FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Carol Kitchen
April 30, 2019
She’s still new to Calgary – just four years since she joined UFA as its President and CEO – but no newcomer to agriculture or big business. Her name is Carol Kitchen – her member owned co-operative has 1,100 employees (about 200 at headquarters in Calgary) – mostly an Alberta business with some activities in BC, Saskatchewan and Ontario. Going to bat for farmers and ranchers with provincial and federal governments isn’t new for UFA, it’s part of the pedigree. It's not new for Carol Kitchen either - she's been going to bat for ag-business cooperatives most of her career …
If you go searching for information on the UFA – United Farmers of Alberta Co-operative Ltd.– wikipedia links quickly inform or remind you UFA was one of Alberta’s early and long-dominant political parties (governed Alberta from 1921-35) before Social Credit and Progressive Conservative … so I thought it would be interesting to learn about the ‘today version’ of UFA, and to that end I sought out its current CEO. Asking CEO’s for interviews is easy, but getting to YES is not usually easy. And even then, scheduling with very busy people can be a challenge – one I managed to organize recently with Carol Kitchen.
Her beginnings, growing up on a farm – Gibson City, Illinois. Parents both from farming families. Twin sister and younger brother. In high school – she did very well. 2nd in her class. OK, it was a class of 28. Carol’s next steps were rapid – B.Sc. in Accounting from University of Illinois, CPA, Arthur Anderson in Chicago, stepping stones through large agricultural cooperatives in accounting an management roles at Gromark, United Cooperatives of Ontario (Mississauga), Land O’Lakes Cooperative in Ontario, then Seattle as controller for an animal feed business unit – ‘met a guy from Kentucky in a bar in Mississauga’ [husband Jim Kitchen, originally from Minnesota]. Career and family moves back to Minnesota, moves up corporate ladders, earning an MBA from University of Minnesota, running operations units in food products and commodities, JVs in international ag. commodities involving substantial travel and business in Brazil, China, Taiwan and Switzerland – dairy foods, Sr. VP roles and life/career were going great. Then, in October 2014 a Korn Ferry head-hunter with an assignment from UFA came calling and the Kitchen's came to Calgary..
Before Carol arrived UFA had five CEOs in 10 years and had significant financial challenges. Four years later, she’s far from giddy about the outlook – but it is clear she’s got reins in hand. $1.8 billion in annual sales, off-take partner in North West Refining, distributer of refined fuels, commercial agricultural business (chemicals and seed) and 34 retail stores – and a costly divestiture of Wholesale Sports (a diversification strategy that hadn’t worked out) behind her. And she’s looking for acquisitions …
Carol is enrolled in the ICD program and is open to more directorships if the fit is right. She is currently on the Exec. Committee and Board of Croplife Canada, on the Opportunity Calgary Investment Fund board. She is also involved in Ag for Life – UFA is a founder and focused on farm safety and ag awareness.
My take? Fun, funny, unpretentious and clear. By clear I don't just mean transparent in the way she describes it, but 'direct' - unequivocal in her clarity.
Why are you successful? “I did things other people didn’t want to do and I worked hard. When tough problems show up some people step back, while others step forward – and that’s where you learn.”
What has held you back? “a couple of times I was too loyal, too trusting about waiting … ”
How do you see your business – a partner with farmers – going forward over the next quarter?
… 2/3rds of our fuel sales go to oilfield customers, so the downturn has been tough for us – but our customers are loyal because we deliver, we go when and where our customers need us. We are optimistic about growing our seed and chemicals business. Obviously trade issues are a concern to our members (i.e., canola, NAFTA – we have concerns about what our federal government is doing and we are already feeling some collateral damage.
And over the next five years?
… we’ve seen a lot of commercial mergers in the recent past (i.e., Agrium and Potash Corp) and expect retail line consolidation as people answer the question “how big do you have to be to compete?”. We expect to see JVs – always a challenge to look for the right relationships that give global reach in our industry. I expect we’ll see lots of technology influenced advances in food production. Autonomous vehicles/equipment, need for better rural broad-band, drones, and A.I. will help us insure more efficient and sustainable agriculture. Farmers and farming operations getting bigger …
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… I tend to fall back to my accounting skills – what’s the risk, what’s the benefit? I have a very strong gut and I have a good eye for talent.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Carol Kitchen, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… a no B.S. attitude. Transparency and balance. I take the time to understand. I spend a lot of time thinking about customers and employees. I’m a huge fan of the golden rule.
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… I ask tough questions. Putting the right people in roles and giving them accountability for results. I’m not a micro-manager. I believe we should check our ego at the door – I believe in the concept of positive intent, operating to the best of our ability for the organization. People in silos don’t fare well …
… There is no such thing – but it’s much better than it used to be! It’s constantly changing. I’m a very curious person …
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… the economy in Alberta. A.I. (i.e. driverless vehicles applications for agriculture), any disruptions which pose a risk for our business …
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… several – in my last semester at university, I did an internship with the Capital Development Board for the State of Illinois and learned so much that has been valuable for me; being promoted to a senior officer role at Land O’Lakes – my boss Fernando Palacios created my role, gave me great guidance and took a chance on me; in my career moves and promotions I wasn’t always the best qualified – but I would take on tough assignments and worked hard at them.
… travel (with husband and 14 yr. old son), we’re going to Africa this year. Through my career I’ve often combined a few extra days of personal time with foreign business trips so I’ve seen a lot of the world. It’s fun to take my family to places I’ve been on my own. I’ve got into photography – learning about night photography and enjoying the northern lights. Mostly though – family, travel and things kids like to do …
What do you read?
… books and devices; business books, currently Goliath’s Revenge, Kelly Hrudey’s new book. In fiction I like true crime …
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