Customer-focused, member-owned is a sentiment well versed within CoMark Equity Alliance(CEA). The four-word mantra defines how CEA finds opportunities to ensure lasting success for their member-owners.
CEA understands the unique opportunities and challenges that grain operations face. How do companies navigate uncharted territories and an ever-changing agriculture landscape? For CEA it began, as it always has, by understanding their customers' needs and strategizing how to deliver on those needs.
CEA has been evolving to bring the best opportunities up front for its customers.
“We have the opportunity to utilize additional resources more efficiently.”
In 2017, CoMark Grain Marketing (CGM) and Equity Marketing Alliance (EMA) merged to form CoMark Equity Alliance (CEA). Leaders of both organizations saw the opportunity to pool resources and align mutually beneficial objectives to provide even greater value to their member-owners. Prior to the merger, both organizations were already running successful marketing programs. CGM and EMA realized they had very similar goals and cultural values. In addition, driving profitability back to their member-owners was, and remains, a top objective.
“By combining forces, we had the opportunity to utilize additional resources more efficiently,” says Sarah Dodge, CEA Hedge Desk & Purchasing team member. “We could create operational efficiencies that could be brought back to our members.”
Like any forward-thinking business, modern-day grain facilities have strategies to retain team members and efficiently deploy resources. “Keeping these facilities properly invested in to meet and exceed the size, scale, and need of the producer is a worthy challenge,” says Troy Presley, CEA Grain Division Manager. “Producers are getting faster and larger. Having grain facilities keep up with that type of rush is crucial for us to originate grain.”
An additional challenge is competition. Depending on geography — particularly in the grain belt — grain elevators’ proximity to each other can be spaced within less than a mile of each other. Grain operations are always looking at traditional, and inventive, ways to attract and retain busy producers.
The goal of the merger was to give producers more opportunities than they ever could have imagined. In addition, the numerous advantages found between the two companies including economical, geographical, and company cultural gains, facilitated a smooth transition.
“The changing environment in the agriculture industry is amazing.”
CEA has a broad reach that spans four states with 170+ locations. However, CEA understands that size, and size alone, isn't the sole driver for staying competitive. According to Presley, staying competitive in the grain marketing space takes two important components: size and scalability. “Size and scale are often talked about in our industry today — and are thrown around too easily I think,” says Presley. “Size can be measured by many things: locations, acreage, bushels, etc. But to have that scale is important.” With scale, operations have the breadth to service more markets, including domestic, international, and specialty markets.
A critical component aiding in the scalability of companies in today’s fast-paced environment? The implementation of technology. It’s a fast moving trend that can give companies an increased competitive advantage.
Merging brought a plethora of resources to bring technology to customers.
“The volatility piece of ag is so much faster now. How do we stay on top of that? How do we keep our owner-members and our producers in the know?”
Technology and scalability work together with the mindset of “efficiency is king.” Efficient scaling involves working across the supply chain instantly and accurately with tools that will get you there. The exciting part? It's not only for enterprise operations. With the right tools, scalability is within reach for operations of all sizes.
For CEA, the search for a technology tool began with understanding the needs of their customers. Their producers, like many producers, value tools that are easy to use and easy to access. It's not feasible to be tied to a desk to do work that can now be done in real-time from anywhere.
Dodge says, “We’ve had a web-based portal at CEA for quite some time, but as technology has evolved we saw that it might be better to meet producers where they’re at — on their smartphones. Accessibility to digital tools is a barrier for producers when they’re in the field, at their tax accountants' office, or anywhere really.”
An outcome of the merger was the ability to pool resources for initiatives and tools, like technology platforms. The ever-expanding landscape of technology had CEA curious about how to continue their focus of being forward-thinking to meet the needs of their member-owners and producers.
Quatie Jorgensen, CEA’s Hedge Desk Manager & Purchasing team member says, “We heard a lot of good remarks from other coops and companies that had Bushel. That spoke volumes to us on how well of a relationship they formed with their customers and how well the end-product worked.”
For CEA to go outside their organization for their technology solution entailed joining a platform that serves not only the farmers hauling to CEA’s extensive network of individual coops but the coops themselves. Thanks to a strong partnership, CEA’s work with Bushel was able to come to fruition in a manageable timeline. In a world where technology implementation projects can take years, CEA was able to launch their CEA app, powered by Bushel, for their members and producers in a matter of a few months.
And how is CEA using the Bushel platform? They are bringing the features their producers want with the business efficiencies their coops need. Additionally, CEA is making the technology work for them, not working to fit the technology. CEA is finding ways to elevate their resources across information gaps in the industry with the platform.
Director of Farm Advisement Lacey Siebert says, “By themselves, coops could probably afford either to employ someone or employ the app, but for members in the alliance, that cost is spread out.” For Siebert, the app’s presence has provided relief for her team’s resourcing especially as her team works directly with farmers daily. “The app has shifted our team’s time,” says Seibert. “Farmers are not needing us to bring their information to them; they have it at their fingertips. Now the conversation can be more focused on things that will help them manage risk instead of trying to take inventory.”
With Bushel, CEA is having less time with the clerical work and more time having valuable conversations with customers.
“It’s giving our customers more opportunities than they ever could have imagined.”
By finding ways to make their customers succeed through a tool that answers today’s digital demands, CEA continues to stand as an example of a grain operation that is built to serve its member-owners and producers.
Throughout the evolution of CEA, they have put their creed of customer-focused, member-owned at the forefront of its decisions.
For Presley, operating with that mantra today means, “Coming back home at the end of the day we can tell ourselves we did the best job we could to help our neighbors and our community. That effort and investment stays right here in the communities most of us grew up in.”
That is a commitment worth preserving.