Jim Meyer provides a steady hand at the NAMA helm
by Jay Sjerven
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PALM COAST, FLA. — Jim Meyer, president and chief executive officer, Italgrani U.S.A., St. Louis, had no idea last October, when he was elected vice-chairman of the North American Millers’ Association, that circumstances would thrust him into the leadership of the trade association at a critical juncture. Within the span of but a few weeks early this year, the association lost both its chairman and its president.
Greg Schlafer, formerly vice-president of the Bakeries and Foodservice Division of General Mills, Inc., Minneapolis, who was elected NAMA chairman at the same annual meeting where Mr. Meyer was elected vice-chairman, resigned his post in early January after accepting a position with ConAgra Foods that pulled him out of the milling industry, and Mary Waters on Jan. 28 resigned her position as NAMA president after having served in that capacity since April 2010.
But NAMA always has been a resilient organization supported by committed and stalwart members. What it required was a steady hand to guide the leadership transition while ensuring NAMA didn’t skip a beat with regard to representing the milling industry’s interests in Washington. That steady hand has been ably provided by Mr. Meyer.
While attending his first NAMA Division Meetings this past March 24-26 at Palm Coast, Mr. Meyer noted that as a durum milling company executive, he hadn’t attended the annual event before because of its emphasis on the concerns of soft wheat millers as well as oat millers and corn millers. But in his capacity as NAMA chairman, he attended the 2013 Division Meetings’ general sessions and associated committee meetings.
“NAMA is a unique organization because it has some very large member companies, medium-size members and small members,” Mr. Meyer said during a pause in the proceedings during the Division Meetings. “Yet there is a sense of real harmony among all of the members in terms of working together, understanding individual issues and appreciating the idea that if we work together, we can achieve more as an association than we could as individual companies pursuing their own agendas.”
Mr. Meyer, who was tapped to serve on several NAMA committees and most recently was chairman of the budget and finance committee, brings to the chairmanship of NAMA a skillset honed during his years at Italgrani in a career that demanded a “city boy” be open to listening and learning how things work and finding ways to make them better.
“I was born and raised in St. Louis, which makes me a bit of an anomaly in the milling industry,” Mr. Meyer said. “I went to school in St. Louis, at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, and graduated with a business administration degree with an emphasis in accounting. My goal in college was to begin working in a public accounting firm, and I chose Arthur Andersen and began my career there.”
Mr. Meyer worked with Arthur Andersen for nine years serving clients as part of the firm’s accounting and audit division. He noted many if not most of the companies he worked with were in manufacturing, and he advanced to be an experienced manager.
“You get to a point in a career in public accounting when you must decide whether you want to make partner in the firm or if you want to do something else,” Mr. Meyer said. “After about nine years, I made the decision I wanted to do something else. It’s interesting at Andersen, and I think this may be true of other public accounting firms as well, they want you to come to them and tell them you’re interested in moving on, and they try to help you find a position as opposed to you going out to find a position and give your two-week notice, which may leave clients surprised and upset. So I did that in the spring of 1988.”
Italgrani at the time was an audit and tax client of Arthur Andersen, and as it happened, the company was in the market for a chief financial officer. Mr. Meyer was urged to interview for the position, and he was offered the job. He began his career with Italgrani in August 1988 as c.f.o.
“I had no specific milling industry expertise,” Mr. Meyer said. “I am a city guy. I didn’t grow up on a farm like many in milling who have the advantage of having that in their background. So every day has been a learning experience. I remember the first day on the job. I walked through the mill. The mill manager showed me things, and I just shook my head. I didn’t know what that was or what that meant, but I knew I could pick up things quickly. I’ve always felt my job entailed learning. It’s never a case that you’re finished and you know everything you need to know.”
A year later, in August 1989, the chief executive officer of Italgrani’s U.S. organization retired, but before doing so, he suggested Mr. Meyer be named his successor, and Mr. Meyer became the president of Italgrani’s U.S. operation.
“So I have been extremely blessed and fortunate in my career,” Mr. Meyer said. “When I was in my early 30s I came to run an organization of this stature.”
When Mr. Meyer joined Italgrani, the company, whose activities in the United States began in 1980 with the establishment of a representative office in Minneapolis, consisted primarily of its operations centered in St. Louis.
“We had a 4-million-bu grain elevator on the banks of the Mississippi river,” he said. “And by 1987, we had constructed a mill, a durum semolina mill, next to the grain elevator. It was relatively small, 600 tonnes of raw wheat a day.” The mill at the time served a single customer, R&F Pasta, which was owned by Borden Foods.
Italgrani also operated a mill in Ayer, Mass., that it built in 1984 as part of a joint venture with the Pellegrino family, which at the time owned Prince Macaroni of Lowell, Mass. The pasta plant served by that mill closed in 1995, and the mill was converted into a hard wheat flour mill. The facility was leased to Horizon Milling, which in 2010 purchased it.
Under Mr. Meyer’s leadership, Italgrani management soon began medium-term and long-term strategizing about where it wanted to take the company.
The first order of business was to minimize risk from durum price volatility. Mr. Meyer pointed out compared with principal field crops and the other wheat classes, durum has relatively small production. It is a flat-price commodity with no futures contract and whose risk cannot be hedged very well.
As part of its plan to mitigate risk, Italgrani purchased Mayco Export, Inc., Minneapolis, a trading firm specializing in durum but that also handles other commodities. Mayco provides Italgrani information about durum sales and purchases, availability of durum, and general attitudes in the market.
“This information is useful to our operational strategies,” Mr. Meyer said.
And in 1990, Italgrani began purchasing grain elevators in northwestern North Dakota, principally because the company deemed it useful to “have boots on the ground” so it could buy directly from farmers the durum and other commodities they grow.
“The idea was to have direct access to durum and direct access to information only producers could provide,” Mr. Meyer said.
The elevators are full-service facilities that sell seed, fertilizers and chemicals as well as buy farmers’ crops.
“We’ll always have a fresh cup of coffee for anyone who stops by,” Mr. Meyer said. “We have shuttle-loading facilities at one of the elevator operations and slightly smaller capacities at the other two.” The elevators were purchased in 1990, 1992 and 1994.
Meanwhile, the mill in St. Louis was expanded and today has a raw wheat capacity of approximately 1,100 to 1,150 tonnes of durum.
“We are involved now in another major project in terms of upgrading the mill, not so much in terms of capacity, but in terms of technology,” Mr. Meyer said.
Mr. Meyer noted in 1988 and 1989, the Italgrani mill basically served a single customer, and relations with the buyer were excellent.
“But from a strategic point of view, we wanted to expand our customer base,” he said. “So we put the right resources in place with regard to personnel, and we began knocking on doors, and we greatly expanded our customer base.”
Italgrani now maintains several long-term supply agreements with pasta manufacturers.
“We feel very close to our customers in terms of the quality, reliability of service, and product innovation we provide,” Mr. Meyer said. “If customers are thinking about adding a whole wheat line or a whole grain line or un-enriched products, we’re able to accommodate their needs.”
Mr. Meyer said he always believed it was important for Italgrani to be a member of NAMA.
“And if you participate, someone will come along and ask you to be a member of this committee or be a chairman of that committee,” he said. “I’ve been on the meetings committee, the plant security committee, the ad hoc committee on methyl bromide, and I’ve been a member of and then chairman of the finance committee.”
Mr. Meyer recalled Donald Mennel, president, The Mennel Milling Co., Fostoria, Ohio, telephoned him last October.
“I wasn’t there when he called,” Mr. Meyer said. “Before I called him back, I thought, what would Don want. I thought maybe NAMA wanted me to serve on the executive committee, which, to me, would have been a very significant honor. But no, it was to be vice-chairman. I told him I was flattered by the thought that my peers would think that much of me. So, I checked with my board, and the board, the partners, were all for it. So, I said yes.”
It was but three months later that Mr. Schlafer notified NAMA and Mr. Meyer that he was taking a position with ConAgra, which elevated Mr. Meyer to the NAMA chairman position.
“Greg called me the day before the press release (announcing his leaving General Mills and NAMA) came out,” Mr. Meyer said. “I told him I’d get even with him eventually.” And it wasn’t long after that that Ms. Waters left the organization.
Mr. Meyer took up the challenge of directing NAMA through a leadership transition, working with staff to ensure that in all conferences and at all venues associated industry concerns and affairs, NAMA’s chair at the table was always filled.
“My first order of business as incoming chair, especially on a sort of surprise basis, was to reach out to all the allied organizations — American Bakers’ Association, Grain Foods Foundation, the National Association of Wheat Growers, the National Grain and Feed Association, among others,” he said. “It was important to sit down and have good discussions with them about how the organizations interrelate and work together.”
Mr. Meyer said on his taking office, NAMA formed a nominating committee to fill two vacancies on the executive committee as well as the vice-chairman position, and that committee concluded its work in March. During a special election conducted just before the Division Meetings, Dan Dye, president of Horizon Milling, L.L.C., Wayzata, Minn., was elected NAMA vice-chairman, and Dan Ward of La Crosse Milling Co. and Craig Hagwood of House-Autry Mills were elected to the executive committee.
Mr. Meyer said an executive search committee also was established to select a new NAMA president, and its work was well under way.
“I certainly have to say in the transition period, the staff really has come to the fore,” Mr. Meyer said. “Over the years, you get to know the staff pretty well, who their spouses are, how many kids they have, those kinds of things. I’ve really grown a lot closer to the staff during the last couple months. They’ve really come through. They’re very focused on what they are doing. It’s been very helpful.”
Mr. Meyer said the milling industry, not just NAMA, is going through many changes.
“An industry may have to change because of problems or issues it confronts — there may be defensive moves by members of an industry,” he said. “I don’t see that being the case with the milling industry. Rather, I see a situation as one in which changes are occurring because opportunities are arising. This industry is looking for opportunities to innovate and to improve delivery of products and its service to customers.”
Mr. Meyer said several near-term issues require NAMA’s attention.
With regard to implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act, Mr. Meyer said, “We need a seat at the table there to ensure our opinions are heard.”
Wheat flour millers also must pay attention to advances in the development of bioengineered wheat.
“From a milling perspective, we are still a number of years away from bioengineered wheat,” Mr. Meyer said. “There is a tremendous amount of work that still needs to be done with respect to customer acceptance. Also, we must have influence on what sorts of traits will be developed. It’s very important from the millers’ perspective that functionality of bioengineered wheat is considered rather than simply emphasizing yields.”
Additionally, Washington is always a tremendous generator of challenges, Mr. Meyer continued, pointing to questions arising from the sequester, Environmental Protection Agency rules, an unresolved farm bill, the future of the Conservation Reserve Program, and wheat’s ongoing battle for acres.
The industry also has found itself battling misrepresentations of its products by a succession of food faddists, Mr. Meyer said, pointing to the expected September publication of yet another anti-grain foods tome, “Grain Brain.”
“As soon as ‘Wheat Belly’s’ influence faded, we found we must prepare for the release of yet another book that makes fantastic claims about grain, especially wheat, that have no basis in science,” Mr. Meyer said. “We have a situation in which NAMA must be able to take an active role in defending the industry.” He pointed to the lead the Grain Foods Foundation has taken in this effort.
So, Mr. Meyer has a full plate as the new chairman of NAMA. But one senses the organization has a steady hand at the helm.