NGFA announced in July that President and CEO Randy Gordon will retire from a nearly 43-year career with the Association in March 2021. Throughout his years of service to the NGFA, he’s contributed to the growth and influence of the annual Country Elevator Conference and Trade Show, which will be conducted virtually in its 49th year on Dec. 8-10, 2020. Gordon took time to answer questions from NGFA staff about the CEC and how it has become a cornerstone for the Association and its membership.
Q: Can you describe your history with NGFA’s Country Elevator Conference & Trade Show? How has it changed over the years?
Gordon: The Country Elevator Conference was the first major NGFA event I attended when I joined the staff as the information services director in 1978. It was in its sixth year back then, and at the time was called the Country Elevator “Council” – which was created to be a separate entity within NGFA dedicated solely to serving the information and educational needs of NGFA’s country elevator members. Back then, we had a theme for each of the conferences to add some “showmanship” and “tomfoolery” into the events – yes, “tomfoolery” was a commonly used term back in the day! For instance, the 1981 theme was the “Magic of Marketing, Management and Operations,” when then-Country Elevator Committee Chairman Don Brouillette – current NGFA Chairman JoAnn Brouillette’s dad (who later was elected NGFA’s top industry officer from 1984-86) – was dressed in a tux and top hat, and did magic tricks, including pulling a live rabbit out of a hat. We had Indy 500 themes when in Indianapolis, gold mine themes in Denver, rodeo themes in Fort Worth, state fair themes in Columbus, Ohio, and, of course, when in Omaha in 1987, the chairmen and moderators all wore red Husker jerseys (Nebraska actually had a football team back then!). It was fun seeing all those moderators who graduated from other Big 8 schools (before it became the Big 12) wearing scarlet-and-cream! Goes to show what “good sports” NGFA members are!!! What’s more, current Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue was one of the moderators that year; at the time, he was president of a country elevator and farm supply business in his native Georgia and was a Country Elevator Committee member!
Until the mid-1980s, the conference attracted about 250 to 300 persons, and didn’t have a trade show. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the Country Elevator Committee voted to add the trade show to provide an added informational and networking feature to the conference. But the committee was adamant that the trade show be open only during non-program hours so all attendees could benefit from both aspects of this conference – a practice that continues to this day. The Country Elevator Committee also has taken an increasingly active role in selecting the program topics and speakers for the conference, which has resulted in a couple “reinventions” to make the conference even more relevant to country elevator members’ business needs. Attendance reached a peak of more than 800 attendees in 1987 – that Omaha event – when USDA used this conference to announce its plans for liquidating billions of bushels of Commodity Credit Corporation-owned inventory accumulated during and following its 1983 payment-in-kind program, the largest acreage-reduction program in U.S. history. Like today, those attending the Country Elevator Conference had a head start on the competition by obtaining this information first!
Q: Why is CEC so important to the Association?
Gordon: This conference consistently has been a practical, business-focused, roll-up-your-sleeves-type meeting that tackles topics most important to successfully managing a profitable country elevator business and navigating the market environment. It’s also a premier opportunity for country elevators to network with – and learn and pick up new ideas from – the best in the business: their fellow NGFA country elevator members. Reflective of that value, attendance continues to consistently be in the 600-700 range every year as this conference has developed a well-deserved reputation and strong following for being the meeting of the year for the nation’s country elevator sector!
Q: 2020 certainly is an unusual year for everyone – including for those organizing and attending the first-ever virtual CEC! What are you most looking forward to for CEC 2020?
Gordon: The program is extremely strong, with great speakers discussing the market and economic outlook; policy changes that can be expected under a Biden administration that will affect country elevators; the future of trade, including the China Phase One agreement; cybersecurity (including ways to harden defenses against increased ransomware activity); effective strategies to effectively communicate – and get buy-in on – the importance of safety in the workplace; and the always thought-provoking Kevin Van Trump. Specialized sessions on grain origination and the CME grain delivery system also should be of great informational value. But the program also is designed to be very interactive, with opportunities following each session for registrants to interact directly with these speakers and with one another one-on-one, likely even more than time typically permits during in-person conferences. In addition, we have some fun networking activities planned, with those registering by Nov. 30 receiving a “CEC swag bag” prior to the conference. We also anticipate announcing a couple more headline speakers before Thanksgiving! I can’t stress enough that this conference will not be yet-another webinar – we’re all getting a bit tired of those. Rather, NGFA has purchased a new electronic meeting platform that will enable us to make this conference a very interactive and informative experience tailored to the needs of country elevators and merchandisers, with lots of networking built in. I’ve seen the electronic platform that will be used, and you won’t want to miss it!
Q: As this will be your last CEC before retiring in 2021(!), what will you miss most about this flagship event for NGFA?
Gordon: Without question, the industry members who attend this meeting, some of whose parents were running their country elevator businesses when I first came to NGFA. I’ve always had a special affinity and deep appreciation for NGFA’s country elevator members and this conference, and I’ll really miss not having the opportunity to see and thank each one of them personally for their leadership, support, mentorship and friendship during my career. But on the plus side, it’s really gratifying to have seen this conference continue to grow and evolve to become such an eagerly anticipated fixture on the industry’s yearly calendar of must-do events! The Country Elevator Conference, like NGFA itself, has a great future ahead in serving this industry!