David Buck, Head of Agribusiness.

Having spent my career supplying products and services to farmers and a range of agribusiness customers, my move into executive search four years ago has given me an opportunity to gain an even broader view of the industry we serve at Eden Search & Select.

Naturally, concerns about Brexit dominate almost everything we read and hear about at the moment – both inside and outside of the sector. So I thought I’d share a few observations and insights that might give you a different perspective – and perhaps something to consider in your own business?

Is it time to ‘Hug a Trader?’

Recently I’ve worked on several, high-level, senior projects, which have required candidates to have experience of trading grain or, as a minimum, a good understanding of the use of risk management tools.

While the rewards within many businesses can be lucrative for traders, the skills shortage in this specialist activity appears to be getting no better – making candidate engagement discussions somewhat ‘challenging’. Most recently, what has surprised me has been feedback from candidates. Many feel there is a lack of interest in the sector in career development and some have even expressed concerns that their careers have started to stagnate.

This seems to indicate that a fear of the future is starting to take hold across many parts of the agribusiness industry. More worrying perhaps is the perception that ‘normal’ market difficulties are no longer being seen as ‘short-term’ issues. The usual hurdles faced in the sector, combined with uncertainties over Brexit, are making short-term problems seem like longer-term issues that could eventually lead to Armageddon!

Of course it’s true that the pendulum always swings. Trading cycles within agricultural merchanting and general agribusinesses do often feel like ‘feast or famine’. But what seems to be emerging from an increasing number of people that we talk to is the feeling that businesses are now taking a much shorter-term view and making fewer investments in their personnel and in their teams. This in turn is leading some skilled senior professionals to feel that their chances of career progression are limited or, worse, just not available.

Some of the candidates we’ve spoken to feel that to progress their career they should leave their old specialism behind and gain broader management experience or new skills because the business they work for can’t or won’t invest in them.

For a sector so short on skills this is bad news. While some may argue that consolidation will eventually throw new people on to the market, companies are at risk of losing their best talent if time is not spent nurturing individuals’ needs and, importantly, looking at how traditional sales and wider business structures could evolve in a changing landscape.

Fundamentally, business owners have two choices. They can either baton down the hatches and hope that after a short-term loss of talent things will return to normal. Or, they can embrace the changes coming over the hill. Some of our clients have opted for the latter approach and are starting to look proactively at different ways to organise their businesses to create and provide new senior roles that can drive change, and help them stay competitive. In doing so, these companies are able to take advantage of the current situation – and are managing to attract talent away from businesses that are scared to change or simply a bit stuck in the past.

Some of the companies that we’ve spoken to, that are taking action, believe that the challenges a new subsidy scheme will surely bring will alter customer demands and therefore force a new way of working. These forward-looking companies see this as an opportunity to really change their businesses and invest in people that will bring in new ideas. For example, energy and environmental skill sets for advice givers or digitization specialists who can truly maximise social media (rather than the odd tweet) to develop new technology trading platforms.

For me, it’s a question of when, not if, change is going to happen. Drones and artificial intelligence systems are undoubtedly going to start playing a bigger role. New technologies will inevitably start to carry out some of the work currently conducted by very well paid agronomists. Commodity trading will become more reliant on intelligent software, and one click marketing platforms will invariably replace some of the judgement and activity needed by today’s traders.

Obviously, no one can see the future but the sector needs to start thinking about the process of change and how best to embrace it. Whatever part of the agribusiness sector you work in, change is coming – so don’t get caught out. Now is the time to hug a trader, talk about their aspirations and discuss some of the old behaviours and hierarchies that might not be fit for the future.

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