How to Transition into a New Industry

Leaving behind oil and gas, Agrium’s new chief legal officer, Eric Miller, offers five keys for jumping into unfamiliar markets

Agrium Inc., which produces and markets three primary groups of agricultural nutrients—nitrogen, phosphate, and potash—as well as controlled-release fertilizers and micronutrients, is also one of the few publicly traded companies that cross the entire agricultural value chain. Eric Miller joined the business in January 2012 as its senior vice president and chief legal officer, moving over from a position with Nexen, a leading international oil and gas exploration company.
Agrium Inc., which produces and markets three primary groups of agricultural nutrients—nitrogen, phosphate, and potash—as well as controlled-release fertilizers and micronutrients, is also one of the few publicly traded companies that cross the entire agricultural value chain. Eric Miller joined the business in January 2012 as its senior vice president and chief legal officer, moving over from a position with Nexen, a leading international oil and gas exploration company.

1. Integrate with the management team

Prior to joining Agrium Inc. as its senior vice president and chief legal officer in January 2012, Eric Miller was senior vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary at Nexen, a leading international oil and gas exploration company. His new industry was decidedly different. Agrium is a retail supplier of agricultural products and services, a wholesale producer and marketer of three agricultural nutrients, and a supplier of specialty fertilizers. Miller says he had some insight into manufacturing coming from a global company, but his new roles required a great deal of learning.

His first step in making the transition, he says, was integrating with the management team to understand Agrium’s core business and the key drivers of its industry. “It’s not just about integrating into the business but integrating into the mindset of the management team,” Miller says. “Of course you have to understand the industry behind the company, but my biggest objective was understanding how management approaches the business. Sure, you can read a report, but that doesn’t do much for helping you understand the company’s business drivers and strategies. It’s through the formation of these relationships with the management teams that you can appreciate and fully understand the structures in place.”

2. Learn the language

“There’s nothing quite like the feeling of sitting in a meeting and hearing lingo thrown around that you’ve never heard and don’t know,” Miller says with a laugh. Each industry has its own dialect, and Miller strongly recommends “getting up to speed” on its ins and outs. This means acquainting yourself with financial terms and industry jargon by reading industry-specific publications or asking the simple, if slightly embarrassing, question, “What does that mean?”

3. Put yourself out there

This is sometimes easier said than done, but Miller says he’s a bit of a chameleon, which enables him to “fit in well fairly quickly.” “I strongly recommend meeting as many people as possible,” he says. “The more the better.”

When he first joined Agrium, diving into the company’s particulars was unusually stress-free because there was an intensive five-day tour that captured all aspects of the retail business.

Agrium sells fertilizer and other farming materials. Eric Miller had to learn about the industry on the job.
Agrium sells fertilizer and other farming materials. Eric Miller had to learn about the industry on the job.

4. Listen, listen, and listen some more

Beyond “What does that mean?” Miller says you can’t be afraid to ask deeper questions about anything you’re not clear on.

“If you don’t understand something the first time around, there’s a desire not to look silly,” he says. “You’ve got to get over it. Just think of how silly you’ll look weeks later when you still don’t know what’s being said. Plus, you have to understand something in its totality if you’re going to give the right advice. As chief legal officer, it’s your job to give the right advice.”

5. Be adaptable

Miller admits that some things are nonnegotiable. “Legal principles don’t change [from] company to company or industry to industry,” he says, but he adds that one should still be flexible when making a transition into a new career or industry.

“When you walk into a new role, many aspects of the company are well established,” he says. “Part of doing your job well is being adaptable, coming to the understanding that how you did something at a different company isn’t necessarily the best way for this company in this industry. Look at the bigger picture, look at the policies and procedures in place, and instead of comparing them to what you know, try to learn this new way of doing things. Sometimes you’ll learn that something could benefit from a change, but you have to respect the process first.”