15 Minutes With…Carol Kitchen, Vice President, Energy & Logistics, GROWMARK
By Michelle Pelletier Marshall, Women in Agribusiness Media (September 21, 2021)
Carol Kitchen has had a varied and storied career in agriculture, spanning decades and roles and including multi-channel experience, such as business unit management and strategy development. Through nearly all of it, including her recent position as vice president of energy and logistics for GROWMARK, a regional agricultural supply cooperative operating across North America and one operation in Ontario, Canada, she has been a strong supporter of Women in Agribusiness (WIA) Initiatives. She is on the WIA national advisory board, was a speaker in 2107 when she was president and CEO of United Farmers of Alberta, and received the WIA Demeter Award of Excellence in the category of Female Executive of the Year in 2013 for her work with Land O’ Lakes as senior vice president and general manager of global dairy ingredients.
Additionally, through her roles, she has constantly worked to promote the agriculture and food sectors as career destinations for women, serving as a mentor and providing an example of the skills that women need to become informed leaders in the industry.
Her ambition has taken her through financial roles such as a controller, auditor, and accounting lead with responsibility for managing millions of dollars as well as long-term planning, merger & acquisitions, and P&L statements, to executive-level positions with oversight for the success of entire agribusiness organizations.
She has extensive experience directing the efforts of national cooperative organizations – as a matter of fact, GROWMARK ranks 74th on the ICA Global 300 2008 list of mutuals and cooperatives – and through it all keeps her focus and commitment on improving rural life for farmers and the ag value chain in which they operate.
WIA Today spoke with Kitchen from her office in Bloomington, Illinois, to learn more.
1). Why agriculture? What instilled your passion to excel in this sector, and how do you keep it alive?
I didn’t really choose agriculture. Early in my career I was looking for a job that would allow me to live in Central Illinois, and I found one at GROWMARK as internal auditor. Almost every position I have held since that time was the combination of being willing to take some kind of risk – either job location, moving to new segment or channel, or a new area of focus. I often did things others didn’t have interest in, such as moving to a role far from home, being willing to travel internationally, and sometimes taking on unpopular or unprofitable businesses. The wonderful thing about agriculture is that so much variety exists in our industry, all of those changes kept things fresh and interesting for me. I also realized that regardless of segment of the value chain, channel, or product line, there are many skills that are transferable. For me, those skills were risk management, financial acumen, as well as people and team development. Probably later in my career I realized the more personal rewards of being involved in an industry that provides food and clothing to the world. So now, I have the dual benefit of impacting changes in interesting businesses and in people’s lives.
2). There has been a much greater spotlight on agriculture since the pandemic, especially on energy and logistics. What are the top issues you are managing with your coops along these lines, and where have you seen the sector shine, and where can we do better?
The pandemic continues to be hard on everyone. One of the toughest things for our businesses right now is the uncertainty and disruption in our supply chains. With shutdowns and economic shifts, we have learned just how far products have to move before they get to us. We are seeing impacts from this extending into 2022 and across many categories like crop protection products, tanks, anything that utilizes a silicon chip, and others. Along with labor shortages, specifically in more rural areas and in the transportation industry, we are facing the acceleration of longer-term trends.
I think overall our industry responded well through the last year as we have all adapted to different ways of working and serving our customers. This industry is built on relationships and a commitment to a higher calling, and that showed last spring when food companies, cooperatives, and farmers stood up to ensure food production was continuing. I think the pandemic did expose weaknesses in some of those systems and helped us think differently about new ways to do things. How do we take the best things from digital engagement with customers and employees, and blend them into our businesses going forward? In my career, I had a number of discussions about ‘pandemic recovery’ or ‘disaster recovery’, but none of them started with ‘we are sending nearly every office employee in the company home this afternoon for three weeks,’ which ultimately became 15 months. We learned to be more flexible in our thinking. We can’t lose that skill. We need it to adapt to a changing marketplace.
3). GROWMARK’s reach extends across North America, with its core in Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin. What type of services and topics are guiding your partnerships at this time?
More than 60 percent of our business is wholesale to cooperatives and others. Our first focus is our partnership with our FS cooperatives, and since October 2020, Southern States cooperatives. At the same time, in energy we have many other customers who rely on us. Our key initiatives are centered around delivering high-value customer service and enabling it through digital platforms. These platforms focus on our wholesale relationship as well as helping our coops serve their local farmer members and customers more effectively. The ability to allow options from self- service to in-person consultative insight is important, so creating the right tools and environment is important. We are constantly looking for innovative ideas in all parts of our businesses and our internal operations to improve our efficiency and effectiveness.
4). Please tell us more about your participation in Women in Agribusiness. How does it fit with your career goals and the mission of GROWMARK?
The thing that originally attracted me to Women in Agribusiness is still one of the defining features. That is the focus on three things: personal development, professional development, and industry expertise. This makes the programs relevant to many people at many levels in the industry. It is networking, which might not help you get a job, but may help you get qualified for the next one. The organization has done a great job of finding ways to connect the right people. The mix of newer employees, middle and senior managers, and executives keeps people engaged wherever they are in their career. Finally, Highquest recognized the importance of building industry-specific expertise in functional areas like risk, legal, and finance. All of those things have helped me make personal and professional connections when I was hiring or trying to solve a problem. It is truly a great resource for me and my employer.
ABOUT CAROL KITCHEN
Carol Kitchen is vice president of energy and logistics for GROWMARK, a regional agricultural supply cooperative operating across North America and one operation in Ontario, Canada. She has held this position since May 2019.
Prior to this, she was CEO and president of United Farmers of Alberta (UFA), a CDN$1.7 billion western Canada cooperative. In the 1990s, Kitchen held positions in GROWMARK’s internal auditing (Bloomington, Ill., office), and in Canadian accounting operations (Ontario office). She also has held roles at Land O’ Lakes, including senior vice president, corporate strategy and business development, and senior vice president and general manager, global dairy ingredients.
Kitchen holds a BS in accountancy from the University of Illinois. She is a Certified Public Accountant and earned an MBA from the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Business.
- Michelle Pelletier Marshall is contributing editor and author for HighQuest Partners’ GAI News and Oilseed & Grain News, and managing editor for its WIA Today blog. Additionally, she is the company’s PR/Media Manager. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.