What is your full name and title? And how long have you been in this role?
My name is Thomas Staples, and I’m the president and CEO of Echelon Ag Inc., which uses technology to help farmers improve their business.
What exactly do you do?
I founded Echelon Ag Inc. in 2007 as a result of a passion to improve agriculture in my home province, Saskatchewan. In the beginning, I was the only employee. However, Echelon has grown over the last five years and recently we hired our 20th employee. Our expansion has moved from the southeast corner of Saskatchewan to include the whole province, Alberta and into the grain belt of the United States. We are still based in Weyburn, Sask., the heart of Canadian agriculture and oil.
Our goal is to use science and technology to improve the decision-making ability of farm managers. Echelon focuses on farm efficiencies and profitability to maximize the yields of crops grown. We use space-age technology, satellite imagery, mathematics, and proprietary technologies to identify ideal application rates of nutrients and seed that would benefit crop production while minimizing environmental risk. We have proven that we can increase the yield of crops grown to provide a healthy rate of return for a nominal investment in our service.
Our company provides the farmer (producer) with the technology to allow them to fertilize and/or seed with a precision – not known in the last decade – to areas of their land to provide the utmost in production per acre. Each individual field is analyzed for its potential productivity taking into account soil composition and the geographical lay of the land. From this analysis, we create a prescription for each individual field, which is loaded digitally into the implement and then applies the right amount of fertilizer and seed to the soil.The true essence of the process allows for variable rate application of the inputs utilized by the farm operation, using GPS technology and computer systems on tractors, combines and sprayers. The results increase the yield of a crop per acre, minimize environmental risk, and ultimately increase the revenue per acre of the farm operation.
Describe what you do on any given day.
Together with our board of directors and our management team, I provide leadership and strategic direction for the company. My daily activities are diverse. My day can range from working with researchers on new product development projects, to meeting with key customers with our account managers to doing the dishes in the office kitchen. No two days are the same.
What’s your background and education and how did you get to your current position?
I was born and raised on a farm near Oxbow, Sask. As long as I can remember, I have had a passion for farming and agriculture, as well as a keen interest in technology. I completed a bachelor of science in agriculture degree in 1995, and a master of science in soil science in 1998 at the University of Saskatchewan. After university, I moved to the Peace River region of Alberta and joined Alberta Agriculture as soil specialist.
After three years of providing government technical expertise to producers in northern Alberta, I was recruited by Cargill AgHorizons to join their regional management team as agronomy manager. In this role I provided technical support to Cargill’s farm marketing representatives and managed the local crop consulting offering. As my sales and management skills developed, I eventually moved into a sales management position with Cargill in North Battleford, Sask. My primary responsibility was to provide leadership for eight farm marketing representatives and to be accountable for top line performance and growth in the local crop input sales and grain origination business. I spent four years with Cargill AgHorizons, and it was with Cargill that I developed much of my business management and sales skills.
In 2004, I was recruited by the newly formed The Mosaic Co., a major potash producer founded by Cargill and IMC Global Inc., to act as their Canadian agronomist, working out of Winnipeg. I provided technical and agronomic expertise to the company and its Canadian customers, provided agronomic and scientific analysis of the Canadian marketplace for the senior management team for product commercialization and day-to-day operations, and represented The Mosaic Co. on various government committees.
Also, I adapted and commercialized a fee-based service that utilized satellite-derived yield potential maps to calculate variable rate fertility prescriptions for growers that had been developed by Cargill and moved into Mosaic when it was created. It was here that I was first exposed to the strengths of this precision agricultural technology, and began to think about how these technologies could be delivered to the North American marketplace.
In 2007, I left Mosaic and founded Echelon Ag Inc. Using the skills, techniques, and network gained during my time with Mosaic, we began to deliver precision agricultural services to the North American marketplace.
What’s the best part of your job?
Being self-employed has given me the freedom to follow through on ideas or concepts I have. From what we can tell, our technologies and business model are unique globally, so it is exciting to be on the cutting edge. Managing a small business from inception through rapid growth has many challenges, but it is also incredibly satisfying. As is assisting with the careers of our employees who are just starting on their own path. Because what we do is unique, we cannot go to the marketplace and recruit someone who has all of the skills and knowledge necessary to perform their role immediately. As a result, we do much of our hiring based on character and train our employees the skills they will need to work with us at Echelon.
What’s the worst part of your job?
The most difficult part of my job is likely the stress associated with managing the growth we’ve had in the last five years. We have enjoyed more that 500 per cent revenue growth since inception. Keeping up with that growth has required us to be continuously recruiting and training employees, closely managing cash flow, and constantly proving ourselves to our customers and the marketplace. Our track record shows that we are more than capable of doing that, but it is challenging at the same time.
What are your strengths in this role?
My strengths would be my leadership skills, creativity, and ability to integrate science and technology with marketplace needs. I often say that our primary role at Echelon is to teach. We coach our customers through the challenging role of integrating new, cutting edge technologies into their business. This is what I feel I am best at.
What are your weaknesses?
Likely my greatest weakness would be assuming that everyone has the same passion for technology, innovation and agriculture that I do. This includes co-workers and customers. I get excited about the story we have to tell, and can get frustrated when others may not be as initially excited as I am. I also don’t handle it well when someone tells me I can’t do something. I can be a bit stubborn that way.
What has been your best career move?
I really have two career moves I look back on as my best. The first would be joining The Mosaic Co. Mosaic gave me an opportunity to experience a much broader scope of agriculture than I had been exposed to previously. The second would be starting Echelon Ag Inc. Echelon has allowed me to fully immerse myself in what I truly love doing, and to work with some fantastic people who have challenged me to grow.
What has been your worst career move?
I wouldn’t describe it as my worst career move, but my most challenging move was taking on the sales manager role with Cargill. Like many people at the beginning of their career, I felt invulnerable and ready to take on the world. The sales management role is challenging in any company, and finding myself managing eight salespeople with their own needs and wants was a steep learning curve. There are quite a few things I would do differently if I was to move into that role today.
What’s your next big job goal?
Echelon recently expanded into the United States. This has brought a whole new level of complexity and challenges to my role. I look forward to continuing our expansion in the U.S., and possibly looking at further expansion outside of North America.
What’s your best advice to others who might want to follow in your footsteps?
Picture in your mind where you want to be in your career in 20 years. You are not able to plan each step in how you are going to get there, but ensure that each step in your career moves you toward that goal.
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