Seed World

We are the Champions

Brett Hodnefield talks about how his love for winning drives his love for sales.

When you think of sales, what’s the first thought that jumps to your mind? Is it a novel like the Death of a Salesman? Steve Carell’s The Office — a fake, comedy documentary about paper sellers? Or is it winning?

If the answer’s winning, you’d have the same thought as Brett Hodnefield.

When it comes to sales, Hodnefield, co-owner and manager of sales for Champion Seed of Ellsworth, Iowa, it wasn’t what he thought he’d be originally pursuing in his life.

“I came from seed sales,” he says. “It wasn’t necessarily where I thought I’d be heading in my life.”

From Banker to Seeds

Born and raised on a farm in central Iowa, he and his family had everything ranging from livestock to row crops — agriculture seemed like the easy path for him. After high school, he headed to Iowa State University to pursue a degree in agriculture business, but he knew what he was striving to become: a banker.

“Growing up on the farm, I always knew that money was a big part of the farming operation,” Hodnefield says. “You need a good bank, so I wanted to be a banker.”

However, that wasn’t quite where his path led him.

“I did a little bit of a bunch of jobs during college, but there was an opportunity to go and sell seed for a seed company back home,” he says. “So, I went back and sold seed for about six to seven years.” 

But when it came down to it, Hodnefield wasn’t satisfied just as a seed seller. He wanted to expand and grow, and he knew that he wouldn’t be able to do that where he was at.

“In 2002, my brother-in-law and I had the opportunity pop up to open our own seed company,” he says. “That intrigued us — we thought it would be fun to be our own bosses.”

From there, Hodnefield was able to branch into new areas of seed he’d never gotten to experience … but he also got to continue to grow in sales as the manager of sales for Champion Seed. 

“I took the sales manager slash owner, while Seth, my brother-in-law, took pretty much a little bit of everything else,” Hodnefield says. “But my experiences with sales really helps us stay ahead of the game — and I didn’t just stop selling.”

Hodnefield said he still likes to get out in the field to sell to their locals, friends, neighbors and even relatives.

“I’ve always told our district sales managers (DSMs) we hire that I’m out in the field with you — I’m out there banging on doors, and I try to know what products work and what doesn’t,” he says. “And I try to keep us on our toes. I understand the competition, the prices out there, but all in all … I don’t think you can be a good sales manager without having that sales experience all the time. That way, I can feel like I relate to my DSMs and I understand what they need.”

Success Means Winning

But when it comes down to it, there’s a reason Hodnefield felt sales was always a good fit for him.

“I enjoy it. I like a little challenge,” he says. “But most of all, I really like to win! If you put that in seed terms — when I win a sale, it means I increase my seed business. When I lose, I still get valuable experience. I get to walk away like the rest of my DSMs and try for another day.”

That drive and desire to win, though, was what Hodnefield says he thought of when creating his own company.

“That’s also what made our name Champion,” he says. “It worked out well for us, because it’s a name that’s easy to push.”

When it comes to promoting products, Hodnefield says a name like Champion really helps their brand. 

“We try to champion the best, because that’s what our name is,” he says. “It’s an easy tagline. It’d be worse, of course, to have the word Hodnefield, because everyone would say ‘Hey, what’s a Hodnefield?’ Instead, Champion rolls off the tongue and lets you know, ‘Hey, we have the best.'”

2020 Changed the Sales Game

When it comes to the ups and downs from 2020, Hodnefield notes that the seed industry was definitely changed as well.

“The good thing is that seed is a necessity, so we have the freedom to continue working,” he says. “But since COVID rolled out in February and March, life has definitely changed in the seed business.”

When it comes down to it, Hodnefield says that COVID couldn’t stop seed being delivered. To answer the crisis, though, it meant business — and sales — had to change.

“In the summer, it came down to us asking the question of whether or not we could do meetings,” he says. “Our company chose to stay live. To do so, we split up the company in groups to lower the amount of people coming in and out of the office.”

When it comes down to it, though, virtual meetings aren’t where Hodnefield hopes the future will go.

“I don’t think virtual is bad — we certainly tried our hand at a virtual event as well,” he continues. “We did a virtual product overview, and we hosted about 60 participants. It was convenient if farmers were busy in the fields — they could put their headphones on and listen to it on their Ipads. But in the end, I think it’s still important to get on that farm and see that farmer.” 

However, Hodnefield says that the salesman needs to spend this time adapting to work in this new environment.

“The salesmen are adapting,” he says. “We missed some sales in the spring, I’d say, but we’re pacing really well this fall. I guess we’re trying to get out ahead of the of the competition.”

One benefit that Hodnefield notes, though, is that being light on your feet and quick to get out to sell when you can is important this year. 

“The competition hasn’t been out yet either,” he says. “Everyone was delayed a bit by COVID, and depending on your company’s restrictions, they might continue to be delayed.”

Right now, Hodnefield says he’s coaching his salesmen to be safe, but to head out and start selling again.

“I don’t want us to be reckless,” he says. “We wear masks, and we support whatever the farmer wants. But there’s definitely an opportunity, and we’ve been seeing it in our orders and our prepays. When the opportunity is there, I’m a believer in taking it.”

The biggest challenge he sees this year, though, is gaining new customers. 

“Across the board, whether you’re an independent or a national, picking up new business will be hard,” Hodnefield says. “Right now, I wouldn’t invite anyone to my door that wasn’t my own family. Meeting out in the open is fine, but you won’t let someone into your shop or house if you’ve never met the guy. It’s too big of a risk right now without a COVID vaccine.” 

Instead, Hodnefield says right now it’s more important than ever to increase and put effort into long-time customers. 

“Increasing old business is definitely an opportunity out there,” he says. “This isn’t the time and place just to go knocking on doors.”