Tom Sleight never imagined that a phone call would change his career path forever. Fast-forward nearly 40 years, and the former U.S. Grains Council (USGC) president and chief executive officer (CEO) was recognized with the organization’s Lifetime Achievement Award during this week’s 61st Annual Board of Delegates Meeting.
“Tom gave nearly 30 years of his life to the U.S. Grains Council. I often joke that we tested his blood on the way out, and his blood type was ‘USGC positive,’” said Ryan LeGrand, current USGC president and CEO. “He lived and breathed the Grains Council and our mission.”
“I remember it very vividly,” Sleight said of how he came to join USGC. “It was a Saturday morning. I was on my way to go skiing in Montana when I got a call from the vice president of the Council at the time. The next thing I knew, I was in Washington D.C., completed the interview process, and they offered me a job. Boom.”
Raised as the eighth generation on his family’s New York farm, Sleight was in the grain business in North Dakota and Montana before joining USGC in 1983 as a program manager, working with the Council’s newly opened China office. It wasn’t long, though, before his journey would take him to new corners of the globe. In the mid-1980s, he accepted a promotion to regional director in the Council’s Vienna office, leading activities in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
“That was probably the most exciting time of our personal and professional lives,” Sleight said. “It was right during the Gorbachev years, and change was afoot constantly. It was a very, very stimulating time to try to figure out programs that could help boost agricultural development in that part of the world and then boost markets for U.S. feed grains.”
Eventually Sleight returned to Washington D.C., where he served as director of international operations, first for Eastern Europe and the Middle East and, later, for Asia. It was a fresh vision from the Council’s leadership, though, that would take him into a new aspect of the organization.
“Leadership at the time wanted to kind of shake things up a little bit. You had the international side, and you had the domestic U.S. membership side of things. They wanted to cross-pollinate more,” Sleight remembered.
Sleight was promoted to executive director for membership administration and communications, a role which would expose him to new people and experiences, like annual meeting planning and association management.
“The landlords, the budgets…you know, the fun stuff!” he joked.
After more than 15 years in various positions within USGC, Sleight felt the pull to try something new. In 1999, he left the Council and took on roles with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and the New York Farm Viability Institute.
Of the latter, he said, “I grew up as a New York farm boy, and I never thought I’d be able to go back home.”
And then, the call came from the Council once again.
USGC’s CEO at the time was looking for a new vice president. Sleight accepted the role in 2010 and, in 2012, was elevated to CEO himself – a position he would hold until his retirement in 2019.
“The Board had a lot of confidence in me and tasked me with righting the ship and keeping it running smoothly,” he said. “That guided my time as CEO, learning what folks really wanted and cared about.”
While his tenure wasn’t always easy – he highlighted policy changes around the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and recent anti-dumping and countervailing duty suits as particularly contentious – he said he’s proud of the Council’s resistance to complacency.
“I always felt the Council needed to be nimble, needed to be relevant,” he said. “There were times in my career where you could feel people drifting off, not listening to the members and not striving to be relevant. But it’s a constantly changing environment, and what I’m most proud of is being able to unite different sections of our membership – agribusiness, checkoffs, integrate them with our international offices and national programs – and make everyone really appreciate the oneness of the Council and how it is all connected.”
Connection was at the heart of that fortuitous phone call in 1983 that would bring him to the Council, and it continues to be at the heart of his legacy within the organization.
Please join the Council in thanking Tom Sleight for his years of service and congratulating him on this well-deserved recognition!
About The U.S. Grains Council
The U.S. Grains Council develops export markets for U.S. barley, corn, sorghum and related products including distiller’s dried grains with solubles (DDGS) and ethanol. With full-time presence in 28 locations, the Council operates programs in more than 50 countries and the European Union. The Council believes exports are vital to global economic development and to U.S. agriculture’s profitability. Detailed information about the Council and its programs is online at www.grains.org.