Planting a New Way Forward

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This CEO didn’t expect to have to save her husband’s company after surviving his loss.

“There are many days that I wish my story wasn’t my story, but it’s also led me to the beautiful life I have today.” – Sandy Hansen-Wolff

Randy Hansen jotted down some notes before he died. Bank account information. Contact numbers. Vague directions for his company, AgVenture Feed & Seed Inc. The notes were “just in case.” Randy, who was newlywed, was going to beat leukemia with a bone marrow transplant and return to work.

That was the plan

A few days after her husband’s funeral, Randy’s widow, Sandy Hansen-Wolff, 45, discovered that the Minnesota-based agriculture company was insolvent. AgVenture provided animal feed and crop seeds for farms. Hansen-Wolff sold insurance. She was in debt and out of her depth, having inherited a failing business in a male-dominated industry in which she had no experience.

“At first I wanted everyone to leave me alone. I felt as though the whole community was watching me. ‘What’s that lady doing? She’s never going to figure it out,’” says Hansen-Wolff. She spent her early days running AgVenture convinced she was headed for financial ruin.

So, she made a new plan

“The tipping point for me was realizing that people were trying to tell me the answers I needed, and that I wasn’t listening to them,” she says. “A lot of times, the answers are being spoken to you, but you don’t want to hear them.”

A conversation with her accountant helped Hansen-Wolff to see that she could use her inexperience as a resource, as her outsider’s perspective allowed her to question industry practices. That realization changed everything.

She spoke with vendors, standing her ground when they sensed vulnerability. She spoke with her Vistage peer advisory group, whose insights had informed her business practices since she joined in 2013. She spoke with industry nutritionists.

Most important, she spoke with the competition.

Traditionally, agricultural companies ground their own proprietary mixes of seeds and feed, guided by in-house nutritionists. This practice kept AgVenture’s infrastructure costs high and profits slim. So, Hansen-Wolff formed partnerships with her competition with an intriguing offer: She would use their facilities and nutritionists, and in return, AgVenture would do the on-the-ground service work at farms that her competition didn’t have the capacity to offer.

Transforming a failing company into a profitable one

Focusing on service reduced AgVenture’s overhead, created an opportunity for scalability, and changed the trajectory of the business. Nowadays, this approach is common, but 15 years ago, it was unthinkable.

By having the courage to build a larger vision, asking questions, and listening for the answers, Hansen-Wolff was able to forge a path to success from a personal tragedy.

“There are many days that I wish my story wasn’t my story, but it’s also led me to the beautiful life I have today,” she says. “I’ve learned that people will tell you a lot and expedite your success if you just ask and just listen.”

Sandy Hansen-Wolff

This article was originally published in Vistage

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