The Century Club
The winds of March blew cold across the fields of Chariton County as seven men made their way on horseback to a one-room schoolhouse near Brunswick. The woodstove provided comfort for the meeting, but the real fire that night burned in the words of a Columbia publisher:
“When conditions are such that out of every dollar paid by the consumer, 45 cents — less than half — goes to the producer, the farmer, then evidently something is wrong with the division of the dollar,” wrote William Hirth in a February 1914 issue of The Missouri Farmer. “This is largely the farmer’s fault … because of his independent action, lack of organization, and [lack of] cooperation. The individual farmer may raise his voice against an injustice … but what does it amount to? Let a million or 10 million protests go up … through a united organization, and something will be done.”
Hirth’s words made sense to Aaron Bachtel, a prominent farmer in the area. “It looked so simple and at the same time so far-reaching, that it appealed to me very forcibly,” he remarked years later. Bachtel rallied his neighbors to meet and discuss Hirth’s editorial urging the formation of farm clubs; six joined him on the night of March 10 to form the first farm club, electing Bachtel as president. The seven-member club enacted 100 years ago marked the beginning of the Missouri Farmers Association — Columbia’s MFA Inc.
Americans were living in interesting times in 1914. Henry Ford had just introduced the moving assembly line for production of the Model T; Ford Motor Co. more than doubled autoworker wages to $5 for an eight-hour day. By August, the first electric traffic signal had been installed in Cleveland, Ohio. Babe Ruth made his professional baseball debut in the spring, pitching a six-hit, 6-0 shutout for the Baltimore Orioles. The Panama Canal opened to ship traffic that summer as war erupted in Europe, a conflagration that eventually would envelop the globe in the first world war. The New York Stock Exchange closed for four months; two weeks after bond trading reopened, stock sales resumed with disastrous results, dropping 24.39 percent, the largest one-day percentage drop in the history of the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
The prices of real goods — fuel, metal products and building supplies — began to rise, however, at the end of 1914. And by then, the veracity of William Hirth’s arguments for cooperatives had struck home for Aaron Bachtel and his fellow farm club members. In the summer, the Newcomer Schoolhouse Farm Club put in its first group order with Hirth for 1,150 pounds of binder twine. Hirth followed up that fall with a coal contract for the club that locked in prices until the next March. As the war-fueled price of coal began to rise, Bachtel began receiving carloads of coal at the cheaper, contracted price, which he distributed to his fellow farm club members.
“One car I got in, I told all the farmers, regardless of whether they were members or not, to come in and get coal just the same, with one provision: when they got their coal, if they thought the farm club was really worthwhile, they were to pay their dues and become members,” Bachtel later recalled. “They did, all but one man. And I’ve never liked him since.”
Buying as a group saved the farm club $400 on its first few transactions. News of the club’s newfound strength in numbers spread like wildfire across the state, Hirth fanning the flames with the pages of his magazine. By the 1920s, 400 farm clubs had formed, all affiliated with the Missouri Farmers Association. From that grassroots beginning in 1914, MFA grew to become the largest business enterprise in the state through the middle of the 20th century.
Today, MFA Inc. is the oldest regional farm supply and marketing co-op in the United States, and the 17th largest. Headquartered in Columbia, it serves more than 45,000 members in Missouri and the surrounding states through MFA Agri Services Centers, locally owned affiliates, privately owned enterprises and agribusiness partnerships, delivering about $1.5 billion in sales annually. Nationally, MFA ranks in the top 10 among agricultural cooperatives for retail sales; storefronts; fertilizer, grain, seed and crop protection sales; and custom application and precision agriculture services. About 1,600 work for the cooperative, 205 in Columbia, making it one of the largest employers in Boone County. Two other major local companies — MFA Oil Co. and Shelter Insurance Cos. — are spinoffs from MFA Inc.
A century of operation is a milestone that few businesses can claim. In the 1920s, the average lifespan of companies on the S&P 500 Index was 67 years, according to Yale University researcher Richard Foster; today, they last about 15 years. The most important factor for survival is an emphasis on innovation and reinvention, Foster says. MFA CEO Bill Streeter knows his cooperative is no different.
“Agriculture is a changing business, and we must change with the times,” Streeter told members at the cooperative’s annual meeting last November as they kicked off the centennial celebration. “We will never lose sight of the fact that this is what we’re about: serving the farmer at reasonable returns.”
“Ask me what I like best about working for MFA,” Streeter prompts, and then obliges with his answer.
“I have never been asked to do anything dishonest or irresponsible,” he says. “I’ve never cheated a customer. MFA doesn’t pollute the environment and it doesn’t neglect customer or employee safety.”
It comes down to exemplary customer service, he says. “Today’s commercial farmer is well-educated and sophisticated. Our employees have to know more than the customer to help the customer make a good buying decision. We’re not here just to make a dollar today; we have to make that dollar tomorrow and the next day and the next day and the next.”
MFA has to satisfy its customers all the time, Streeter adds. “Farmers don’t make a buying decision once a year or once a month when they write a check for seed or feed or supplies. They make a buying decision every time they look at their fields, every time they look at their milk records, every time they look at their livestock. We have to make our customers happy every day.”
That’s an apt philosophy coming from one who ascended through MFA’s executive tiers from a sales background. The 65-year-old CEO took the reins in 2009 and created a strategic plan to guide the cooperative back from its worst sales year in the depths of the Great Recession.
“We’ve made it up,” he says. “Agriculture has had four good years. We’re not yet where we want to be, but we have room to take risks.”
Born in Rosedale, Miss., Streeter was the son of a towboat captain on the Mississippi River. His family moved to Lilbourn, Mo., in New Madrid County when he was 2 years old. He earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from the University of Missouri in 1970. After a hitch in the Army as a field artilleryman that included a tour of duty in Vietnam, Streeter returned to Columbia in April 1973 and hired on with MFA. He worked in the crop protection division as a technical sales representative.
“I actually started in the MFA Oil division,” he says. “It was still a part of MFA Inc. then and that’s where our chemical division was located.”
Streeter worked with MFA stores in the eastern half of Missouri, expanding his knowledge of the cooperative’s livestock, animal health and warehousing operations. “If you’d asked me what a CEO was back then, I couldn’t have told you,” he says. But he was a quick study in management, and moved up through the ranks, becoming manager of the farm supply division by 1978. He continued his climb, spending four years as sales manager of the retail division, and 12 years as vice president of corporate sales. In 1998, Streeter was named senior vice president of retail operations, where he served until his predecessor, CEO Don Copenhaver, retired. Streeter became CEO on March 1, 2009.
When Don Copenhaver announced his plans in 2008 to retire in 2009, MFA had just posted its most profitable year in history — $45 million to the good. But a global financial crisis and capricious weather swept away the black ink as fertilizer stocks, sitting unused in warehouses, plummeted in value. Markets crashed and business floundered; just one year after record gains, MFA posted a historic loss of $64 million in 2009. Streeter knew he had work to do, and he was up for the challenge.
“I’m right where I want to be,” he told the managers meeting in August 2009. “I wouldn’t trust anyone else.”
Streeter started trimming MFA’s operations — 10 percent of the employees were let go, nonstrategic assets were shut down or sold. New purchases or expansions had to pay for themselves in seven years or less.
Facilities are under constant assessment. “We spend $16 to $18 million a year on updating and replacing equipment,” he says. “We are constantly modifying our infrastructure.”
When the MFA board of directors hired Streeter as CEO, he told them he had two goals for the organization: develop a strategic plan and implement a detailed, written employee training program.
The executive team drew up a list of 17 corporate strategies covering finance, operations and human resources. A rolling, three-year set of action plans accompanies each strategy.
“We go through a process before the beginning of each fiscal year where we analyze our strengths and challenges, identify opportunities in the marketplace, create financial objectives based on strength and market forces, and look at our key competition,” Streeter says. “These strategies form a roadmap for senior management and the board of directors.”
Streeter hired a corporate trainer to develop educational programs for employees in all divisions. The LEAD program (Leadership Exploration and Development) cultivates managers and future leaders. A dedicated classroom in the Columbia headquarters hosts on-site sessions; trainers also travel to other MFA facilities.
“Bill Streeter is dedicated to an educated workforce,” says MFA Chairman of the Board Don Mills. “Today’s agriculture is a complex enterprise. Farmers and ranchers are responsible for tremendous assets and complex technology. They need to rely on their cooperative to stay ahead of changes in the industry. Only employee education can provide that edge.”
Gen. Douglas MacArthur is Streeter’s inspiration for his employee development plans. “While MacArthur was taking the Philippines in World War II, he already had a plan for Japan,” Streeter notes. “And at MFA, once we achieve a goal, we need to be prepared to take the next step.”
A self-described “big-picture guy,” Streeter’s already looking where to take those next steps. He sees new markets opening with innovations such as precision agriculture services — GPS-led crop data and specific-site crop management that can deliver pinpoint accuracy for soil tests, chemical analysis and yield projections. His wish list for growth includes an MFA presence in every county in Missouri, and expanded ventures into neighboring states — Kansas, most likely.
Sales targets are monitored monthly and reviewed with regional and division managers every six months.
The balance sheet is the tool by which MFA will position itself for the future, says board chairman Mills. “MFA’s management and board are dedicated to a strong, healthy balance sheet,” Mills says. “You can have good intentions, but if you’re not fiscally fit, you’ll fail. MFA is on the forefront of today’s agriculture and we are dedicated to staying there. We minimize our weakness, build on our strengths and act on our opportunities.”
“MFA has lasted so long because we have a culture that has remained sharply focused on doing what we were founded to do,” says Mills. “All of our products, services, facilities and long-range plans are developed with farm families’ best interest in mind. That keeps us relevant.”
People trust what they know, Streeter says. “For 100 years, we’ve had the trust and confidence of the owners. We’ve always had an interested membership and an engaged board. We’re small enough that the model works and big enough to provide the resources to make it work.”
Snapshot: MFA At 100
$1.5 billion annual sales
180+ facilities & affiliates in Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Iowa
1,600 employees companywide
205 employees in Columbia
- Plant Foods
- Crop Protection
- Farm Supply
- Animal Health
- Transportation & Distribution
- Cache River Valley Seed LLC, Cash, Ark.
- Mid-State Seed LLC, Marshall, Mo.
- AGRIServices of Brunswick LLC, Brunswick, Mo.
- Central Missouri AGRIService LLC, Marshall, Mo.
Sizing Up MFA
According to Crop Life magazine, in 2013 MFA ranked nationally:
5th in in precision agriculture
6th in storefronts
8th in seed
9th in retail sales
9th in plant foods
9th in custom application
10th in grain
10th in crop protection
The U.S. Department of Agriculture ranks MFA Inc. as No. 17 on the list of the 100 largest cooperatives in the nation.
Proud Past, Bright Future:
MFA Incorporated’s First 100 Years
By Chuck Lay
A century in business is no mean feat, and MFA is marking the occasion with a book. Written by Chuck Lay, MFA communications director and Today’s Farmer executive editor, Proud Past, Bright Future is a fascinating narrative detailing the tumultuous history and soaring success of the cooperative.
Lay takes readers on a journey through commerce from horse and buggy days to world wars, from market crashes to backroom machinations and boardroom revolts. MFA leaders hobnobbed with the most powerful people in the world, and many of those power brokers made pilgrimages to Missouri just to be seen at the cooperative’s gatherings.
For Lay, a 25-year MFA employee, writing the 184-page book was a labor of love for a history geek who “believes strongly in what MFA stands for and what the cooperative accomplishes for its members. I am fascinated by history and the concept of modern man standing on the shoulders of giants. Over the years, I would periodically stumble across priceless pieces of history and knew they needed to be preserved.”
The history, alongside dozens of historic photographs and artifacts, has been preserved in the large, coffee-table book. Priced at $29,99, it’s available online through Today’s Farmer at www.todaysfarmermagazine.com/shop, at Columbia MFA Agri Services on Paris Road and at MFA’s home office on Ray Young Drive.
In its 100-year history, MFA has had six leaders. Here’s a look at the men who made a difference.
– William Hirth: The publisher of The Columbia Statesman and The Modern Farmer, Hirth’s passion for organizing farmers was the driving force behind the formation of MFA, although he didn’t hold the title of president until 1928, when he moved to protect MFA from a takeover bid. A loosely federated web of independent associations with often conflicting agendas, MFA was the largest cooperative in the country by the 1930s. Hirth established MFA Oil Co. in 1929 as a tightly structured business within the co-op. Hirth died in 1940; MFA purchased The Modern Farmer from his estate and renamed it Today’s Farmer, the cooperative’s official publication.
– Fred Heinkel: Hirth’s protégé went into farming because he was too young to get a teaching certificate. Inspired by a Hirth speech, Heinkel immediately joined his local MFA farm club. He moved up in the organization, becoming Hirth’s vice president in 1936; the membership elected him president after Hirth died, and every year thereafter for 39 years. Heinkel presided over the cooperative’s greatest membership growth and expansion of enterprises. MFA boasted 100,000 members in 1946; its “gate to plate” vertical integration of products offered everything from farm supplies to groceries. Heinkel formed MFA Insurance Co. in 1945, after MFA lost a court case and its insurance company defaulted. He was the instigator of the successful effort to create a four-year medical school on the University of Missouri campus in Columbia. He lost his re-election bid for the MFA presidency in 1979.
– Eric Thompson: The MFA personnel director stunned the state when he defeated Fred Heinkel for the MFA presidency in 1979. He promised to stay no more than six years. He took over a cooperative that was financing growth with too much debt as the nation plunged into another farm crisis. Thompson’s changes included reshaping MFA operations into a tighter corporate structure, consolidating operations and placing the selection of president in the hands of the board of directors. MFA Insurance split off and renamed itself Shelter Insurance in 1981. Thompson further streamlined by combining the roles of the president and executive vice president into the CEO. He wrote himself out of a job.
– Bud Frew: The first CEO of MFA, Frew was a mechanical engineer who came to MFA from Growmark, He’d been fired by Fred Heinkel and hired back by Eric Thompson. Frew held off merger attempts and bond write-downs in that first loss-filled year. MFA Inc. relinquished membership on the board of MFA Oil, although the cooperatives continue a close working relationship. Frew had a flair for the dramatic: In a confrontation with St. Louis bankers, Frew once threw a set of keys on the table and walked out, telling the bankers they could just run the place themselves if they didn’t let him do it his way. The bankers conceded, to Frew’s relief — the keys he’d thrown down were his car keys. When Frew retired in 1998, he had presided over 12 straight profitable years for MFA.
– Don Copenhaver: An accountant by training, Copenhaver kept an eye on the balance sheet while looking for growth opportunities. During his 11 years as CEO, MFA formed partnerships to create private businesses under the MFA Enterprises name. He insisted growth come in targeted business areas that meet specific targets.
– Bill Streeter: When Streeter took over five years ago, he alluded the difference between the breakfast contributions of the chicken and the pig. “The chicken is involved, but the pig is committed,” he said. “Think of me as the pig.” Despite a historic losses in 2009, Streeter refused to retreat, promising no cutbacks in product offerings, employee training or technology adoption. Since then, sales have increased 40 percent and the company’s net worth has nearly doubled.
The MFA Foundation, a partnership between MFA Inc., MFA Oil Co. and other MFA agencies provides a scholarship program that has provided financial assistance to nearly 11,600 college students since it began in 1965. The $15 million educational fund awards close to $700,000 in scholarships each year to more than 300 high school seniors.
The foundation provided seed money for the Bond Life Sciences Center at the University of Missouri, and has contributed to Drury, Stephens, Missouri Valley and Columbia colleges; the University of Missouri Medical School Library and College of Veterinary Medicine; and the new Missouri School of Dentistry & Oral Health at A.T Still University in Kirksville. It also supports youth programs such as 4H, FFA, Agricultural Leaders of Tomorrow, Missouri Young Farmers Association and Missouri Young Farm Wives Association.
The MFA Inc. Charitable Foundation formed in 2005 to support local agencies such as Woodhaven, Job Point and the Food Bank of Central & Northeast Missouri; other funds have gone to community soccer fields, senior citizens centers and church day care programs.
“We strongly believe in giving back to the communities where we operate,” says MFA CEO Bill Streeter. “If it improves the lifestyle of rural America, we’re for it.”