Q&A: Emily Schmitt, Sukup chief administrative officer and general counsel

Emily Schmitt has fond memories of walking to the Sheffield, Iowa, office after school, snacking on breakroom caramel rolls, and playing good-natured pranks on staff members who felt like family. Now, the third-generation leader at Sukup Manufacturing Co. is serving the company as chief administrative officer and general counsel.

Schmitt is the granddaughter of founder Eugene Sukup and daughter of current president and CEO, Steve Sukup. She has been with the family business full-time since 2011. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Schmitt was promoted to lead legal, human resources, communications, strategic planning, and other administrative functions of the company.

“Our company is experiencing tremendous growth in product offerings and impact on agriculture. Myself, our board of directors, and the Sukup families have decided the time is right to make an investment in expanding our team,” said Steve Sukup, announcing both Schmitt’s new role and the creation of a chief operating officer position opening in early February.

SF: Tell us about the family members involved at Sukup and how you work together.

ES: I work with my husband on a daily basis. When we went remote, we actually had to add another desk in the office. We work back-to-back with two desks in our office. It’s been an interesting nine months with that.

My brother-in-law, Matt, works here as senior electrical engineer. My father, Steve, is president and CEO. My brother Nick also works here.

Charles is my uncle, Grandma Mary, and Charles’ son Andrew Sukup work here as well.

My two kids are known as the recycling directors. Before COVID, they would take a wagon around and fill it up with everybody’s recycling and collect some candy along the way. They’ve been missing coming to work.

With my husband, my brother-in-law, my dad – oftentimes we work five days a week. Before COVID, we would have meetings every day, sometimes go to dinner on Friday nights, and church on Sunday morning, all in the same places. There’s a lot of family in this family business, but it’s what makes everything go around.

I think that’s something that resonates with our customer base because so many farms are family farms. At Sukup Manufacturing, we are farmers. Steve has his number of acres. Grandpa farmed. That’s something we’re very proud of.

SF: When did you first join the business as a full-time employee?

ES: I started full-time May 2011, so I’m coming up on my 10 years here. Otherwise, it was part-time, coming in to help wherever.

SF: Tell me about your early years at Sukup.

ES: Growing up, I would just walk down from school because it’s a couple of blocks away. Before Dad got done with work, I would go back to the print room, help collate, help staple, help with different literature that was going out, recycle, sort bolts, things like that.

I started learning different things along the way. During undergrad I would help with HR or administrative functions.

I ran parts to different farm sites. That was the first and only time I’ve ever gotten a speeding ticket. For Grandpa, when he hired, that was always a plus if you had speeding tickets.

I remember when the first fancy phone machine was installed at the old office location. I loved working with this lady named Sue. I installed her phone in a different language than English. We had some fun with different employees growing up. It was a big family.

We would come over and take breaks. We used to have caramel rolls in the breakrooms. It was a great atmosphere to grow up in and learn with everybody.

Now, working side-by-side, there are so many employees who’ve been here for so long. Plant manager John has been here for over 40 years. It’s one of my favorite things about coming to work, working with people who have been here for so long and trying to gain that knowledge they have. The company has grown eight times since 2000, but the knowledge they have around the company, the inner workings, is so vital to understand.

SF: Did you always know you wanted to come back to the company for your career?

ES: I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer, even though I didn’t know how that would fit in. I’m someone who loves to analyze everything. Once I decide something, I’m all in.

Once I got through law school, I figured if I was going to be a corporate lawyer, I wanted to do it for our company. That’s when we decided to move back. It’s been a great opportunity to grow, working with HR. I’ve worked a lot with finance and taxes. I’ve loved every topic that we’ve been able to tackle here.

SF: Tell me about the new things you’ll be tackling as you move to chief administrative officer and general counsel.

ES: There have been a lot of opportunities for strategic planning, especially with the different family members transitioning their roles. We can take a lot more strategic approach to company growth. As others step into their roles, like Steve with CEO, there is a lot of strategic planning. Parts of his other roles I’ll do now like looking at different opportunities, looking at strategic alliances that we have out there.

Ag tech is something that’s on the horizon – there are so many opportunities that you need to figure out what you strategically align with. We’ll be looking at that.

Also, I’ll be working on communications, both internally and externally. I’ll look at how we get everything aligned so we’re having consistent messaging. We want to make sure we’re communicating to both our employees and the outside, as the same family-owned-and-operated company we want to be.

An illustration of Sukup's largest grain bin in Mason City, Iowa
Photo credit: Sukup

SF: Sukup is experiencing tremendous growth in several ways. Tell me more about what this season looks like for the business and the vision for it to continue.

ES: We’ve seen the farm site is ever growing. We’ve seen large bins, such as we have up in Mason City, the largest bin ever – 2.2 million bushels.

There’s also the added technology. In the past, growth has been added through product lines, but next will be technology, as well. We’re seeing all these ag tech start-ups out there. How do we connect the way that will function within Sukup Manufacturing?

We were the first company to have the QuadraTouch. You can text your dryer and it will text you back.

Our growth is also internal. With the added roles within our office (COO and CFO), we’re trying to add more of a developmental org chart so that, within our company, we can set up success as much as we can.

SF: Tell me about what COVID-19 has meant for your business and how you serve farmers.

ES: We are a family-owned-and-operated business, and that has been a tenant of our COVID response. We have a team that, in the beginning, was doing a response call daily. We tapered that off as needed. We all came to the occasion,  educated ourselves on what we needed to learn, and started implementing measures for the safety of our employees.

Back in March, we had to remote 70% of our office staff. We had not had that remote culture or practice before. Our IT staff has been absolutely amazing. We’ve kept around 50% occupancy in our office. We’ve done bracelets to show how comfortable you are social distancing – red, yellow, green.

We’ve also been fortunate to have an onsite clinic. That has been really great during COVID.

Communication is big. We used a texting platform connected to a keyword that would send automated forms or links to our employees.

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