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Published April 26, 2010, 01:16 PM

Area grain elevators seek new generation of managers

FINLEY, N.D. — David Fiebiger loves his job and hopes to do it a long time.

By: Jonathan Knutson , Agweek

FINLEY, N.D. — David Fiebiger loves his job and hopes to do it a long time.

“This a good fit for me and my family. This is what I want to do and where I want to be,” says Fiebiger, the 33-year-old manager of Finley (N.D.) Farmers Grain & Elevator Co.

Fiebiger’s age stands out in an occupation where too much age is a growing concern.

Hundreds of the region’s grain elevator managers are in their 50s and 60s, and nobody’s quite sure who will replace them as they retire over the next decade.

“We’re going to need a changing of the guard,” says Bob Zelenka, executive director of the Minnesota Grain and Feed Association.

The average age of general managers of grain elevators in the state is 50.5, with an average tenure of 17.7 years.

It’s the same story in South Dakota, Montana and North Dakota.

“It’s an issue for us, but I don’t know if we have any answers,” says Kathy Zander, executive director of the South Dakota Grain & Feed Association.

In Montana, “we have the same issue as everyone else,” says Krista Lee Evans, executive director of the state Grain Elevator Association.

There are some young grain elevator managers in the state, but more are needed, she says.

A number of Montana elevators had good management training programs, she says.

In North Dakota, 53 percent of grain elevator general managers are 50 or older, according to a survey by the state Grain Dealers Association.

To be sure, age and the experience it brings are valuable qualities for managers, says Steve Strege, the association’s executive vice president.

Even so, he says, “it’s time to start bringing in younger people.”

Demographics might be the biggest reason for for the graying in the ranks of grain elevator management.

“It’s a phenomenon of the baby boomer generation,” Strege says.

Baby boomers refer to people born between 1946 and 1964, a time when birth rates soared. People born in that period are now in their late 40s to early 60s.

Other occupations are feeling the pinch, too. The entire U.S. work force is affected as baby boomers retire, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The need for young blood in grain elevator management is even greater because grain companies did little hiring during tough times for agriculture in the 1980s and ’90s, says Tom Traub, vice president of human resources for CHS.

The St. Paul-based cooperative is a major player in the region’s ag industry.

Fewer hires in the past means fewer people today have the experience and knowledge to move up to the top job at grain elevators, he says.

Good times in agriculture the past few years have led to more hiring recently, he says.

Still, “we’re playing a lot of catch-up,” Traub says.

Addressing the problem

Part of the solution might be having assistant managers move up to the top jobs in their operations, Strege says.

The most likely candidates might be station managers with employees working directly under them, giving those managers personnel experience, he says.

Still, most of the assistants probably would need training before taking over the top job, he says.

The general manager position “has gotten to be a complicated job,” he says.

Grain elevator managers in Minnesota on average make about $80,000 annually and oversee 20 full-time employees, Zelenka says.

Managers today should know at least a little about a lot of things, everything from grain merchandising and agronomy to human resources and public relations, industry officials say.

The skills and personality traits needed in one area don’t always help in other areas, officials say.

There’s another consideration in training station managers for the top job. A lot of them aren’t young either.

Forty percent of North Dakota’s station managers are 50 or older and 37 percent are 40 to 49, according to the state Grain Dealer Association survey.

But even with the obstacles, important steps can be taken to increase the pool of potential elevator managers, says Larry Fuller, Bismarck, N.D.-based director of placement for CHS Business Solutions, which works with member cooperatives on succession planning and hiring.

Those steps include:

n Working to further educate people already in the grain industry on grain management, hedging and management.

n Encouraging cooperative elevators to make plans in advance for what they’ll do when their general members retire.

n Trying to recruit more people without an agricultural background who already possess the necessary people and financial skills.

It’s becoming easier to attract such people because agriculture is faring relatively well while the overall U.S. economy is struggling, Fuller says.

The Midwest also increasingly is seen as a good place to live, he says.

Though CHS is making progress, much work remains, he says.

“We’re taking some good steps. But there are a lot of boomers out there,” he says.

Differing lifestyles

Working at a grain elevator — often located in small, rural communities — isn’t the dream job of many people, particularly young adults, industry officials say.

“It’s not seen as a funky thing to do,” says Keith Brandt, the 58-year-old manager of Plains Grain and Agronomy in Enderlin, N.D., who’s been in the grain industry since 1973.

Think of it this way: A young adult studying agriculture at, say, North Dakota State University in Fargo can shop at the West Acres Shopping Center, attend concerts at the Fargodome and choose among many restaurants. After graduation, that young person might be reluctant to go to work at a grain elevator in a small community that offers only a handful of places to eat, shop and be entertained.

“Maybe you’ll need to move right away to areas where you don’t want to be,” Brandt says, noting that’s true for some other occupations, too.

Managing a grain elevator isn’t always a 9-to-5 job either, which also can make the occupation less attractive, he says.

And there’s a widespread perception that country elevators are “old, dirty, rundown, with a lot of manual labor.” Zelenka says.

The reality is grain elevators are growing in size and sophistication, he says.

Being a grain elevator manager has another benefit, Brandt says.

“You work with very nice people,” he says.

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