2021 Ag Predictions

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Show Notes

farm credit agvocates podcast interviews Stuart Cooper, chief lending officer

On this week’s episode of the Farm Credit AgVocates podcast, we talk with Stuart Cooper, MidAtlantic Farm Credit’s Chief Lending Officer. Stuart has a long history with Farm Credit (25 years!), but his passion for customer experience didn’t start there. In this episode, we talk about how Stuart’s career as a hotel manager prepped him for a life in sales, and how his team did a complete 180 as COVID-19 swept across our communities. Not only that, but we discuss what MidAtlantic is doing to prepare for whatever 2021 may bring, and what the future of our industry will look like, beyond the pandemic we’re facing today.

Stay tuned after this interview to learn more about our Member Assistance Program – a valuable resource to help you cope with a variety of curveballs life throws us. 

 

Links:

Government Assistant Programs:

MidAtlantic Farm Credit Member Assistance Program

MidAtlantic Farm Credit Pandemic Update
Farm Credit Foundation for Agricultural Advancement

Transcript

Jenny Kreisher:

Welcome back to the Farm Credit Agvocates podcast. I'm your host, Jenny Kreisher, Director of Communications at MidAtlantic Farm Credit. My guest today is Stuart Cooper, our Association’s Chief Lending Officer. Stuart’s been with Farm Credit for 25 years and today oversees our Association’s sales and customer service teams. I have the pleasure of working with Stuart on many projects because, well, you can't have marketing without sales and vice versa. Stuart’s got a heart of gold and a real passion for helping others, which has never been more evident than over the past several months, as many of our members have struggled with the COVID-19 pandemic. I'm excited to speak with him today in more detail about not only this, but what we anticipate 2021 bringing. I think we can all agree, we're ready to say goodbye to 2020. So without further ado, welcome to the pod Stuart. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Stuart Cooper:

You’re welcome Jenny. Glad to be here today.

Jenny:

Do you mind telling us a little bit about your history? I know you grow up on the Shore, but maybe give our listeners a little background on your life and agriculture.

Stuart:

I grew up on a poultry and grain farm on Maryland’s Eastern shore. My, grandmother farmed and my father farmed. And today, my brother and I still have a farm in practice and we grow grain, corn and soybeans. I'm fortunate enough to live on the farm as does my brother who lives right next door. And we have the great benefit of being only about 10 minutes from the Ocean City, Maryland. So great place to live.

Jenny:

Well, something that I learned about you not too long ago, but I always find fascinating is how you actually once managed a hotel in Ocean City.

How long ago did you do that and what did that experience teach you?

Stuart:

Yes, I did. I actually spent 17 years at that hotel with little stint in between. I worked at a commercial bank, but, for the last six years I was there, I did manage it. It was, a great experience. And I had a great boss who taught me a lot about customer experience marketing and just how to run a business. The hotel businesses is a service business and it's much like our industry. We want to provide a great customer experience and having this background certainly helped me with my career at Farm Credit.

Jenny:

I can only imagine.

After those 17 years, what was it that made you realize you were ready to make a career change and what brought you to Farm Credit?

Stuart:

As I stated, my brother and I were farming and, I hadn't really planned on leaving the hotel business, but I walked into a Farm Credit office, the local office, to get an operating note. And the lady there that, who was the CSR at the time, mentioned there was an opening for a loan officer position, and she thought I would be someone that may be interested in it. And, I did have a background. I have my college degree is in economics and I thought, you know, farming, finance, they kind of go hand in hand. So I went ahead and applied. Unfortunately, I didn't get chosen for the position, but about six months later, they called back and made me an offer. And that was 25 years ago.

Jenny:

Talk about being at the right place at the right time.

Stuart:

You know, I often think the hotel business and working with Farm Credit, it's about building relationships and earning the trust of members, and giving a great customer experience.

Jenny:

Well that passion that you have for our membership and for helping others is something that I'm very fortunate to be able to see every day.

How do you instill that passion and that mindset within your team members?

Stuart:

I believe is it's basically two-fold. As a leader, I need to share that passion to my team and encourage them, and that builds on. It's just that building block that continues. And then, they have to have that same passion as well. And most of our employees come from a farming background and they just have a passion to serve farmers.

Jenny:

Yeah. I definitely see that. I know a lot of our employees are farmers themselves and come from that background. And that definitely helps when they have to work with their same community members every day.

Well, it definitely goes without saying that this past year has tested all of us in brand new ways. You and your team have had to completely shift gears once this pandemic took a hold of our communities and our industry.

What did we do to reach out to our customers at the onset of COVID back in March, which now feels like, a hundred years ago at this point? What did we do to reach out to our members and how did you guys see communication between us and our membership change?

Stuart:

COVID has certainly changed the way we do business, but fortunately our staff was proactive and it all really came down to communications. It first started with management to staff and communicating to them reassuring staff that we're going to work with our customers, work with our members, and to just kind of go over the tools that we had to work with as members. The next step was for our staff to reach out to our members. They made phone calls, they sent emails, they sent texts, and they just really reached out to our customers. Then additionally, our marketing department, you included, had a post on our website, we created a pandemic site for our members. And to be clear, and this was not a one and done. We had regular staff meetings, virtual of course, just to get feedback and find out what our membership was experiencing. Then we tailored messages based upon that feedback. At the time it was certainly all hands on deck and a lot of time was spent by staff just to make sure our members were informed of what we can do for them.

Jenny:

We definitely ramped up the email communications, but I also remember talking to a lot of sales team members throughout this time about how texting was pivotal. I mean, it was definitely something used beforehand, but I think the use of cell phone messaging and text messaging and FaceTime was also on the rise as we kind of navigated the whole closing of the offices and limiting customer visits.

Stuart:

It was really amazing to me, not only did our staff encompass these new avenues as far as contact, but our membership did too. I mean the cell phone, Zoom meetings, the virtual meetings, and it continues to be embraced, I still miss the face-to-face contact, but at this point we're providing that safety measure that we need to put in place at this time.

Jenny:

You mentioned before about some of the different tools we have to help our members.

Could you maybe elaborate a little bit more on what specifically we've been able to offer those members who were impacted?

Stuart:

We have the opportunity to do a lot of note modifications for our members. We did offer the option of deferring payments on loans. That was something we had never done before and we put that in place. We extended payments and we also put in place PPP loans. We got that up and running. We did miss the first round of that, but we were able to get up for the second round. In addition to that, we've provided information to our membership on government programs, such as CFAP and SBA loans. And then because we work in five states, there are numerous local COVID assistance programs which we've provided members information on. I am truly proud of our staff and how they came together. When we face this adversity, it is a total team effort. Sales is just the front end piece, but our operations department, our underwriting, the processing - they all had to find new ways of working together, most of them from home. If anything, we actually have processed more loans in 2020 than we have in the last 10 years on an annual basis. There’s something really to say for our team and how they came together to serve our members.

Jenny:

For our listeners, something that we talk a lot about at Farm Credit is our culture. We like to say that all 250 plus of us are on one team. I have to agree with you, Stuart - that one team culture definitely has shown through this year. And it's made me super proud to work with all of, all of them too. There's not one department I think that has gone un-impacted, that's for sure.

Stuart:

No. And it is really a great team effort. It's a one team. We often use that term around here, one team. We need each other to get the work done in order to serve our membership.

Jenny:

We like to recognize how resilient farmers and the ag industry as a whole really are. I think anyone who we work with and who we work for would agree with that.

As much as we're all looking forward to turning the page on 2020 and starting fresh in 2021, what do you think our industry can expect as we head into this New Year?

Stuart:

In the ag business right now, we see opportunities where people are making changes in the way they provide products and services from the farm. We still have concerns with the recent uptick in COVID cases, and the states moving back to more restrictive guidelines, we felt, like most of our membership, that this pandemic would be over soon, but it continues. And we're just not sure what issues are going to continue and what issues we may face here in the next six, 12 months.

As you said, our farmers are resilient. And as I mentioned, they've already shifted delivery channels for their products to meet these new demands. I think that's what I've seen and it’s actually a good thing. It's made many of our members and our farmers look to be more efficient and be more innovative, which to me is exciting. And it bodes well for the membership in the industry. You know, we expect to see more of this innovation to take place in the coming years, and they're going to do things to keep their operations viable. And that's what really excites me. And that’s what we as an organization are here to help them with - making those changes that they need to make.

Jenny:

That actually brings up another question I wanted to ask: what are we as an association doing to prepare to help our members into next year? As you mentioned, seeing them change kind of how they're shifting their businesses and we definitely are expecting to see more of that into next year.

What are we doing as an Association to prepare for 2021?

Stuart:

It goes back to communications. We're constantly in communication with our members. We're asking them, what do they need? What do they need in their operation; what kind of tools can we provide them; what kind of loan structures can we provide? Our Association is built to help our membership during this time of crisis, and as our mission statement states, we're here in good times and bad, and that's what we want to be. We built the organization to provide this support during this time period. I do encourage our members if they have an issue to reach out to a loan officer or to discuss changes in their operation. Let them know and let us see what we can do to help. Everyone’s business and financial situation is unique. And that's what we specialize in, working with each member to find a specialized solution that’s just right for them. Then on top of that, if there are concerns, we do have a membership assistance program. We offer it 24/7 and it's helpful content for just about any situation. Just go to our website, mafc.com/map. Again, I just remind folks that it's free and it's available to them. And then on top of that we do have other services that we can provide. We can provide referrals to COIs, attorneys, appraisers - different people in the industry that they may need to reach out to during this time.

Jenny:

You mentioned earlier how you found kind of a passion for customer experience back when you were the hotel manager that you've taken into your new role. So kind of switching gears, but also to the same theme of preparing for the future. Something that we talk a lot about at MidAtlantic is member experience. That's a project that you are very immersed in and one of those conversations is about the Farmer of the Future and what they look like. Not only in 2021, but beyond. We’re talking 10, 20 years into the future.

At a leadership level, what are we doing to prepare for what that farmer of the future will look like? And what are we doing for what we're anticipating in that regard?

Stuart:

As you mentioned, we have what we call an MX committee and it's really a customer experience committee. We're always looking at that customer experience. And as we look to the future, you know, as we know today our farmers are getting older. I think the average age of them is somewhere around 58 or 60 years old. We need to look at that and see what is changing in our industry. I believe COVID has sped up this change, but just as I said earlier, farmers are resilient. I do see changing in many of our farmers today. Especially your younger farmers, they're more tech savvy, they're more educated, they're more sophisticated, they're more connected. You know, the internet has definitely changed the world and made it a smaller place.

Just like any industry, ag is no different. When we think about it, you could be a small-scale vegetable grower on the Eastern Shore and sell the products to someone in California. You could ship it overnight. Our farmers are no longer geographically bound and they can sell anywhere in time. I think that holds true for lending. I think that farmers are presented with a lot of options. They can go online, they can look for these opportunities. So as a company, we need to be more sophisticated. We need to be more tech savvy and our loan officers need to do the same thing. We’re doing a lot of training with our loan officers. We're doing a lot of things with improving and implementing our services here at MidAtlantic

As you know, we're using the internet and all the options that we have with that to reach out to a customers and garner new business, or to provide information to our current business. So, you know, all those things that we see our customers doing, and we're going to do the same and get ahead of the curve and be available for them. The key is that relationship. And no matter what avenue you reach us through, we want to create that customer experience, customer relationship that we've always provided historically. I still think that the key to moving forward is just perhaps how do we do that in the future and what products and services that we can provide.

Jenny:

You mentioned earlier about the number of opportunities that you see and how exciting that is. And it's true, it's exciting times, and I'm very happy to be a part of that here at MidAtlantic and make sure that we're communicating and keeping in touch with our members the way that they want to be. It’s exciting stuff.

Stuart:

It truly is. And I mean, I can tell you, we have a staff here at MidAtlantic that just embraces the changes. And, and as we said, this MX committee, we have a lot of ideas coming from our younger staff, and I think they can relate to what's happening in the world and in the ag community. And I really do think we're getting ahead of the curve here and we're going to be a formidable company in the future as well. We're going to be here another a hundred years.

Jenny:

Well, that kind of brings me to my next question. And, this is the time of year we always reflect on what we've learned over the past 11 months and how we can apply those lessons to the New Year.

What do you think the biggest lesson has been for MidAtlantic this year and what have we started to do differently as a result?

Stuart:

I think, and maybe this is even a personal thing not only a MidAtlantic thing, but it is staying connected. And really, again, going back to that term, communication. I personally learned that I had to really make an effort of staying connected with staff and really listening to them as they deal with our membership, and getting that feedback and making adjustments and making sure our members are getting information they need to make decisions.

Jenny:

What do you think will stick with you most, once we get through all of this? Do you have a memory or something that will stick with you throughout your career now?

Stuart:

Absolutely. I think for me personally, we had the SBA and PPP programs. It only took a couple of weeks to get that up and running once we made the decision to move forward with it, but the amount of time that we spent doing that and how we had a team here that just really came together to focus on getting that done. That's going to stick with me for a long time. For me personally, I saw that when everyone has their heads down and driving the same direction, just what you can accomplish.

Jenny:

I will never forget that like 10 hour WebEx we were on.

Stuart:

Yeah, that was a heck of a day, wasn't it? I do think again, , just seeing our teams pull together, as we mentioned, it is a one team effort here at MidAtlantic.

Jenny:

Absolutely. So as we're winding down here,

what advice do you have for producers who might be a little worried about next year? Or what are some steps that producers can take to make sure that they're prepared for whatever 2021 brings?

Stuart:

Like I mentioned a few minutes ago, I think they have to stay connected, too. I encourage them again, to reach out to your loan officer, not only with questions about your lines, but if you have industry questions as well. We have a staff that's knowledgeable about certain industries and we continue to look for ways to help our membership and provide services. We're going to be introducing some new services here soon. And I think, again, it's just an opportunity for them to help them with their operations. Also, reach out not only their loan officer, but if they have others within the organization, their CSRs are always available to help. I would encourage them to reach out and also to look at our website. We have a lot of information that could be useful there.

Jenny:

You've also mentioned earlier about making sure that you stay connected with COIs and your industry partners. We work closely with them every day on a variety of different projects.

What are some other resources that are out there right now for producers? In addition to working with their loan officer, what are some of the resources available?

Stuart:

We get a lot of referral business, so I always encourage people to reach back out to their neighbor or the person that referred them. Friends, families, their attorneys or CPAs, there's insurance folks. I just encourage anybody that they do business with, if they're having issues or payment situations or anything like that, just reach out. Let those other industry folks know what they're experiencing, but then again, I would say the number one thing, reach out to us and see what we can do to help.

Jenny:

I really appreciate your time, Stuart. You are such a gem to work with, and I really appreciate you taking your time out of your busy schedule to talk with me on the podcast today. I do have one more question before I let you go back to your day. And that question is the one we ask everyone:

What do you advocate for in agriculture?

Stuart:

I guess for me personally there is a connection with growing food. You know, it gives me a sense of satisfaction. As I mentioned earlier, my brother and I still farm. And there’s a satisfaction I get from planting that crop and seeing it grow and harvesting it. And knowing that it ends up as food either for an industry growing chickens or some other product, it just gives me a sense of satisfaction. I think this pandemic has certainly highlighted just how important farmers are. We've all seen the long lines at food banks and different things. So I will always be an advocate for ag and to me, it’s all of ag. It's just not the traditional ag or what we've done in the past. It’s the new innovation, it’s the new production methods, and it’s the new delivery methods. It’s the hydroponic greenhouses, it’s the vertical farming. I think that's just exciting to see that and how the ag industry is changing. I truly think these are exciting times for our industry.  I'm excited as a leader in the Farm Credit System that we'll be making decisions today that will help those farmers of the future and for our farmers to stay relevant and successful.

Jenny:

I appreciate your time Stuart again. Thank you very much.

And thank you all for tuning in. Please rate, review, subscribe, and share this podcast with a friend you can head on over to mafc.com/podcast for all of the notes from today's episode and past ones. And there you can subscribe to get email alerts for all future episodes. And if you have any topic or guest suggestions, please email us at podcast@mafc.com. That's all for today. Thank you all so much. Happy holidays, and we'll see you next time.