Seed World

It Always Comes Back to the Farmer: Q&A with Justin Wolfe

Justin Wolfe, the new head of Syngenta Seeds, shares that while positions and regions might change, the big key is it always comes back to the grower customer.

Seed World (SW): Justin, you’re not new to Syngenta, but you’re new to the role. Tell us a little about your career — what do we need to know about you?

Justin Wolfe (JW): Agriculture has always been part of my life. I was raised on a wheat farm in northern Montana where my brother still farms as a fourth-generation farmer. I understand firsthand the important role seed companies play in helping farmers be successful, which has driven me during my nearly 30 years of experience in the agriculture industry. Working across different functional areas and geographies, I believe my diverse background helps me lead with a very broad perspective.

SW: What’s the experience been like shifting regional focuses? I know previously you’ve worked with Syngenta’s Europe, Africa and Middle East (EAME) business, most recently you’ve worked with North America.

JW: Regardless of geographic location, it always comes back to the farmer and understanding their needs and the environment they’re dealing with on their field. From country to country, farm to farm — every farmer is dealing with a unique set of challenges, risks and opportunities, which require tailored solutions.

Shifting into the global role doesn’t change that approach. But it does allow me to engage and connect different areas of our business for the benefit of the farmer. We’re scaling innovation to bring new products and technologies to different markets, leveraging digital platforms and agronomic tools across regions to give farmers more information, and making our production and supply chain more flexible and efficient to get seed to farmers faster around the globe.

SW: What concerns you most as you look at the seed industry right now?

JW: At the top of the list right now must be how we can continue to serve farmers in very challenging areas like Ukraine. Global food security is dependent upon grain flow that farmers in Ukraine produce. We are actively working across the industry to ensure farmers can continue to operate, market and sell their grain, helping ensure grain flow out of the country, while also maintaining safety. It is incredibly complex, but I am very proud of how our Ukrainian team, European team and Syngenta as a company have stepped up to help our customers, our people and worked across the industry to help during this crisis.  

In addition, we have increasing volatile weather conditions that are becoming more challenging every season for many farmers, on top of rapidly increasing threats from pests and diseases that are impacting crop yields. The best way to help fight these challenging conditions is innovation, developing seed products and technologies that can make their crops resilient and healthy to withstand these many threats.

At the same time, getting that innovation to farmers requires a progressive regulatory system that helps encourage the movement of seed as well as more investment in new technologies. Regulatory frameworks shouldn’t be a deterrent to innovation and collaboration, which ultimately help farmers. Genome editing is an example right now where it’s critical to embrace the significant potential of this new technology and what it can do for agriculture, allowing us to respond to evolving climate pressures and other crop threats in a much shorter timescale.

SW: I’ve heard that one of your passions is customer experience. What are some ways you think businesses need to modernize the customer experience?

JW: The experience of purchasing seeds has remained pretty much the same for generations, while farmers have continued to evolve their operations, bringing more sophistication into how they’re planning their seasons and managing inputs on the farm. We also live in a direct, on-demand society now, and farming should be able to operate in the same way. 

To address this need, we recently launched a new farmer-focused business model in the U.S., GHX by Golden Harvest, which provides farmers a new way to buy seed that makes the experience easier with one flat per-acre price to simplify the buying process, so we can spend more time with farmers on the things that matter to help them maximize their seed investment. We still offer the traditional seed selling models, because farmers value choice, so we are increasing options available for them to choose from. This should help us increase our reach to farmers, which is critical to enable our growth and better serve farmers.

SW: Do you see the same customer experience needs globally, or is there a shift that needs to be made?

JW: There is a common phrase, “think globally, act locally”, which is relevant to what we’re doing at Syngenta Seeds. Our global scale allows us to better assist farmers in both mature and the most rapidly developing markets who are facing similar or unique challenges. We have assembled a world-class seeds organization around the globe, and we are leveraging that talent to bring new and innovative ways to service farmers. 

I firmly believe local business managers need autonomy and support to run their businesses well. They are the closest to their customer and know them best. Global teams help enable the sharing of best practices, and bringing the best processes, systems, tools and new innovation that help us run a global business smarter, in a modern way, and hopefully simpler as well. We will continue to invest where it makes sense, whether it is local customer-facing roles to be on the ground with customers, or in new enabling technologies that drive next-generation breeding and data science. Balancing global to support local is important to ensure innovation is advancing while keeping strong execution and customer orientation. 

SW: What are your priorities now that you’re leading Syngenta Seeds?

JW: I’m fortunate to come into a situation where our business has been growing rapidly the past few years thanks to strong leadership and amazing people all over the world. We will continue to invest in our people and attract the best talent to support our strategic ambition of becoming the most diverse, trusted and innovative team in agriculture. Great people are our foundation.  

We are also fortunate that we have growth plans and opportunities in all our regions. We have a very solid strategy, and my focus will be on the execution of this strategy globally. To bring a disruptive step-change in customer-focused innovation to the market more rapidly, I believe we need to combine our capabilities with a collaborator of choice mindset. A go-it-alone approach is not the most modern way to bring new innovation and service customers better.  

From this strategic ambition, our priorities are to continue bringing biotechnology and other new technologies to the market to help farmers sustainably feed the world, modernize our offers to serve farmers, develop new end-use market opportunities for farmers, and attack climate change by becoming a leader in regenerative agriculture. It’s an ambitious approach, but we have the people to make it happen, and our customers need new solutions, so we cannot just continue to have a business-as-usual approach.

Want to read more perspectives? Check out:

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Make Sure to Get Your Hands Dirty! Q&A with Irwin Goldman