Q&A With Wells Fargo’s Chief Agricultural Economist Dr. Michael Swanson
Talented is What Talent Does: Let Your Efforts Speak
By Wells Fargo Division Executive Jacquie Fredericks
Fifty thousand highway miles. That’s how far Dr. Michael Swanson estimates he has driven as an agricultural economist for Wells Fargo, one of the largest commercial agricultural lenders in the United States. That mileage is nothing compared to the insights he’s gleaned about the industry.
Based in America’s heartland in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Dr. Swanson analyzes the impact of energy on agriculture, and performs strategic analysis for key agricultural commodities and livestock sectors. For more than two decades, he’s been meeting with growers, manufacturers, and industry associations, helping guide business decisions based on economic research. He’s also a dear friend, and someone I deeply respect.
Given Dr. Swanson’s tenure in the industry, I thought it would be interesting to get to know him better and get his take on the evolution of female leadership in ag over the years. I hope you enjoy this Q&A as much as I did.
1). Before we get into the main topic, you have such a unique background. How did you get into ag and make your way to Wells Fargo?
Life is a journey, and it rarely goes by plan. I met my wife while I was getting my master’s degree at the University of Minnesota. She’s Colombian and was working for the Colombian government while earning her degree. When we graduated, she said, let’s live in Colombia – and so we did!
I didn’t speak Spanish and didn’t have a job. I got out the yellow pages – a thing my daughter has never heard of – and found Cargill. I sent them a note and got my first ag job as a grain trader.
I also spent time as a transportation systems analyst for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad and later, at Land O’ Lakes where I supervised a majority of the supply chain for dairy products – 400 million pounds of cheese annually.
I eventually made my way to Wells Fargo, and have been here since 2000.
2). Sounds like your wife was the first woman to have a big impact on your career. Have there been any other women who helped shape your career trajectory?
Absolutely, my boss at Land O’ Lakes had her Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota and was in charge of the entire supply chain for dairy manufacturing. She had lots of great insights to teach a recently minted Ph.D. One that everyone in management should remember is “Don’t reward what you don’t measure, and don’t bother measuring what you don’t reward.” I think most managers would agree they have produced many reports that didn’t get read, and the time spent producing them would have been better used elsewhere.
3). When you look at the industry as it is today, what’s the best change that you’ve seen?
There is an openness to finding talent everywhere and from anyone. I would compare people to ingredients. There are only so many things you can cook with flour, milk, and eggs. In today’s world, the ingredients are global and exciting, and the food is way more nutritious and appealing. Companies in agriculture and agribusiness want to have a diversity of talents to achieve that level of performance. And, they are actively looking for those people that allow them to offer more goods and services.
4). Where do you see the impact of women on ag in 20 years?
Agriculture and agribusinesses (like all businesses) have become more about thinking and less about muscle. Automation and robotics will continue to take labor out of the fields and factories, but it will require a thoughtfulness. Communication and collaboration will be key, and those teamwork skills are particularly important for capital intensive and networked businesses. I think we will see important contributions from that approach in reliability and customer satisfaction.
5). What advice do you have for women producers and growers?
I think they will want to avoid the “boys with toys” mentality that I have seen so much of in my career. I often joke that the “mating dance” of American farmers involves trying to figure out who owns the most land and equipment, and once they know that, they know who the most important person at the table is. There are many elements to success besides a P&L and balance sheet. Those are important tools, but they are only tools. I think producers and growers can avoid lots of headaches by building resilient companies that don’t focus on growth for growth’s sake.
6). If your daughter wanted to get into ag, what advice would you give her? Where are the biggest opportunities for young females in ag?
I have told my daughters to work on what I call the “overlapping skill sets”. For example, lots of people have a business degree. Lots of people can speak Chinese or Spanish. And, lots of others might have good agronomic knowledge. But, in agriculture, someone with a business degree, who speaks Chinese, and has good agronomic knowledge, has a lifetime of great opportunities in agriculture and agribusiness. Going back to the cooking metaphor, a little bit of seasoning can make an enormous impact on the main ingredients. Those “little skills” can make a big difference if you add them to what you offer the world.
7). Are there any technology advances worth highlighting that you’ve seen growers and manufacturers embrace with success over the past couple of years?
The impact of data and machine learning has decades to run. Automated tractors and combines will require vast amounts of capital and management, but it will take the labor out of the fields. Sprayers that identify each weed as they spray a unique chemical and amount will require data and machine learning management. This industry is just at the start of this process. Staying up on the technology and its implementation will be a major competitive advantage for the rest of anyone’s career.
Dr. Michael Swanson is Wells Fargo’s chief agricultural economist. Based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Dr. Swanson focuses on analyzing the impact of energy on agriculture and provides strategic analysis for key agricultural commodities and livestock sectors.
Jacqueline Fredericks is Wells Fargo’s Agribusiness West Region Division Executive. Based in Denver, Colorado, she leads a team of bankers focused on meeting the financing needs of production agribusiness, processors, and branded food companies.
*Opinions and information included in this article are general and not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual or entity. Contact your banker, attorney, accountant, and/or tax advisor with regard to your individual situation. The author’s opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Wells Fargo Commercial Banking or any other Wells Fargo business.