U.S. Grains Council (USGC) President and Chief Executive Officer Ryan LeGrand was one of several staff members and grower-leaders recognized for milestone anniversaries in their service to the Council during its 17th International Marketing Conference and 60th Annual Membership Meeting in Tampa, Florida, in February 2019.
Just weeks later, LeGrand is leading a global team of more than 100 staff and consultants – and one of the most complex membership bases in U.S. agriculture – through a time of unprecedented change wrought by the spread of COVID-19.
Here, LeGrand reflects on his diverse experiences over five years with the Council and what he hopes to emerge from the challenges facing the grains sector today.
Wow, receiving that plaque in February must feel like a lifetime ago!
It sure does. Obviously, in February we knew of coronavirus’ spread in China, and in fact our China director, Bryan Lohmar, had come back to the United States. He and others on our staff in China were able to call into the meeting from their home bases. We had to deal with this outbreak early in our Asian offices; that’s part of the nature of being a global organization. At that time, though, I would not have forecasted that our entire staff would have been on telework status for a month when this article is published.
How is the staff doing? And the customers many members of the Council have come to know well over the years?
Our staff members and consultants are safe and working from home following our organization’s policies and government direction in each locality. In Washington, this means our staff is now teleworking until at least May 15. Like everyone, we are following developments closely and following recommended social distancing guidelines to keep our staff members, as well as their families, safe.
The good news is that before any of these restrictions, we worked in more than 50 countries directly with a staff and consultant base of just over 100. So we are experienced with doing at least some business remotely and using technology to be in touch with each other and our customers. We are lucky to have not just phones and email but websites, social media, webinars, the press and other methods to be in touch, many of which are culture-specific and market-specific.
What we have found is that our customers are as interested in the information we can offer them during this time as ever, in fact more interested in some topics like transportation. That information flow is just taking a different format for the time being.
Looking back at your time at the Council, how did you initially learn about the organization and what attracted you to it?
I worked for the Council back in 2005 and 2006 in Washington, D.C., as a manager of international operations focusing on distiller’s dried grains with solubles (DDGS). This was when the Council just started to work on DDGS promotion around the world. I was only there a year, and I went back to the trade for a few different reasons, including the opportunity to move back closer to home. When I left, I really gained a sense of respect for what the Council does, and I always had it in the back of my mind that if a good opportunity came up to work at the Council again further on in my career that I was going seriously consider it. About 10 years later, the position for the assistant director of Mexico came open.
What was it like to start working for the Council in Mexico?
I had already been living and working in Mexico six years when I came to work for the Council – it was just a move from Guadalajara over to Mexico City. I realized then that the Council is really where I would like to spend the rest of my career. It’s such a great organization to work for, you’re doing things that make a difference for the entire industry, and it is work that I very much enjoy doing.
Is that sense of mission what led you to move into the CEO role last year?
Yes, that drove a lot of it. That and the opportunity to do work in new and exciting areas for grain, feed and ethanol demand around the world.
In each of the three roles I’ve had at the Council, I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to fellowship with our members, the opportunity to show them some of the things that we’re doing on the ground, in Mexico and in other places around the world. That’s what I like the best, showing our members the fruits of our labor. In this role, that’s a part of my work every day.
You were able to travel a lot during the first six months or so of your time as CEO. What did you learn visiting Council offices worldwide and members stateside?
We have a lot of support for what we’re doing. People believe in what the Council is doing, and they buy into what the Council is doing with not only through financial support, but with their time. The support we have around the country with our members is just truly impressive to me.
More than anything, I have been happy to get overseas and get the chance to meet our people. Our people are really our greatest assets we have at the Council. Getting the opportunity to be with the directors in those offices and even more so people that we don’t see on a daily basis – accountants, the program managers, people that are very vital to carrying out the mission of the Council that we don’t get to see every day or hear from every day. I want to get out and thank them for what they do.
As soon as its safe for all of us, I want to do more of that, and for now, it’s the highlight of my week to see my colleagues on Zoom.
Before coronavirus shut down business travel for the Council, USGC and NCGA took part in a joint officers’ mission to Vietnam and Myanmar. What did you learn in that experience?
Vietnam was an opportunity to showcase really the star of Southeast Asia that’s just growing by leaps and bounds and importing more DDGS every year. There’s the opportunity to export a lot more corn there, and obviously the ethanol play exists as well. That was a maturing market that’s come a long way in the last 25 years and a great one to showcase to our leadership.
Myanmar is what we consider one of our more frontier markets. That was an opportunity to show our leaders maybe not who they’ll sell corn to, but maybe their kids and their grandkids will sell corn to that market. It was a great opportunity to show a lot of our short-term and medium-term activities as well as our long-term activities that we conduct at the Council.
How is the Council looking to engage in these markets and others like them, where there are fundamentals pointing toward growth, albeit possibly slowed due to the current economic climate?
We’re going to continue to work to ensure that countries around the world are implementing science-based and risk assessment-based policies. We’re going to continue to work with our government to achieve new trade policy that gives us improved access. Ethanol is going to remain right at the top of the list as far as our priorities are concerned.
As we continue to see market share being eroded through increased competition from around the world, we need to make sure we’re looking for new markets, working to knock down barriers where they exist and working to get into new and emerging markets like Myanmar, like sub-Saharan Africa, to make sure we’re able to export to them for many years to come. Going forward, we must be on the forefront of promotion of new uses for the products we market, such as industrial uses for ethanol and hi-pro DDGS inclusion in aquaculture rations.
Of course, there are new challenges facing the industry right now and unknown challenges coming. What do you want folks to know about what you see ahead?
The Council’s mission will not change, but some of the ways we operate will change, certainly in the short to medium term and possibly for a very long time to come. We need to fully embrace technology and make the best of an environment where face-to-face meetings aren’t always possible.
While we are thinking a lot about the format of our work right now, we also know much of the work to do remains similar to what it was. Many of our current challenges will still exist post-pandemic. We have faced increasing competition from Brazil with corn exports for some time now and recently, as they have begun producing ethanol from corn, we have seen Brazil-origin DDGS offered around the world. We also face non-tariff barriers that will still exist. The Council will continue working to promote science- and market-based approaches to resolving these barriers.
We are truly grateful for the engagement of our members who know how important this work is, even during – especially during – a time of crisis. I think we will come out of this changed and yet even more committed to our fundamental purpose of long-term market development.
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.