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Advice from AgStar CEO: Pick a good spouse, be transparent (and go bowling)

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The following is a conversation between Paul DeBriyn, CEO of AgStar, and Jeff Prouty at The Prouty Project. It’s part of an occasional opinion series on BringMeTheNews, in partnership with Prouty, featuring insights from business leaders.

Prouty: Very few people get to be the CEO of an organization for over a quarter century. But you were promoted to CEO 26 years ago at age 31. What are the three big learnings from your quarter century as CEO?


1) Being smart and getting the job done won’t do it alone. You have to learn how to make relationships and create a network.

2) Keep your message consistent and stay with it. I’m a simple man of “threes.” When I wake up in the morning, I’m thinking about three things, consistently:
• Our team.
• Our clients.
• Our stockholders.

3) If you’re going to have a board, use them and trust them. Take the time, plenty of time, to get the board aligned with management.

If you had to do it over, anything you would have done differently?

My mom raised an optimist. I may have been too trusting at times, and I could have made quicker decisions on people and business situations.

Any advice for the 20-something who thinks he / she wants to be a CEO someday?

Your team members are very, very important. Equally important are their spouses, partners, family. 91 percent of our team is “highly engaged” in our business, we rank 7th in the Best Places to Work in Minnesota list, and we’ve worked hard to get our team and their families engaged in the business.

In 1987, when I took over as CEO, I did 169 (one hundred sixty nine, that’s not a typo) one-on-one interviews. I just listened. Ultimately, we made some tough decisions, eliminating many positions and many offices. I met with every person, again 1-on-1, to tell them their fate. I didn’t want to send out a memo. Think about how you would want to be treated.

We hear some CEOs say, “In hindsight, we should have moved faster.” Are there specific examples of this from your business?

Yes, we had one line of business that we kept for 8-10 years too long. The team members were not well-trained, the clients were not getting great service, and the stockholders were not making any money. I thought we could fix the business, but finally decided we were consuming resources that could be better deployed elsewhere.

How have you focused your time over the years?

One of the smart things I did: I don’t get involved in credit decisions. My skills are in strategy, not in credit decisions.

Having worked with you, I know how important integrity and transparency is. How do you teach that?

I remind our team, “Be prepared to stand in front of 50 people and explain your decision.” We may not always agree with the decision, but we will understand why you made the decision.

You and your wife have raised 4 daughters, now ages 20-30. What advice have you offered them along the way?

• Make yourself unique. Volunteer for stuff others don’t want to do.
• Speak up, share your opinion.
• Build relationships by talking with people, face to face. Listen.
• Be patient. Life isn’t always going to be a “bed of roses.”
• Make the extra effort.

I remind them of the time, when I was 22 years old, driving home on a Friday night from business in North Dakota. I stopped in Grand Forks to say “hello” to a prospective client, and turned that relationship into a new client. You never know what a face-to-face meeting might lead to.

My wife and I have two teenage daughters. Any advice for a father raising daughters?

Drink lots of beer (laughingly), walk away and give them some space (occasionally), and be prepared to play referee (occasionally).

What advice do you have for the 50-year old who thinks he / she wants to be a CEO?

Are you wired to think strategically? Understand that being a CEO is a different role.

You have to anticipate ...
You have to be transparent ...
You have to learn how to manage the Board ...
You have to stay ahead of the Board on issues ...
You have to take on the goal of making the Board as effective as possible ...
You have to do more than report ...
You have to connect the dots ...
You have to create understanding ...
You have to manage the environment ...

How about advice on balancing CEOship with life, marriage, fatherhood?

• Pick a great spouse.
• Always be there to help your kids create a network of friendships and relationships.
• Open doors for your kids, but remind them “it’s all up to you” once the door is open.
• Inspire your kids to “look you straight in the eye, and tell me you did the best you could.”
• Trust your kids.
• Keep listening.

As you think about your retirement in the next five years, how have you prepared your team?

I increased my number of direct reports to get ready for succession. I have positioned many people on our senior team to get strategy experience. I have given many people in the company opportunities to develop their leadership abilities. I have given the Board many talented CEO choices.

Any thoughts on your legacy as the CEO?

I hope AgStar continues to serve a broader, rural America. I hope we continue to have world class results: ROE, Team Engagement, Client Loyalty. And I hope six months after I leave folks say, “The company is even better than it was before.” I want the new CEO to be even more successful than I was.

If your grandkids ask, “Grandpa, what did you do?”, what will you say?

I helped make life in rural America even better, even happier.

Twenty-five years from now, 2039, what do you think AgStar will be?

Substantially larger. We’re 20 times bigger today than when I started as CEO. We could be another 20 times bigger, a $200 billion organization.

We will be very focused on financial services in rural America, as technology will allow us to work from anywhere. Broadband in America will get resolved, soon I hope!

I’ve nudged you to write a book about your “quarter century” of CEOship. There are very few leaders who have the honor of 25 years of CEOship. Any ideas for a possible title?

I don’t know about the title, but I would emphasize a few key themes:

• Develop a process, trust the process, listen (to clients, team members, Board members), connect the dots, and create.
• The sooner you can get to your own authentic style and philosophies, the better.
• The number of zeros in the business may be different, but the issues are very similar.
• Enjoy where you’re at; there’s always something bigger, unless you’re the President of the United States.
• Don’t take yourself too seriously.
• Join the bowling team, even if you’re not a great bowler.
• If you’re not listening to people, it’s very difficult to come to the right answer; figure it out together.
• Don’t be late.
• If you make a mistake (which you will), share it sooner rather than later.
• The CEO knows the least about the grapevine; be open, honest, transparent, always.

Paul, this has been fun. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. Any final “words of wisdom” or “words of strategy” for our readers?

Convey to your team that we’re on a journey, a continuous journey. There’s a plan. Give them confidence in the future. Connect where we’re at “now” to where we’re “going.” No “hard rights” or “hard lefts.” And keep a “little head,” don’t get arrogant, big-headed, ever. Be humble.

And, as I jokingly tell our board, my tombstone will read, “He pushed his Board one too many times ...” Have fun on the journey.

Jeff Prouty founded the Prouty Project in 1987 after seven years with PricewaterhouseCoopers in Minneapolis and New York City. He specializes in working with senior management teams and Boards of directors on strategic planning and team issues.

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