A while back, I had an opportunity to visit New Iberia, La. While there, I met several people, including one very impressive farmer named John—a businessman, really. In 25-plus years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with some of the best and most successful business people around the world, and this farmer from Louisiana could plow circles around them all.
He was as profound in his thinking as he was in his execution and so focused on his vision that strategies were in place to correct actions that could be counter-productive to the vision. His belief in being sovereign was so strong, he actually created cooperation with other farmers. His culture was truly based on the principle of love thy neighbor; it was his duty. He found ways to make every person around him better.
You’re probably asking yourself (1) if this is true and (2) what’s a farmer’s success got to do with me? How can a farmer’s business be even remotely relative to the extremely competitive market and business of selling cars—a market that is changing daily with laws, financial requirements, product price points, and the numerous options customers seem to have available to them? How can a farmer be like a dealer?
John grows sugar cane. As I pulled up the gravel driveway of John’s farmhouse, I spotted him on a gray tractor moving large oak branches. As I got out of the car,, he shut down the tractor and quickly approached me with an outstretched hand and a warm greeting. Right then, in that handshake, I was the most important person in the whole world.
John guided a tour of his 3,000-plus acre farm and explained his vision for it. His vision is to be a sovereign, self-sustaining business. His first rule is that every action taken has a result—good or bad. Therefore, whatever actions are to be taken that day will move him and his workers closer to their vision, or they don’t do it. He immediately demonstrated what he meant by moving closer to his vision.
He pointed to the row of tractors and described them all as previously well-used or retrieved from the scrap yard. He explained that all family members were trained mechanics who could rebuild a tractor better than the original. In fact, the family invented special forks for the front of a tractor. The forks are designed to pick up the crops and dry, cut, and send them to the haulers after a hurricane. He knew his environment so well that the forks were one of their strategies to be prepared for hurricanes. Now that is forward-thinking. John wasn’t amazed that he and his family thought of the tractor forks; he was more surprised someone else didn’t think of it first.
While walking through his crops, he stopped and looked down. “You see all the little lines in the ground that look like raised mounds? Those are red ants. These are ant highways and these guys are our friends; we invite them onto our farm. They protect our crops from other insects that are harmful and could cause serious damage. They are my personal army that is guarding our investment.”
I noticed that his sugar cane was greener and healthier then other farms around him and asked why. “Very observant,” he said, with a proud glow. “A while back, I discovered the processing plant down the road was producing an organic waste that was being thrown away. I made a deal with the processing plant to take the waste off their hands (which saves them time and costs for disposal) and I get free fertilizer.”
When asked why other farmers (his neighbors) hadn’t done something similar, John replied that maybe not everyone has the same business-success vision. Maybe they have a vision, but are not making decisions based on that vision. Maybe most farmers just see themselves as farmers, not business people who need to constantly reinvent themselves as the market and economy change.
I asked John how a farmer, as a businessman, could improve. If I want to improve my golf game, I go to a golf coach; what do farmers do? He just smiled and said he does the same thing I do, go to the experts. The Amish in Pennsylvania may be the best farmers in the world. It is said that they can grow vegetables in cement. When John wanted to improve his farming skills, he lived with and learned from them for three months. He learned from the best and turned his lessons into competitive advantages.
John has his entire operation on the computer and tracks every action his operation takes. John, as well as other family members, constantly review and evaluate the results. Also, each tractor has a computer onboard, so every member of his team knows where they stand relative to the vision at any moment. Everyone on the farm is constantly checking and asking what needs to be done; how do we get different and better results? No detail is left to chance.
I then asked about the price of sugar and how that affects his decision-making process. After pulling up to an old building, John explained the building was a community co-op where the sugar was refined. Together, the local farmers can better manage the price (and profits) with the refinery. The amazing part of this mill is the fact that they built it from scratch. From the tumblers to the dryers, they cut and welded the machines themselves. John took the need to solve the problem of price by bringing his fellow farmers together to create a co-op, just like his vision for his farm states.
Later that night, everyone got together for a Cajun feast. At first, I didn’t recognize John because he was all cleaned up. When he spoke, I heard what confidence sounds like. Everyone wanted to listen for fear of missing something important. Throughout the night, he spoke highly of every person at the feast. He had something great to say about each of the 60 or so people present. He never said a negative word about one person, government or business that night. It was like he knew that negative thinking has a negative effect on your soul.
As you move your dealership toward the next level of excellence, take time to ask yourself some critical questions. What is your vision? Do you have a vision you believe in so strongly that you will do whatever it takes or make a change if you’re not moving closer to your desired outcome? Do you give up too quickly when adversity sets in? Do you seek out the best of the best to find out what they are doing?
I hear all the time from dealers who want to be quality dealers. First, you must have a vision. Then, in order to achieve your vision, you need to have strategies to implement. Devise and maintain a clearly stated, focused strategy. You must execute daily the action items that will move you closer to your vision. Develop and maintain flawless operation execution. You might not always delight your customers, but make sure you never disappoint them.
Your business needs to reflect the culture of learning and growth. Develop and maintain a performance-oriented culture. Create a culture that holds high performance expectations and is a great place for people to work. John’s farm was fun, but focused. As a leader, your job is to inspire people to go to new heights and to remove the obstacles that may get in the way. Are you focusing on the obstacles themselves or a way around them?
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