When you’re out on the golf course, talking business as you apply laser-focus to putt your ball across the green, an interruption can make or break your shot. Whether that means screwing it up or losing a deal, it’s a far from ideal scenario – and one that the very recently retired Upstate Niagara Cooperative CEO Larry Webster has taken careful steps to avoid over the course of his career.
“I don’t expect to get a bunch of calls while I’m out of the office,” he tells The CEO Magazine. “My people perform. If I’m playing golf with someone and his business keeps calling him all the time, there’s something wrong.”
For Larry, it’s about empowering staff so they feel they have the freedom to make decisions, and to recognize which moves will benefit the company. “It’s not a one-man show,” he stresses. “I need a lot more brains working than just one, so we’ve developed a very outstanding team.”
“Develop your team and then turn them loose and you’ll just be amazed at what they can do.”
Although well aware that many companies make such claims, Larry believes Upstate people’s sincerity on this front is demonstrated by its determination to “celebrate wins”, with the fun of trying and succeeding outweighing the fear associated with making a mistake.
“Our trucks look like just about everybody else’s trucks – the filling equipment, the processing equipment. All the things that we use, everybody else in the industry uses the same thing. There’s no difference,” he says. “The only difference is the people, what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. That’s it. So that’s where your emphasis has got to be.”
In his efforts to lead rather than manage people, Larry often uses a question, which he calls the ‘Upstate Difference’, whereby he asks new people coming into the business what makes them stand out in their role.
“There has to be something you’re proud of when you go to work, because I don’t care what job you’re doing within the organization, I want you to be the best at that job,” he says. “Like I say: ‘Develop your team and then turn them loose and you’ll just be amazed at what they can do’.”
That’s not to play down the quality of the farmer-owned cooperative’s raw product, which has, of course, played a major part in its success. The dairy cooperative is made up of 270 family owned and operated farms.
“We control our product from the farm all the way through the process,” Larry explains. “So our raw product is top quality because our farmers share in the value of that. On top of what they’re getting for the milk, they’re also benefiting from the success of the company.”
When he took on the role of CEO in 2012, he already knew the company inside out, as he’d previously held the role of COO. And as Larry heads towards retirement after a 10-year stint at the company’s helm, he still feels a sense of pride at what he and his team have accomplished.
“There were two or three things that I felt could take Upstate to the next level,” he recalls. “I thought we were in a prime position to grow from the standpoint of acquisitions and that, in a relatively short period of time, we could double our revenue.”
At the time, Upstate had a ‘sister’ cooperative in which Larry saw significant synergistic opportunities and cost efficiencies. He also believed that a big difference could be made by paying attention to the supply side of the equation as well as the sales side.
“One of the very first things we accomplished was we closed our membership, started paying attention to the supply side of the equation, and aggressively went after acquisitions, and it kind of took off from there,” he says. “And basically, we grew quite rapidly.”
“I thought we were in a prime position to grow from the standpoint of acquisitions and that, in a relatively short period of time, we could double our revenue.”
Growth of 20 percent per year was always Larry’s goal, he says, whether through sales, acquisitions or capital investment. “The other thing was to keep expanding our product lines, keep adding to our existing product lines and expanding our markets from that direction also,” he says.
Larry describes his position as CEO as a “sacred trust” with responsibility not only for the company, but for the people that work there and their families, too. And he feels honored to have held such an important role in so many lives, describing his upcoming retirement as “bittersweet” and expressing his desire for the company to continue to go from strength to strength over the coming decade.
“I’ve enjoyed this job more, and this company and this group of people more, than any time in my career,” he reflects. “What more can anybody ask than that?”