I took a unique path. I was a supply chain manager at a school. Then I went to intern for Land o' Lakes on their supply chain side. My internship eventually turned into a job as the demand planning and inventory replenishment person on their cheese CPG (consumer packaged goods) side.
I decided I wanted to try working in sales. An opportunity presented itself at a French company that produced and manufactured macrominerals within the agricultural industry. They are an importer/exporter of magnesium oxide and monocalcium phosphate. I got my sales experience there, and my territory was everything west of the Mississippi River. That was a pretty big territory for someone with no sales experience. I did that job for five years and then received a promotion to a management position, with six people reporting directly to me. That was great management experience, but at the time I started wanting to focus more on account management, and less on managing others. I enjoyed managing large enterprise accounts, particularly national accounts. So I began working on our accounts with Cargill and Land o' Lakes. Out of that, an opportunity presented itself with my current employer.
Many of the people working in this business have an Agricultural Education or Agri-Business degree, and my degree was in Operations Management/Supply Chain Management. My degree is uncommon in my industry but helped me understand some of my customers' operations. That has helped give me an added advantage over other job candidates, along with the fact that I had a job managing six people by the age of 27. Not too many people do that, so it's a unique background.
I work for a biochemical manufacturing company. Half of the company is devoted to animal nutrition and health. The other half works on pet food technologies for dogs and cats, and human health and food technologies, providing ingredient inputs on grocery goods.
My daily schedule varies depending upon if I'm working in the office or traveling. Typically my in-office hours are 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., but if I'm out of town, my workday is usually longer.
My job responsibilities are divided fairly equally into three areas. First, when I'm in the office, I'm following up on previous client meetings, setting up future appointments, providing product training internally, communicating internally, and moving sales projects forward.
The second part of my job entails visiting with national accounts locally at their corporate offices in the Twin Cities. I'm selling our technologies and making presentations to their Ph.D.'s on staff.
Finally, I travel to our various field offices throughout North America and meet with the level II regional managers. They're our contact with that territory, so I like to check-in and make sure they're following our overall corporate strategy. The client's strategic plan is created at the corporate level and then presented to the regional managers and customers in the fourth quarter of the year. We then roll it out in the first quarter. I'm there to help them move the projects forward, but not micromanage and tell them how to do it. It's important to create a good rapport with our managers so they're receptive to what we're trying to accomplish. I don't want them to feel like we're dictating and saying, "Here's what we want you to do, and I don't care what your opinion is." Part of my trip is often social because that's usually one of the best ways to develop a good working relationship.
The experience. Anytime you're handling large enterprise accounts that are grossing twenty to thirty million dollars for our company, that's going to take a lot of organization and strategic planning. So I'm gaining a lot of useful experience and can use that to further my career in the agri-business world and those skills will also translate to other industries.
I enjoy working with a variety of people across my organization and utilizing the different departments to advance my projects forward.
Anytime you work with large corporate accounts that drive tens of millions of dollars in revenue toward your company - you're looked at under a microscope. Sometimes, it feels like there are 'too many cooks in the kitchen' with the other national sales managers. They may want to offer their opinion on my accounts because we’ll cross territories on our accounts. It's all about massaging expectations and making sure you're communicating well. Communication is critical, or else you can have problems with other sales managers, and working with them in the future becomes that much more difficult. Managing expectation internally is probably one of the more challenging parts of my job, especially working for a large, privately held company.
At my company, an entry-level sales position has a base salary of $90-$110k. And can go upwards to $150k with commissions of $25-$100k.
First of all, get at least five years of sales experience. Second, find a technical field job versus commodities or something that doesn't require any technical expertise. Even if it's a field you haven't studied in school, If you can somehow land a more technical sales job, it can add value to other technical areas and gives you more job diversity. Third, be willing to move. Often, you're going to have to relocate to take advantage of opportunities that come your way.
You've got to earn your stripes in the early years if you want to become a national account manager. You're going to need experience, and the only way to get that is to chip away within a particular field and be willing to move around until you're knowledgeable enough to advance in your career.
You'll need good communication skills; excellent organizational skills because you will be working across a pretty large market with multiple variables; the ability to learn about and sell technical information; the ability to give presentations to high-ranking customer shareholders; and the ability to work across numerous departments and understand their operations - i.e., marketing, finance, manufacturing.
Agriculture is a more conservative industry, and many of the companies have a corporate environment. It’s also a relationship-based industry. Your company may have a rockstar product, but that doesn't guarantee you're going to lock in the sale. It may depend on their allegiance with another company or even a bad experience they had with someone at your company. I’ve run into that in the past, where a previous rep from my company was more focused on the sale than the relationship and the service. Relationships are key.
People that grow up in the midwest tend to stay in the midwest. There aren't as many transplants working in this region.
Each company is different, but within my company, they have a mentorship program. You have an opportunity to communicate your goals for the next ten years, and based on that, they will assign you a mentor that will align with your goals. They're not a manager, but rather a mentor you can go to with questions you might not be comfortable asking your manager.
If you find a company with a development program in place, that would be an excellent company to start with and work your way up. If you find a job with a company that doesn't have that, then gain experience and at some point, you may want to make a lateral move to another company with a more established development program in place. Companies with a strong Human Resources (HR) department may allow you to look over their development program on the 'Glassdoor' app. Also, if a company is willing to invest heavily in marketing their business, that's probably going to be a pretty good company in general. It means they're moving a lot of revenue and can allocate resources towards marketing. Well-branded companies will typically have a good HR program in place. That's my experience.
Because of COVID-19, we're conducting fewer meetings in-person and having webinars. That's probably going to continue in the future and become the new normal. Companies need to adapt to the current climate, if they don't they won’t succeed. I’ve gone through several meeting platforms - Skype, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams. I currently like "Teams" the best. We're learning how to build relationships without meeting face-to-face.
Time management is going to be critical. Picking and choosing how and when to meet. Rather than getting together monthly, maybe it will be quarterly, and finding out how to prioritize and make sure you're taking advantage of that time the best way you can.
There are several consolidations, mergers, and acquisitions in our industry right now, particularly in the pork and chicken sectors. There are companies from China coming in and buying out larger conglomerates and consolidating companies. Businesses are getting bigger, with one main corporate office and a need for national account managers.
I wish I had looked at job opportunities outside of the Twin Cities area early in my career. If you’re young and have an opportunity to relocate, I recommend trying it out.