How Helena Agri-Enterprises is ready to grow
In March, 2021, Eric Cowling became president and chief executive officer of Helena, an ag input manufacturer and distributor that employs roughly 4,000 people in 450 locations throughout the U.S.
A native of southwest Arkansas, Cowling grew up on a farm and began his 33-year career at Helena as a truck driver in Fremont, Nebraska, moving up through the ranks and holding sales and management positions in the company. He’s spent the last decade in the Helena corporate office in Memphis, Tennessee.
Helena was founded in 1957 as a distributor of agricultural input products. The company has grown and evolved; it offers a host of branded input products for sale, and it’s a distributor for seed from other companies.
With the company’s AGRIntelligence digital tool, growers can receive customized data collection, analysis, and recommendation tools from Helena agronomists. And, with a suite of financing and insurance options, the company strives to provide one-stop-shopping for its customers.
The 2022 Commodity Classic in New Orleans was Cowling’s first as the Helena CEO, and Successful Farming spent a few minutes learning how Helena intends to grow and provide solutions for farmers.
Successful Farming: How do you position Helena to expand and grow?
Eric Cowling: Helena has changed our business to be a solution provider. Fifty years ago we sold products, but we have changed as agriculture has changed. Customers are looking for more than just buying products and getting them delivered. We now offer farmers solutions, with good people who have knowledge about their farms.
SF: What are those solutions that your company has evolved to offer?
EC: We have to be knowledgeable about the product line, about seed trace and technology. Today’s customer demands that you stay current with chemistry programs, fertilizer programs, and nutritional programs. We also offer digital and financing programs.
SF: How do you let farmers know about these ancillary products Helena provides?
EC: We try to build systems that can be used across multiple geographies, but there’s always a geographical spin because every area of the country is different. Let’s use Kansas as an example (note: the author is from Kansas). Northeast Kansas is completely different than Garden City, so those customers have different needs. The platform needs to be consistent for us to manage our offerings, but can be tailored to the area. We’ve been successful in tailoring to your farm, whether it’s in Nemaha County, Kansas, or Ford County, Kansas.
SF: With so much competition in input and technology solutions, what do you tell farmers about Helena to get them to become customers?
EC: We have to provide service, which has a lot of different meanings today. Twenty years ago, that meant delivering products to the farmer on time. It’s beyond that now, including following up on the sale and making sure we had good weed control or good kill of some pests in the field. We offer tools that give us predictive opportunity to make sure they’re ahead of a potential pest we see coming in from counts through our technology system. We need to help them prepare to farm today.
SF: What are challenges you face as a solutions provider?
EC: That answer varies by geography. Trying to be a solutions provider requires a tremendous amount of assets. In some cases, we’ve doubled or tripled our custom application business. We’ve had locations that traditionally have not required application in the past, but it’s not an option to not be an application business today. In some geographies where we have all the assets necessary, we’ve diversified application, which allows us to care for the crop from before planting to harvest. That’s really giving us opportunities by just having more services.
SF: Is there a specific geography in which you want to expand the company?
EC: I don’t worry about our footprint. It’s just getting more customers within that footprint. That takes people and equipment. As the number of retailers across the country has consolidated, we’ve had to be bigger and faster. Farmers plant faster than ever, so speed is critical.
SF: Helena has long been a distributor of products, and now you manufacture products. Adding to that is the company’s work to provide digital solutions to farmers. Tell us about that.
EC: When I was in retail at Helena, precision agriculture was about variable-rate spreading, and growers demanded we have variable-rate application equipment. Now, it’s even more prescriptive. When you go to the doctor, you get a recommendation for your issue. That’s what we do with the crops. We have to know all the details from the data supplied, to help us know why we have issues with yield, or where we may not have good stalk strength, or why we’re having rootworm. The more data we have, the more prescriptive we can be. We’ll continue to get better, because we have better tools to help us with the data.
SF: Human resources is one of the most expensive components of running a business. To find these people and employ them takes a tremendous amount of capital.
EC: We train a lot of people. The young people coming out of college, we train them about agronomy – soil pH, cation exchange capacity, soil types, etc. It’s a great training ground. And most of these people are great at technology, too.
SF: We’re looking at what could be a tumultuous year. What keeps you up at night?
EC: Obviously, the topic of the year is supply. Not just simply supply of products, but supply at a price where a grower can make money. There is risk on the input side. There’s risk from a commodity standpoint. Think about what’s happened the last four weeks. We’re not involved in the conflict, but it affects everything we do; the processes for raw materials, fuel, and fertilizer.
We’re trying to manage a global business now. There are a host of issues in the supply chain we have to fix one at a time: ocean containers, shipping, availability of trucks to take the containers from the port to the production plant. My bigger worry is, how do we function not being able to control what the issues are? Well, you have to have a plan. You have to know what your customers are doing, and plan for their success.