Calvin Sonntag’s path to CEO of BrettYoung, an 80-year-old family-owned agribusiness with its headquarters in Winnipeg, wasn’t exactly a straight line. But in some ways you could say it was inevitable.
When Sonntag was leaving Monsanto in 2003, BrettYoung’s Lloyd Dyck—then the majority shareholder and now the sole owner—invited him to join the company. Sonntag instead chose an opportunity to join a small agriculture-biological company in Saskatchewan.
But the two men stayed in touch over the years “and got to know each other pretty darn well,” according to Sonntag. In 2009, when Sonntag’s Saskatchewan company was sold to a Danish parent, Dyck convinced Sonntag that it was the right time to come on board at BrettYoung.
BrettYoung employs approximately 170 people in five separate processing and distribution facilities in Western Canada and Ontario, plus various sales territories across North America. The company serves customers in three distinct markets: wholesale forage and turf; professional turf and reclamation; and seed and crop inputs for both Canadian and U.S. farmers.
One of Sonntag’s biggest management challenges is how to unify and implement strategy for a company with three diverse channels.
The senior teams that lead each separate business unit are directed by three key priorities: one, fostering cross-functional communication across the company; two, setting and supporting decision-making for the medium- to long-term needs of their unit; and three, developing three-year rolling business plans on an annual basis.
“We start with quantitative goals for each business unit, then establish the critical support factors and milestone plans needed to get there,” says Sonntag.
The other fundamental principle in Sonntag’s management style is what he calls “servant leadership”—the idea that your employees don’t work for you, you work for them. “My role as CEO is making sure that the teams have everything they need to be successful,” says Sonntag. “The traditional model of telling people what to do doesn’t motivate people. I give everyone space to do what they do best, and I always look for their input.”
BrettYoung just finished its sixth record-setting year in a row, and is presently on track for a seventh—and even Sonntag is astonished by the success. “I’ve never before been part of an organization that has delivered that kind of outcome so many years in a row—especially when you consider the volatility and cyclicality of this business,” he says.
One of his challenges now is making sure that success doesn’t make the team too comfortable. “We have to work really hard not to let complacency creep in.”