Sowing the Seeds

How Richardson International's Brent Watchorn is navigating ever-changing tariffs and unpredictable crop issues to stay at the top of Canadian agribusiness

There was a time when Brent Watchorn thought that farming was going to be his career. Growing up in the small farming community of Minnedosa, Manitoba, a short distance from Winnipeg, Watchorn and his brother farmed together since he was in his early teens. While farming full-time, he decided to further his education and attended college, where he received a degree in business administration. After college, he worked for Cargill in a number of finance positions but continued to farm for another five years. However, at that point, interest rates were in excess of 20 percent, and the returns from farming were far less than satisfactory, so it was time to fully embrace a business career away from the farm.

Today, Watchorn is thinking about farming from a much different perspective as the executive vice president of marketing at Richardson International, Canada’s largest agribusiness. Here, Watchorn discusses how his career in agriculture has transitioned from being a producer of crops to that of marketing Canadian crops domestically and internationally. 

From a young age, I learned farming had many challenges. Equipment breaking down was among those challenges. As I look back, if something broke, my brother on most occasions would simply let me work through the issue on my own. He encouraged me to reflect, analyze the problem, and logically determine what was wrong and what might work to fix it. Basically, it was hands-on experience and a logical approach rather than someone providing [me] with formal training that has given me confidence to face new challenges. This approach works well, no matter what the business issue is at hand.

What I’m doing at Richardson International is overseeing our marketing. That includes crop inputs, grains, and oilseeds, as well as the logistics behind each. Crop inputs involve overseeing senior individuals who do the positioning of our fertilizer, crop protection, and seed products that we sell through our retail locations. On the grain side, I oversee those involved in the sourcing, hedging, and the sales of what we handle on behalf of Canadian farmers. In addition to grain handling and retail crop input assets, Richardson International has diversified into canola crushing, which I [oversee for] our bulk vegetable oil and meal sales, both domestically and internationally. Key to the execution of our business within each of these areas is our logistics group, which manages our rail, truck, and vessel freight.

Over the years, I have served on a number of boards as it relates to our business as well as some volunteer community boards. I’m currently on the board of the Canadian International Grains Institute, out of Winnipeg, whose core expertise is in promoting Canadian wheat. There, my mandate is to provide from an industry perspective: “Where do I think we need and want to go?” As our company promotes being involved in the communities in which we do business, and seeing how that fits well with my personal philosophy, I am also currently serving on the board of the St. John’s Ambulance.

How Are You Growing?

Since Brent Watchorn joined Richardson International in 1996, crop inputs sales have grown tenfold, grain volumes have grown threefold, and the company has gone from selling in roughly 20 countries to more than 50

As an agriculture company, we used to be number four in the marketplace as far as size goes in handling grains and oilseeds in Western Canada. The landscape of agriculture has changed considerably over the past 10 years. In 2007, we bid against one of our rivals to acquire ownership of Agricore United, which at the time was the largest grain company in Canada. When it was all over, we ended up coming to a mutual agreement with our rival to split up the assets of the newly acquired company, making us the second largest from a market-share perspective. Six years later, in 2013, we participated again in a very similar situation—this time, however, with an offshore company. We split up the assets of Viterra, which at that time was the largest grain company in Canada. Over a six-year period, we went from number four in Western Canada to now being the largest handler of Canadian grains and oilseeds in Canada.

Coming from a finance background to the marketing side of the business has resulted in a lot more travel. Getting to travel to see different customers and their businesses in their respective geographies and experience the local culture and cuisine has been extremely interesting. Doing business annually [in] more than 50 countries, however, and understanding their tariffs, quotas, and import requirements, is a real challenge. You are continually trying to stay on top of what has changed or is potentially changing in the global marketplace. This can be a real challenge, depending on the different geographies we deal in and the various governments that drive them. Depending on the markets and the country you are dealing with, you can have new tariffs and trade barriers put up overnight. The most recent example is GMO traits in corn out of the US, and China rejecting cargo after cargo. So you do a lot of reading, try to stay in tune with the geographies and the customers you deal with, and try to stay on top of how you manage execution risks within your sales book.  At the end of the day, countries can implement changes overnight, and you’re in reaction mode. To understand that aspect of business better, we have staff dedicated to specific geographies.

The challenge is, you always have issues that come up that you have to manage through. As an example, this past winter we experienced the coldest winter on record, with lots of snow that felt like it went on forever. You put on a sales book based on an expectation of a certain number of railcars on a weekly basis and run up against an extreme shortfall of cars versus your sales book. How do you execute sales already on the books with only roughly 60 percent of the cars you thought you would get over an extended period of time? We ended up having vessels we knew we had to load, some customers we had to buy contracts back from or defer, or figure out a different way to execute to keep the customer from running their production facilities out of product. Similar to our farm customers, the weather is totally out of our control, but we still have to respond to our buyers. We have customers we’re selling to months in advance, and no matter what the unforeseen issue is, we need to find a solution and execute on that business. I am very fortunate to have a great group of individuals I work with who are dedicated, creative, and don’t take “no” for an answer when it comes to resolving an issue.