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Speaking same language

Richardson International eases transition through communication

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With its agreement to purchase Viterra assets -- including grain handling, crop input and processing facilities -- Winnipeg-based Richardson International has taken its rightful place on the international stage and will soon assume the title of Canada's largest agribusiness. Richardson is a worldwide handler and merchandiser of Canadian-grown grains and oilseeds, and its wealth of expertise in agriculture, oilseed processing and food packaging has made it a global business leader and one of Canada's 50 Best Managed Companies.

"We've stepped back and taken a good look at our business to make sure we are competitive in a global context," president and CEO Curt Vossen says. "To do that, we have had to understand the environment we're operating in and what the parameters are, then holistically look at our assets and how to position them effectively against some of the largest multinationals in the world. We must hold ourselves to the same benchmarks as they do."

Among Richardson International's main assets is its growing workforce, and the privately-owned company plans to integrate 600 new employees into its 1,800-person team with the closing of the Viterra acquisition.

"We wouldn't have the success we have today if it weren't for the commitment of our people," Vossen says. "They are empowered to make a myriad of decisions that the executive team or the senior management team are not able to make on a daily basis. I need them to make those decisions in the context of our values, how we operate and the common purpose with which we seek, and we help them to do that by communicating so that they are well informed and engaged in our end game."

Q: With the Viterra acquisition, you are about to increase your workforce by 30 per cent. What approach are you taking to integrate nearly 600 people into your culture?

A: We learned quite a bit about the integration process when we went through a similar situation in 2007 with our acquisition of Agricore United assets. The first thing to remember is that there's a lot of trepidation and fear of the unknown on the part of employees coming in to a new culture. Who are these people? What are their values and expectations? How will I relate to them and how welcoming of me are they going to be? Therefore, the most important step is to help diffuse some of that concern by engaging personally.

In the past, my senior management team and I visited each business location; we introduced ourselves to staff and asked them about the business they're running. By being able to meet us at the outset, it hopefully demystifies Curt Vossen and senior management so they know that their executive exists and isn't some near mythical notion they've never even seen before. They begin to realize that if management isn't as intimidating as they may have imagined, then surely other people in the company are just as interested and engaged. They see that our style is casual and instead of being hierarchical, it is personable and approachable. It's such a little thing to do, but it's such a human thing to do.

Q: How do you help new employees assimilate into your culture?

A: One thing that really helped with the last acquisition was partnering new employees with existing employees, like an informal buddy system. We figured that if the manager at a new elevator location was paired up with the manager of another location 100 miles up the road, they would be able to get useful, pragmatic information from someone who is in the same position and can relate to their issues. Instead of looking at an organizational chart and wondering who to call at head office when they have a computer issue, have to order widgets or they need dental forms so their kids can go for checkups, they can call their contact directly for answers. As a bonus, the next time the location managers get together for a meeting, they already know each other and have established some familiarity. Suddenly, they're not a stranger in a strange land anymore.

Q: What qualities does Richardson seek when recruiting new employees?

A: Obviously, a cultural fit is important and for us, that fit means an element of selflessness. It's a sense of humility; not to say a lack of pride or confidence, but a certain emotional maturity that says, "I don't have to be political to find my way, I don't have to show off or constantly seek the spotlight." Instead, they need to be effective, competent and a good team player that's fully supportive of and expecting similarly to be supported by their teammates. We want someone who can work within the context of the team and committed to their role on the team. That requires a certain selflessness. They've got to be able to say, it's not about me, it's about us -- now how can we do this together?

Q: What lessons about managing people have you had to learn the hard way?

A: Don't assume that you understand the situation completely at first blush; It's always good to let things digest for a while, so don't jump to conclusions too quickly. The dichotomy of that is don't linger over decisions that need to be made promptly. Particularly with people decisions, don't let them drag on too long or hope the situation will right itself with the passage of time. Compassion is useful but sooner or later, compassion can frustrate the objectives and needs of an organization. Sometimes, you've got to say this is what we have to do for the good of everyone involved.

Q: With a fairly young workforce, how are you developing your talent into the next generation of leaders?

A: I believe in giving young employees hands-on responsibility enhanced with targeted training. I see it in my own children when they talk about their jobs: "They never let me do anything. I have no decision-making capability." They want some responsibility, maybe not authority, but certainly responsibility. The solution is to give them some responsibility and make them accountable so that they have the space to succeed or to make mistakes. That's why we try to provide them with the incremental information to aid them in their day-to-day-progress of learning how to operate within a business environment, but then step back and let them learn from their failures and rejoice in their successes. The people who we see as good future leaders share our values, are committed to learning the business and are engaged passionately in it. Therefore, we look for those who are genuinely interested and inquisitive; we want people who ask not why but rather, "Why not?"

Q: How do you ensure employee engagement once you believe you have the right team in place?

A: We think the key is an ongoing commitment to communication with the entire employee population; taking the time to be accessible and explaining things to people: this is why we need to do it, this is what we need to do and this is your part in making it happen.

Recently, we hosted senior people from a major Japanese customer. After they visited head office here in Winnipeg, they toured our elevators in Mollard and Starbuck and then went to Kelburn Farm, our research and development facility. Then they got on a plane and stopped at our canola seed crush plant in Lethbridge, Alberta, before going on to our Vancouver grain terminal. Afterwards, the feedback I received was that these customers marvelled at how everyone at Richardson speaks the same language. They would ask questions and whether they were talking to senior management or a location manager or farm manager or someone at the crush plant or someone at our West Coast terminal, the answers were similar. Not memorized verbatim, but within the same context and meaning. To me, that's a touchdown. That says taking the time to communicate and collaborate is paying off. If everyone is in lockstep with the same objectives and how we're going to handle ourselves in achieving those objectives, then we will ultimately succeed.

-- with reporting by Barbara Chabai

Sue Kathler, BA, CHRP, is vice-president, HR consulting for People First HR Services. She can be contacted at skathler@peoplefirsthr.com.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 27, 2013 H1

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