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My Interview with Sonny Beck

Published on Monday, July 25, 2016

A few weeks ago, I had the unique opportunity to have a conversation with Sonny Beck, CEO of Beck’s. Going into this meeting, my goal was to uncover what it was about this company’s leadership that has allowed Beck’s to help farmers succeed for almost 80 years. I could not have prepared myself for the direction the conversation would go. Sonny shared various stories about his role in the company over the years, as well as passing along some inspiration and words of wisdom. Now, I’d like to pass that advice along to you.

 

 

“As a farm kid, you always think, ‘I want to go back to the farm.’ I was pretty sure that's what I wanted to do.” After completing a Bachelor’s degree in Agronomy and a Masters in Agriculture Economics at Purdue, Sonny Beck did return to the family farm. However, he would soon see the opportunities for growth within the seed business that they ran on the side. For the first ten years, he was cautious. “I was careful that everything we built for the seed corn business, like my dryer for ear corn, could be converted to shelled corn and commercial corn easily. I wanted to make sure that, if the seed business didn't work out, I wouldn't lose money. I would just take the telephone out of the office and I would be a farmer. But after 10 years, I decided, ‘this is too easy.’” From then on, there was no holding back. 

Although he may be the CEO of the largest family-owned seed company in the United States, Sonny still enjoys walking fields and assessing crop performance. “You don't have to pay me for that. I do it for free. That's what you want to do: find a passion, something you would do for free. If you can make that part of your job, you've got it made. You'll never go to work a day in your life.”

Sonny considers himself lucky that he was ultimately able to follow all his passions in life, but he warns that it may not always be that easy. “College students may not find that in their first job, but as part of this internship, we work with them to find their real passion. Some will come to us, knowing they want to be in agriculture. Then they may work here or somewhere else and see it’s just not what they really want to do. On the other hand, we purposely take students in other disciplines that might have a slight interest in agriculture to experience what this industry is like. It may change their whole perspective. We want to help students find out what they're really good at and what they have a passion for, as well as where they can contribute. Hopefully, their first job will be the one that really fits their passion.”

Over the years, Sonny’s role in the company has changed significantly. He has gone from personally performing all of the day-to-day operations, to a more administrative role. This change isn’t all bad. “Now I get to spend time with college students. I love the interest and the vibrancy they bring to the company. I get to do a little bit of teaching with them, but I probably learn just as much, or more, than they might learn from me.

As he reflected on what has made Beck’s successful over the last 80 years, Sonny said it has been their singular goal that has brought them this far. “You have to be thinking about what it is your company really does. ‘We're going to help farmers succeed.’ That's an ongoing goal that can last forever. The company has grown because it has had a motive that is very sustainable. People are always going to need farmers. We feel it is our duty to help them make the right decisions on their farm every day. This is a community. We will do better if we are sharing information and cooperating with others. This is the idea that your individual boat only rises when the ocean rises.”

There are many attributes Sonny finds in the people he surrounds himself with, most important of which are a positive attitude and work ethic. “I also appreciate forward thinkers. I don't like talking about the past much, except as it relates to what we're going to do in the future. I didn’t appreciate the value of history much in my younger life. Now, I realize you have to have history to be able to figure out what you can learn from. A favorite saying of my dad's was, ‘Learn from the mistakes of others, because you won't live long enough to make them all yourself.’ I think about that quite often. I'm always looking at what others have done in the area when I'm trying to make a decision.”

I asked Sonny, “What is the biggest mistake you see young people make, and how can we avoid making it?” His response was very simple. “Your life is a combination of the decisions you have made. You have to realize, today is today. It doesn't matter what your background was, so don’t blame it. From now on, you're making the decisions. This is the hand that the good Lord has dealt you today. Now play it.”

 

 

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Celina Young
Celina Young>

Celina Young

As an enthusiastic young professional in agriculture, Celina Young has found a place at Beck's Superior Hybrids as a marketing intern.

Other posts by Celina Young
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Full biography

As an enthusiastic young professional in agriculture, Celina Young has found a place at Beck's Superior Hybrids as a marketing intern. Entering her senior year at Iowa State University, she prides herself on being a world traveler, dairy lover, movie fanatic, and atypical agriculturalist. Follow her on Twitter @Celina_E_Young or join her on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/celinayoung

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