Letting go allows focus on things that ‘move the yardsticks’

If you’re of a certain age, you have to shake your head when you reflect on how much farming has changed in just one generation.

But what about you? How much have you changed? Are you still the hands-on guy who makes all the decisions in a business that has grown 10- or 20-fold since you started out?

Mark Pickard has been there, done that and moved on.

“In every entrepreneur’s life cycle, there’s a time for micro-management,” says the founder and president of InfraReady Products.

“But as you mature, you recognize there are people who can do some of those jobs much better than you. That’s when you stop working in the business and start working on it.”

But there’s a twist here — it’s not about letting go but about getting back to what drove you when you were starting out.

Pickard is a great example of that. He’s a farm boy from Crane Valley, Sask., who followed his father’s advice to get an education and do something else. But he didn’t stray far.

He earned a degree in applied microbiology and food science, an MBA and a job with Saskatchewan Wheat Pool. He then convinced the company to explore the potential of infrared technology, which inactivates enzymes and pre-cooks grain. In doing so, it lowers microbial levels, extends shelf life and reduces cooking time.

That was two decades ago. Today, the Saskatoon company sells more than three million kilograms of food ingredient products a year (nearly 300 in all) to 100 customers, including top global food companies.

And Pickard was the guy who made it happen.

He spotted the market opportunity. He found investors to take the SWP incubator private. He was the science guy, the business leader and anything else he needed to be in a company that started with just two employees.

It was a journey, and unless you’ve lived it, it’s hard to understand why letting go is so tough.

Take, for example, the time in 1997 when his marketing manager resigned just before a big trade show in New Orleans. Pickard hopped on a plane and manned a booth, which was just one of nearly 1,000 in a massive exhibition hall.

“In the last hour of the last day, I was approached by a product developer for a big food company,” Pickard said.

“They had seen we had wild rice, and he asked what we did with it.”

It might have been one of those 15-second conversations — “that’s how chancy it can be” — but the young Canadian pulled it off. He snagged a follow-up meeting that led to a 21-years-and-counting relationship with one of the biggest food companies in the world.

Fast forward a decade, and InfraReady is a big success.

Pickard is still very much “the guy,” but he’s realizing that being deeply involved in every part of the business means he’s spending much of his time “putting out the fires of the day.” Then he looks at the bright people he’s hired and wonders why they couldn’t do a lot of that stuff if he gave them the chance.

The answer, of course, is they could. But before Pickard handed over some of his authority, he had to ask himself some questions.

“OK, so you’ve got this business established. What is it that you want to accomplish? What are the long-term goals that really matter to you? What is it that you wanted to be?”

He calls this “moving into the goals and dreams phase,” and that’s where the twist comes in.

Letting go allowed Pickard to once again focus on what drove him as a young man — the potential of food technology. Today, he says he spends two-thirds of his time on product and business development — the things “that move the yardsticks.”

What will move the yardsticks on your farm? Is it being hands-on-everything and not giving the next generation a chance to run what has become a multimillion-dollar operation?

That’s not Pickard’s advice. Today’s farms are big businesses, he says, and their owners need to think like CEOs rather than micro-managers. His definition of that role is simple and concise: “Have dreams, set the goals and then be the champion.”

How do you do that? Think back. Isn’t that what you did when you started out with that little farm and hardly any money?

And if this great big enterprise you’ve built is going to prosper a generation from now, can you really afford to just focus on the day-to-day?

“If you’re doing the same thing today that you were doing 20 years ago, you’re probably fortunate to be in business,” says Pickard.

“Most of us have to keep changing in order to stay in business.”

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