Ford’s personal story, he says, is emblematic of the hardworking ethos of Iowans. When she was on campus in November, Spalding says, Ford’s speech had the title “Leadership is a Team Sport.”

He notes that Ford emphasized that a leader should not be a solitary figure making decisions. “A lot of it is about honing your people skills and being able to bring the best out of teams,” Spalding says of Ford’s remarks. “That’s an important message for our students to hear.”

Unlike some major company leaders, he says that students find Ford approachable. “She will speak with every individual student who wants to speak with her,” he says. “And there are selfies being taken.”

In January, Ford visited Amazon headquarters. “I was asked to come in and speak to Amazonians about leadership and my career journey and how they might think of their own,” Ford says.

“I said, ‘Go on the journey, don’t take yourself out of play because you think you had a failure,’ ” Ford says. “Secondly, understand that careers are not a zero-sum game.” Sometimes companies will create an intense competition for one job, and people are dejected when they don’t land the job. But Ford stresses there always are other jobs that become available.

“As you are building your career, networks are critically important,” she says. “I’ve worked with people multiple times in my career at different companies. When you think of it that way, what you are doing is you are partnering and enabling somebody else’s career at the same time.”

If you receive a call from a recruiter and aren’t interested in the job, give the person the name of someone you know is qualified for the position, Ford says. “That’s the way you can facilitate careers and partner with others. The final thing I tell people is not to be a jerk. People don’t like to work with jerks.”
 

Making time for family

National magazines recognized Ford after she was chosen CEO of Land O’Lakes. Fortune named her one of its Most Powerful Women, Fast Company ranked her among its Best Leaders of 2018, and she appeared in Time magazine’s “Firsts” edition that profiled breakthrough figures.

Following the initial burst of interest, she says, “I’m pretty clear that I primarily want to talk about the business now. I’m not here to have a platform. I’m here to do the work that I am asked to do and have been blessed to be part of, which is work on behalf of the members.”

The Land O’Lakes board members, many of whom operate family farms, are family-oriented. “They’ve met Jill, my spouse, and we talked about our children quite a bit,” Ford says.

Jill Schurtz, originally from Peoria, Ill., and Ford have been a couple for 26 years. They decided to raise their family in the Twin Cities when Ford accepted her first job with Land O’Lakes more than seven years ago. Their twin boys are now 14, and their daughter is 16.

“When I’m home, I try to be home with my family and it’s a discipline I have to try to continue to improve to not be on my technology,” Ford says. “And frankly, not to let them be on their technology, they’re teenagers.”

The family of five eats dinner together as often as possible. “One of my sons is a swimmer,” Ford says. “I try to attend all of his swim events.” She says the family also enjoys playing board games and watching TV together.

“There are times when you do feel out of balance and you need more concentrated time with your kids,” Ford says. “I do try to adjust, so that I make sure I free up as much time to be with them. I don’t know that there is one magic answer. You just try to tell them you are there with them, and you pay attention to them.”

Even as many women leaders are constantly juggling work and family responsibilities, some of them also deal with sexism.

“Have I encountered it? Of course, in a number of different ways,” Ford says. “But in general, I just think it doesn’t really faze me. I just kind of laugh.”

“People don’t like to work with jerks.” —Beth Ford

Earlier in her career, Ford says she attended meetings as the senior executive and she brought some male subordinates along with her. In some cases, men were only tuned in to what the other men were saying.

Ford has seen the classic scenario in which a woman makes a good point, it is ignored, then minutes later a man offers the same solution and it is praised. Ford has some advice for professional women who face this situation: Humor. “I do a lot of this,” Ford says, tapping on her chest. “I’m sorry. Is my mic not on? Did I not say that?”

She says that men sometimes stumble into sexism by making assumptions based on gender stereotypes. “The first 10 years of my career, I was in the oil industry and I was right there on the docks,” Ford says. “I ran tanker and barge docks, trucking facilities, manufacturing facilities. It was usually me and a hundred dudes, and that was not uncomfortable for me.”

She recalls one incident in New York when she was with some dockmen who worked for her. They were on a site where the company needed to do environmental cleanup. “There were a number of drivers coming in that were going to do some soil removal,” she recalls. Once they arrived, one said to Ford, “OK, little lady, we’re going to need a lot of coffee. It’s a busy day.”

She chuckles and says the dockmen told the drivers: “Don’t talk to her that way. She’s the boss. We make the coffee.”
 

Strengthening communities

Like Ford, another woman who is expected to produce impressive results is Kate Mortenson, president and CEO of the 2019 Minneapolis Final Four Local Organizing Committee.

Both women worked together on the executive committee of the Greater Twin Cities United Way, which gave Mortenson a window into how Ford uses her talent to address community needs.

The local United Way’s revenue has declined in recent years, and the nonprofit is reinventing itself. “When it comes to the future that United Way is creating, Beth’s contributions are being undaunted, possibilities-oriented, and at the same time realistic,” Mortenson says.

“You will see a more sophisticated organization, with a portfolio approach to garnering resources and addressing community issues that includes strategic partnerships and new revenue sources,” Mortenson says. “That is work led by people like Beth on the board.”

Characterizing Ford’s board service, Mortenson says, she’s “very insightful and straightforward” and “sharp as a laser, including with her humor.” Mortenson also observed how Ford reacted to national coverage of her status as the first openly gay woman to lead a Fortune 500 company. “She recognizes the power to inspire, otherwise she is totally uninterested in dwelling on the uniqueness of her position,” Mortenson says.

Ford has the opportunity to help better the Twin Cities community through her United Way board service, but she has cast a wider geographic net when she advocates for rural communities in Washington, D.C. She’s traveled to the nation’s capital to talk to members of the House and Senate agriculture committees about farm policies.

But her conversations with federal lawmakers go well beyond discussions of trade, tariffs, and dairy policy. “We have more recently been talking about where there are gaps,” Ford says, so she’s been raising issues of broadband access, immigration reform, and the need to make greater investments in education and health care in rural communities. “We are about enabling our members and it is about strengthening rural communities where they operate and where we operate,” Ford says.
 

Moving Land O’Lakes forward

While many consumers equate the Land O’Lakes brand with butter and its iconic packaging, in reality Land O’Lakes is a huge global business.

Ford defines Land O’Lakes as “a food production and agribusiness focusing on feeding a growing world population.” The cooperative model, she says, differentiates Land O’Lakes from large Fortune 500 public companies. “There is an intimacy to it, because you understand the members, and your results directly go to those members,” Ford says.

Kappelman, who left the Land O’Lakes board in February after 15 years as chairman, says nearly every industry, including agribusiness, is being disrupted by e-commerce and technology. “That’s either a headwind or an opportunity to gain ground when others can’t,” Kappelman says. As Ford leads the cooperative, he says, Land O’Lakes will need to “embrace technology and automation while improving efficiency.”

In the current environment, Ford says, she and Land O’Lakes colleagues are focused on identifying “pockets of growth” through “micromarket analysis.” One area of focus: the high-end deli section of the grocery store, referred to by industry insiders as the “groceraunt,” for people who don’t want to cook. “If you have a differentiated product, retailers are going to put you on the shelf,” Ford says.

She’s also excited about an “accelerator” that Land O’Lakes established, in which the cooperative brings in entrepreneurs and people can learn from each other. The entrepreneurs move ahead quickly on innovations. “They cut off funding or they’ll just pull out of something that’s not working,” Ford says. “We don’t do that quite as well.” She hopes working with entrepreneurs will help Land O’Lakes employees learn “how to be better entrepreneurs and how to move with more agility and speed.”

“We are about enabling our members and it is about strengthening rural communities where they operate and where we operate.” —Beth Ford

Technology spending is a priority for Land O’Lakes to propel its product development in the coming years. Ford points to strategic investments in artificial intelligence and machine learning. “It is technology and data and analytics that provide the insights that allow you to make the better and more informed decisions to grow the businesses,” Ford says.

As Land O’Lakes gets ready to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2021, Ford appears exhilarated to navigate a challenging marketplace. Ever the competitor, she says, “If you want to achieve something, you have to get on the playing field.”

Liz Fedor is the Trending editor of Twin Cities Business.


Beth Ford will be among four major speakers at TCB’s Women in Leadership event. To learn about the panelists for the April 23 event, go to tcbmag.com/WLF19

Newsletter Sign Up