15 Minutes With... Haley Hunt, Vice President, Farm Credit Banking & Mission Investments, CoBank
By Mary Sullivan, Communications Coordinator, Kansas State University Master of Agribusiness (October 3, 2023)
Haley Hunt is the vice president, Farm Credit Banking Group and Mission Investments at CoBank, a financial services institution headquartered in Greenwood Village, Colorado. CoBank is the largest member of the Farm Credit System, a nationwide network of financial cooperatives serving the agriculture and rural infrastructure industries. In her role, Hunt advises senior and executive leaders on the bank's enterprise approach to key strategic partnerships within the Farm Credit System, and manages the Farm Credit Banking division’s strategic initiatives portfolio function. Additionally,
Hunt leads CoBank's Mission Investments division, a portfolio of investments in private equity funds focused on providing junior capital to rural-based businesses. She has continued to advance her education throughout her career.
We, at Kansas State University, took a few minutes to ask Hunt about her path in the sector and the importance of her education.
1). Tell me a little about your background and education.
I grew up in a rural community in Central Oregon and began working for Farm Credit after graduating from college. I went to Linn-Benton Community College where I earned an AS in agriculture and then went to California State University – Chico where I received a bachelor’s degree in agribusiness. After a decade of professional experience in the agrifinance sector, I went on to earn a Master of Agribusiness (MAB) from Kansas State University. Additionally, this Feburary, I completed an executive certificate program in facilitation at Georgetown.
2). What has your career path looked like?
Immediately after completing my undergraduate degree, I worked at what is now AgWest Farm Credit (formerly Northwest Farm Credit Services) as a relationship manager. I spent the first few years of my career working directly with the agricultural community in the Columbia River Gorge region, spanning Oregon and Washington. After relocating to the company’s headquarters for a few years for a leadership development program, I began working at CoBank seven years ago. Most of my time has been spent in the Farm Credit Banking Group, which manages our strategic relationships with other entities in the Farm Credit System (FCS).
3). Describe your current job and responsibilities.
In my current VP role at CoBank, I manage multiple functions that are focused on our strategic partnerships with other FCS entities. My team focuses on strategic initiatives both within the organization, and within the broader FCS landscape, to ensure CoBank is optimizing its relationships on several fronts regarding our FCS partnerships.
I also oversee CoBank’s Mission Investments division, including a portfolio of private equity funds that are regulated by the USDA and focus on rural capital formation. This division also supports community facilities projects in rural communities largely focused in the healthcare sector.
5.) How is CoBank adjusting/adapting to all the changes in the agricultural industry?
Just like the rest of the agricultural sector, CoBank, and the broader FCS, are constantly adjusting their business strategies based on current macro-industry trends in the ag sector. In our current landscape, topics like business consolidation (both within the FCS and our customer base), increasing regulation, an ongoing industry-wide conversation on sustainability, and the pace of change in technology and business enablement, come to mind as current factors of note.
At the end of the day, CoBank is centered in our identity as a relationship-based lender, and maintaining a strong connection to our customers and our mission is imperative to our role in enabling the success and prosperity of the rural ecosystem, alongside other Farm Credit entities. As we continue to make investments into - and adapt in service of - this imperative, having a dynamic approach and strategy for each of the categories mentioned above (and many more) will ensure the ongoing success of CoBank and the FCS in serving rural America.
5). Why did you decide to continue your education and pursue a master’s degree?
I was originally introduced to the program by a member of my management team at CoBank. As I researched program alternatives that fit my needs and objectives related to obtaining an advanced degree, the Kansas State University Master of Agribusiness program made sense for a number of reasons, and I’m glad I chose to ‘double down’ on multiple agribusiness degrees versus a more traditional MBA program.
6.) As part of your master’s program, you had to write a professional thesis. What was your topic and what did you learn?
The title of my thesis was “Significance of Select Key Indicators on Farm Credit System Merger Activity: 2002-2020”, which focused on potential drivers of FCS association mergers over an 18-year span. My research used publicly available information published by the Farm Credit Administration, which regulates the FCS. In my research, I explored four potential key indicators that may be contributors to FCS consolidation at the association level – asset size, ROE, operating expense ratio, and average loan spread. I explored two scenarios to test my hypotheses, one based on the relative delta between two institutions, and one based on a binary of relative strength and weakness.
While I learned that a few of the factors I selected were significant findings (always a relief when conducting research), there were other additional benefits that I gained from working through this research project. For those with interest on the findings of my study, I am always happy to visit with others about my research findings so please feel free to reach out to me.
What I didn’t expect in selecting my research project was the significant value I gained from expanding my contextual history regarding the origin story of the FCS, how the system has changed over time, and the system’s evolution during the agriculture credit crisis of the 1980s. The FCS has benefited substantially from long-tenured employees, whose careers frequently span several decades. The reality is, in the not-so-distant future, much of that knowledge and talent will be gone as these employees reach retirement age. I feel far better informed and prepared in my understanding of the system prior to my employment horizon of 2010 as generational talent transition influences the system.
7.) How have you benefited from continuing your education?
Despite participating in much of the program during the pandemic, I found that I formed valuable networking connections with the other students in my master’s program, and learned new skills through the coursework I completed. I feel that the most valuable portion of the program for me was the act of writing research, as writing and analysis for academic purposes is very different than the writing and analysis skills I rely on in my profession. The research portion of the program enhanced my critical thinking skills. Just like anything else in life, what you get out of any experience is directly correlated to what you invest. I am glad I invested in the MAB program and am proud to be the first person in my family to receive a graduate degree.
I have regular discussions with other established career professionals at various points in their career regarding the ‘right time’ to obtain an advanced degree. While I would say everyone’s facts and circumstances are different, I always give the same advice:
For me, waiting a decade in between my undergraduate degree and the beginning of graduate school had pros and cons. In reflection, I would strongly encourage that folks consider deferring their master’s studies at least a few years after completing their undergraduate degrees. Formative experience in the earlier years of your career will help you to apply class concepts and draw connection to your work compared to starting a program right out of college. While I now wish I had started a bit earlier (around the 5 to 7-year mark), waiting until I was more established in my career positively influenced my experience in the program.
8.) Do you have any advice for women working in the agriculture field?
Cultivating a ‘career cabinet’ of individuals (both sponsors and mentors) can be transformative to your career path. I don’t personally subscribe to the idea that all these relationships need to be formal or documented, and it likely includes a mix of folks with whom you naturally develop a rapport with, and some you sought out and formed a relationship with intentionally. I would encourage others to think about diversifying their career cabinet to include a variety of different perspectives; for me personally, some of my most valuable mentors/sponsors were/are very different from me. Just like people cycle on and off from your boards, your career cabinet will likely shift and change as you do. I also believe firmly in paying it forward, which in this case means serving on the cabinets of others and supporting them in realizing their full potential.