Beth Ford: Transformative Leadership During Crises
Beth Ford’s competitive nature and work ethic were apparent when she was an exceptional student and multi-sport athlete at her high school in Iowa.
What I want everybody to understand is we are committed to making sure our employees and the folks in our communities feel safe and are engaged and have the same opportunities as everybody.
After becoming president and CEO of the giant Land O’Lakes cooperative in the summer of 2018, Ford quickly channeled her enormous reserves of energy into becoming a strategic, savvy advocate for rural America.
Whether she’s advocating on Capitol Hill for rural broadband access or working alongside the nation’s best-known CEOs on income inequality, she’s striving to make regional economies more sustainable. She also has been unafraid to talk frankly about systemic racism and commit Land O’Lakes to the ongoing work that’s needed to make companies more inclusive.
Ford clearly understands the power of partnerships. She’s built them to help K-12 students get WiFi access during the pandemic. She climbed to a board seat on the national Business Roundtable this year, which is allowing her to work cooperatively to shape a more equitable economy. And she forged a partnership this year with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, which will translate into using Microsoft technology to help farmers be better land stewards and operate their farms more cost-effectively.
“The work that Beth is doing is very germane for her company and for the country, and it’s exactly the type of work that CEOs need to be doing,” says Doug Baker, Ecolab chairman and CEO.
Ford has a bold agenda—for the nation and her company.
She’s pressing for a $100 billion national investment to extend broadband access to rural areas. She’s been urging leaders on both sides of the political aisle to embrace spending on internet technology. The dramatic effect this modern-day infrastructure could have on rural communities would be comparable to the Rural Electrification Act, which President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law in 1936 so all Americans could have electricity.
“Farming is an ecosystem,” Ford says. “You have the local retailer. You have the hardware store. You have the town. And you have the farmer, and these farms are still family-owned. You have educational issues. And you have data and analytics that could be used for sustainable production. But that cannot be used without access, and that means we have to have broadband.”
Ford has been spotlighting the digital divide during the pandemic, and she took quick action to offer a temporary solution. Land O’Lakes kicked off an effort to provide free WiFi service so students in isolated areas could access high-speed internet service from their family vehicles. The agricultural cooperative and other businesses are promoting the availability of their free WiFi in about 2,300 U.S. locations.
Land O’Lakes calls this free WiFi outreach a “temporary patch” for a systemic resource deficit that Ford speaks about whenever she gets a platform. Through Land O’Lakes, she launched the American Connection Project, a coalition of more than 120 businesses and organizations that have mobilized to expand access to high-speed internet service. Cargill and Polaris are among the marquee Minnesota companies that have joined the group.
Microsoft also is a member. Not long before the pandemic hit, Ford traveled to Washington state to meet with Microsoft’s Nadella. “We needed a transformational partner in the use of technology in modern agriculture,” she says.
Ford is excited to work with Nadella because he can help her farmer-cooperative members, but also because he has the capacity to aid the rural economy overall. “What I loved about his approach is that he doesn’t see technology for technology’s sake,” Ford says. “It’s technology as an enabler to address multiple issues including climate change—but also agriculture and food production was a central focus for him.”
She’s working with other prominent CEOs through her board seat on the Business Roundtable, which defines its mission as promoting “a thriving U.S. economy and expanded opportunity for all Americans through sound public policy.”
Ford serves on a wealth disparities committee with Jamie Dimon, JP Morgan Chase CEO, and Robert Smith, CEO of Vista Equity Partners. Her extensive involvement in the organization has allowed her to elevate rural issues and work collaboratively to fight Covid-19. Ford says the group amplifies her messages through a “shared voice” of top executives. “It is about having multiple business leaders in an organization saying, ‘This is the right investment for the economy, for commerce, and for our national security writ large.’ ’’
Ecolab’s Baker isn’t surprised that Ford landed a Business Roundtable board position so early in her CEO tenure. “Beth is charismatic, articulate, purpose-driven, and passionate, and those are attractive qualities,” Baker says. And, he says, “she’s the same person” whether she’s talking with somebody one-on-one, giving a speech or debating an issue on a panel.
“The agriculture business historically has been a man’s world, and she has risen to the top. I think she’s doing very smart things,” Baker says. “Beth really believes if we are going to harness the talent of this country that you ultimately need environments where people are comfortable taking risks, taking stands, being heard, and that all communities need access, including rural communities.”
Ensuring that diverse talent is drawn to work at Land O’Lakes is another issue Ford has been addressing since the May death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody spawned a racial reckoning across the country.
At Land O’Lakes, Ford says, she and other leaders engaged in active listening sessions with Black employees. “It was painful, and it was quite startling,” Ford says, to hear her employees talk about systemic racism in the community as well as their safety concerns—for their children and for themselves.
“I don’t have that lived experience, that fear for my children, other than you want them to be successful, happy people,” Ford says. At Land O’Lakes, she adds, the company attracts a “good level of diversity,” but like other Twin Cities-based businesses, it struggles with retaining employees of color.
Ford has pledged to continue conversations about diversity and inclusion at Land O’Lakes and in the broader community. “I don’t have a magic bullet,” she says. “This is going to be a long journey. What I want everybody to understand is we are committed to making sure our employees and the folks in our communities feel safe and are engaged and have the same opportunities as everybody.”
Ford leads a company with about 10,000 employees. She is quick to credit them with Land O’Lakes’ good financial performance during the pandemic. “I always feel like I’m just the face for this great team that has done phenomenal work in a very challenging environment that is bumpy, and it feels like a marathon,” Ford says. Her employees’ agility, she says, allowed the company to reach $2.9 billion in net sales for the third quarter of 2020, down slightly from $3 billion a year earlier. Earnings in the third quarter improved by $54 million compared with 2019.
The dairy business saw strong sales, as did the Purina animal feed product line. “Our cheese business is performing well, because everybody is snacking,” Ford says. “It’s like everybody is nesting and getting back to some of the basics,” she adds, and home cooks are driving record sales of Land O’Lakes butter.
Baker says some may view Ford as operating on two tracks—running a company and advocating for rural constituencies. He perceives her work as intertwined. “You’ve got a responsibility to grow your company, but you also have to understand its growth is in part predicated on strong communities,” Baker says.
Ford is optimistic about Land O’Lakes sales prospects for 2021, but she recognizes much will be outside her control. “We believe we are in a good position for some continued growth in some of our businesses,” Ford says. “But a lot of the variability will be driven by the opening of the economy, the confidence of consumers, and the vaccine.”