Even at the tender age of about 9 or 10, when he shined shoes in front of the Greyhound Bus Station in downtown Los Angeles, Jim Brabeck knew that he wanted to be a business leader.
“However, I never dreamed in my wildest imagination that I would become the CEO of such an awesome company,” he said.
The company is Farm Supply, where Brabeck, the company’s president and CEO, has worked for 51 years. Brabeck became general manager of Farm Supply when he was 27 years old and was immediately tasked with learning every facet of the business and navigating it through good and bad times. In many ways, Brabeck has been the anchor, providing a source of strength, ideas and leadership for employees and cementing lasting relationships with customers.
In the next few years, he plans to retire, leaving behind the business but not necessarily the people or friendships that he’s cultivated for decades.
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“This has never been a job for me,” Brabeck said. “It has been a way of life.”
He recently sat down with The Tribune to discuss his tenure at Farm Supply Co. and what the future holds.
Q: What do you count among your biggest successes as president of Farm Supply?
A: Working with our board of directors, we developed a culture of open communication, transparency, unity and trust. By doing so, we were able to attract and retain quality employees who embraced those same qualities. We created a very strong team upon those values, and as a result of their efforts, we turned our cooperative — financially distressed at the time — into a successful business, reflecting the highest qualities and values of the 2,600 agricultural members/owners. We continue to maintain a very dedicated, strong and cohesive team, reflected by the fact that over 30 percent of our employees have been here for over 20 years or more.
Q: What, if anything, would you have done differently during your tenure? What have been some of the key challenges you’ve faced in terms of operations, hiring, business decisions?
A: On a personal level, the most important thing that I would do over would be to do a much better job of balancing my life between my work and family. I have truly been blessed to have a supportive family. However, in hindsight, I should have been more sensitive to their needs and realize the fact that no one can ever take your place at home!
The biggest challenge in business is keeping ahead of changing customer needs, as well as increased competition, which is also vying to meet their needs. We are different from our competitors in that we are problem solvers. We don’t just sell products; we service our customers’ needs in the process.
The only constant in business is change, and we have had to reposition our company at least six or seven times during my tenure. When I started, our county was mostly dryland farming and dairies.
Today, thanks to changing technology and irrigation practices, we now have a very diverse agricultural community, which we continue to serve. Also, we have a growing population base; our county has been discovered! A great deal of agricultural land has been developed into smaller ranch/home sites, with differing needs, which we strive to meet daily. Another challenge we face is the increasingly high cost of living in our area and trying to keep pace with salaries and benefits for our employees.
Q: You emphasize a team approach at the company, but in what ways would you say that your particular leadership style has influenced the culture of the company and its mission?
A: My approach to management is participatory. My philosophy is “two is one, and one is none!” We work as a team, and our culture is never about “I” or “me.” It is always about “we” and “our.” We created an environment of openness, empowering our employees to grow within it and to use their own good judgment in making decisions, always being mindful of our culture, “If it isn’t right, don’t do it!”
Q: Where do you find your inspiration and motivation to keep going each day?
A: My greatest inspiration comes from my faith. I attend daily 7 a.m. Mass at the Old Mission. It helps to clear my mind and renew my mental being, which enables me to focus on the challenges ahead of me each day in a positive and productive way. The Old Mission is my sanctuary, and I know that it serves as one for many others as well. It is a very special, peaceful place, where all are invited and welcome. I ask the good Lord every day to give me the ability to live each day fully, completely and without regret in doing his will on this Earth and to work hard in helping to make our community a better place for all of us to live. You might say that I am a man with a Mission!”
My motivation stems from all the many, many individuals who helped shape my character, and gave so unselfishly of themselves, their time and their talents in nurturing me, guiding me, and who have supported me in all of my endeavors over these many years. None of them have ever asked for anything back, and I live every single day striving to never, ever, ever disappoint any of them for all that they have done for me.
Q: Who have been some of the primary influences in your professional life?
A: A great many people have influenced my professional life. First and foremost was my father-in-law Harold Walty, who owned Walty Pump Company. A true craftsman, he taught me my trade. Attorney Peter Andre, who guided me through the complexities of our early difficulties, as did CPA Burkely Towle, Bob Blanchard Sr., who served as our board chairman, mentored me, as did his successor Masaji Eto. People like Jay Team, Bud Thoma of Thoma Electric and the very Honorable Judge Bill Clark. Father John Arul, and Father Jim Nisbet, both from the Old Mission. Our bankers Germana Silva Suderman of CoBank, Ken Graff, CEO of Farm Credit West, and Carrol Pruett, former CEO of Mid-State Bank. Harry Morris, and his son, Greg Morris, of Morris and Garritano Insurance. Former Sheriff Ed Williams, and above all others, my right arm, Karen Ellsworth, who retired as our CFO last year after 40 years of service.
Q: What about your work in activities outside of Farm Supply?
A: I truly love our community because it accepted me, when at the age of 16, I needed acceptance. I strive every single day to make our community a better place for all of us to live. In helping to do that, I am involved in many community organizations. All of these organizations make a huge impact on our county, and I am humbled to be a very small part of each of them. It is also important to know that whatever community organization I am involved with, I am there representing Farm Supply Company and all of our employees.
Q: You mentioned that you have plans to retire soon. What will your lasting legacy be and what are your hopes for the future of Farm Supply?
A: We have our succession team in place, and we will be choosing my successor within the next few months. I will stay on and mentor that person going forward for a period of time, which will be approximately two more years. All six members of our senior management team are Cal Poly graduates. All of them have been here for 20 years or more, with the exception of our new CFO, who is a CPA and came to us from Glenn Burdette, the accounting firm we use. However, she has been involved with our audits for about 10 years and is very familiar with our culture and wanted to join our team. Each and every one of them has a passion for Farm Supply Company, and each is committed to moving it forward well into the future. As for my legacy with our cooperative, I hope it would be said that “his caring made a difference to Farm Supply Company, its employees, its shareholders, its customers and to the communities he serves.”
Q: Do you have any plans beyond Farm Supply, and how will you continue to remain active in local agriculture?
A: My plans for retirement are up in the air at this time, but first and foremost, I will definitely be spending much more time with my family and doing things that they want to do! I have spent my entire life in agriculture, and I will definitely continue to be involved in some fashion.
Q: What key advice would you give to others who aspire to do the kind of work that you do?
A: My words of wisdom for any person wishing to become a CEO or become involved in a leadership position of any kind is very simple, but it is also very difficult for many to do. You have to have the humility to realize that you do not run your company — your employees do. Be aware of their needs, be sensitive to their concerns, work with them in addressing them, and treat each one of them with courtesy, dignity and respect, and they will work diligently to never let you fail.
Title: President/CEO of Farm Supply
Hometown: Los Osos
Educational background: Graduated Mission High School, Cuesta Community College and attended Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo
Family: Marcia, wife of 54 years; children, Jason and Sharon, and her husband, Neal; and two grandchildren, Ryan and James.
Community involvement: Volunteers at Old Mission Church, worked with Father Russell Brown to raise funds to retrofit the Old Mission. Rotary Club of San Luis Obispo since 1974, proposed its first female Rotarian, Dr. Lynn Frady Kelly, and completed Eto Park, named in honor of a long time Rotarian Masaji Eto, a Farm Supply Company board member, friend and mentor. Cal Poly Dean’s Advisory Council for the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences since 1989; two full terms on the Cal Poly Corporation board of directors. Eight years as an elected trustee of Cuesta College, and chaired the Cuesta Capital Campaign cabinet, which directed raising the funds for the North County campus. Served 21 years, as an appointed outside director of Farm Credit West, a $7 billion agricultural lending association, which provide funding for many of our growers in our marketing area.
Current activities/organizations: Serving his 42nd year as an appointed member of the San Luis Obispo County Juvenile Justice/Deliquency Prevention Commission; board of the Sheriff’s Advisory Foundation, Crime Stoppers, Restorative Partners, San Luis Obispo Law Enforcement Assistance Foundation, and the California State Highway Patrol Commissioner’s 11-member Civilian Advisory Board, representing the Coastal Division. Community Foundation Board of Directors, recently appointed as one of the trustees for the Land Conservancy.