CEO Stephen Guerin has worked for PGG Wrightson and its predecessor companies since the late 1980s. In that time, he’s been exposed to all facets of the business, from rural and fruitfed supplies to agritrade and water services.
“We’ve had five operating restructures with mergers and acquisitions over the years, and I think I’ve had at least 14 different bosses and about eight different roles during that time,” Stephen says.
“But it’s created opportunity for me, and it’s certainly kept things interesting.” Armed with a Bachelor of Business Studies from Massey University, Stephen never expected his career to take him down this path.
“I came from an entirely different sector and only expected to be with PGG Wrightson for a couple of years,” he remembers. “Then I saw the opportunities. I saw the potential growth for the sector, the growth of the business, and the people here are great people. So I stayed.”
Always one to see opportunities in challenges, Stephen joined the company during New Zealand’s agricultural subsidy reform. “The beginning of my career was a pretty heavy time,” he laments.
Luckily, he was playing the end game. Stephen went through all the highs and lows while the company transformed time and time again. To him, success was there as long as the culture was right. “Culture is really important for a business,” he stresses.
“Throughout my career, I’ve seen our culture become challenged, particularly when we were going through a big merger. One time we had three different organisations come together in the space of 12 months, and those organisations each came with their own culture. It created some turbulence as people tried to carve out their new place.”
As long as you look after your people, your business, your suppliers and your customers, then you’re going to be successful.
Ultimately, the culture eroded. Faced with the choice to either “abandon ship” or transform, Stephen chose the latter. “I knew we could come up with something better,” he says. “We tried to do something better, and we were successful in this.”
As a values-driven company, all it took was returning to PGG Wrightson’s roots to get back on track. “We have intergenerational businesses, so I think of our business as a family business,” Stephen says.
“We’re a bunch of small family businesses, so that helps with the approach we take. Now we’re clear about how and where we operate.” Before, the company didn’t have that clarity. “It was change for change’s sake,” he says.
“We weren’t clear about what we were trying to achieve in the business, and we weren’t clear about the resources or what management was going to do about it.”
When Stephen stepped into the position of CEO in June 2019, all of that changed. “I had a very aspirational goal,” he says.
“I decided to tell people the story of the how, not just the why, in regard to how we go about the business. From an agricultural perspective, we try to position ourselves at the technical end. We use a science-based approach, adding fact-based logic to our offerings.”
And as far as the company’s innermost workings go, its employees are considered one of its most valuable assets and are heavily invested in. “We foster development and leadership skills for our people. I’m a great believer in that,” Stephen says.
“We’re very open about promotions and opportunities within our business, and we continually invest in our people to develop their talents.” When COVID-19 struck, these investments paid off. The world was in literal chaos, and it was more important than ever to unite and work together as one team to make it through.
“The business was operating under level-four restrictions with a large number of our workforce suddenly working from home,” Stephen says. “It was quite stressful and emotional for everyone. There were a lot of unknowns. I thought, ‘How do we operate in this environment to serve our clients in a world where a virus is out there?’
“So we did a lot of communications, personally. We used platforms like Microsoft Teams and even our company Facebook pages to keep everyone up to date with what was going on in the business. We got a lot of great feedback from our staff about this too. They were thanking us for looking out for them during the crisis. It’s probably one of the things I’m most proud of.”
Additionally, Stephen naturally adapted to the challenging time with a more empathetic approach to his own leadership. “I really personalised my leadership during that time,” he says.
“I shared things like what my home office looked like and kept things lighthearted with musings about my experience at home with teenagers who were out doing TikTok videos in the yard. It created that personal connection. People could identify with what I was sharing.”
As far as the business goes, COVID-19 certainly slowed down some aspects, but PGG Wrightson is still just as committed to working closely with New Zealand farmers to service their on-farm needs while simultaneously protecting the natural environment for future generations – a mission the company has been dedicated to for more than 165 years.
“We’re on a journey to introduce new products in the agricultural chemical space,” Stephen says. “The world is on the cusp of change in terms of how agricultural chemicals are used in food production systems. So far, it’s been a world of change for us, and I think we’re only going to see an increased use and demand for biological products going forward.
“That means we need to educate our people on how they can assist our customers in this space. It’s quite significant as it’s been a huge area of change going on in New Zealand from a legislative perspective. So, over the next few years, we are really focusing on eco-farming in terms of efficacy.”
PGG Wrightson’s strategic business partnerships have been key in driving this initiative. “Innovation is very important to us,” Stephen says.
“Our partners are bringing new products that address food safety and environmental concerns to the marketplace. And, because of our relationship, we get to try them out for a few years before they go mainstream. This gives us a head start in educating our staff and clients on new innovations.”
Beyond being privy to new products and collaborating on their development, Stephen says PGG Wrightson’s business relationships are essential to the company’s ongoing success in a number of areas. So choosing the right partners is imperative. “Having good, long-term partnerships is huge for us,” he says.
“We treat our partners as partners. Sometimes things go wrong in partnerships and sometimes things go well, but you don’t make short-term decisions about those sorts of things.
“You seek out partners that align with your values. You see how they look after their people, notice the science that goes into their research programs and focus on how they go about new product market launches. It’s about working out what partners you want to be involved with, why you want to be involved with them and how they’re going to fit into your portfolio. And for us – as our partners can tell you – it’s key to cut that mould very precisely.”
At the end of the day, despite all the challenges, Stephen couldn’t think of a better industry to be in, both now and in the future. “While there is change coming to the sector in terms of environmental and product changes, it’s exciting. It’s a challenge for us. But we’re going to rise to it,” he beams.
“Being in the food production game is a great place to be. The world is always going to need food. There’s an increasing demand for food, and as long as you look after your people, your business, your suppliers and your customers, then you’re going to be successful.”
Proudly supported by: