Three Decades of Sugar: Kelvin P. Thompsen
A Completed Tenure as President and Chief Executive Officer of Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative
On October 1, 2016, Kelvin Thompsen returned to what he did as a boy growing up in Illinois and Wyoming – working in agriculture. On this sunny day it was harvesting milo on a South Dakota ranch to help out a family member. Grungy, sweaty work is no big thing for Kelvin – the dirtier the better. It was the perfect way to spend a few days – working outside, helping others, with ample time to reflect on what was and plan for what’s next.
October 1, 2016 also marked the day he completed his tenure as Chief Executive Officer of Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative. Two years ago Kelvin announced his planned departure from the cooperative, so he could usher in new leadership and set a course for the next phase of his career. Kelvin served as President and CEO for the cooperative since 2009, and has worked in the beet sugar industry since 1983.
SUGAR, AS CHANCE WOULD HAVE IT
Serendipity played a big role in Kelvin entering the sugar business, and ultimately working his way to hold various executive positions. When he graduated from the University of Wyoming with a B.S. in Animal Science in December 1982, the agriculture industry was slow.
It so happened that the Holly Sugar factory in Torrington, Wyoming was looking for an agriculturist, and Kelvin fit the bill. “My plan was simply to become employed — and then eventually work my way back to animal science.” In January 1983, Kelvin embarked on what would be come a 33-year career in sugar. So much for the plan.
But 33 years later, Kelvin is unique in the industry, says Ian O’Connell, chief financial officer at SMBSC: “Kelvin has so much experience, from the factory to the field to the customer. There are not many people in this business who know all sides of a business so intimately. Kelvin does.”
WHAT GRATIFIES – ALL DIFFERENT PARTS OF THE JOB
When asked what was most gratifying about leading SMBSC all these years, it’s not just one thing: “There are so many pieces to the job.”
What tops the list, however, is working with farm families and employees to advance the company: “Keeping the assets sustainable for current and future employees and shareholders – that’s what it’s all about,” says Kelvin.
Having worked on four (4) farm bills, Kelvin also enjoyed the public policy and legislative work immensely: “A lot of people feel that our political system is broken and doesn’t work. But when you get to work in it first hand, you see, in fact, the system does work. It’s all about relationships based on credibility and trust.”
BACK AT THE FACTORY – IT’S THE PEOPLE
Credibility and trust are big on Capitol Hill, but just as important back at SMBSC’s Renville facility, as well as Sheridan, Wyoming and Brawley, California, where SMBSC’s wholly – owned subsidiaries, Holly Seed and Spreckels Sugar, respectively, employ 151 people collectively.
“I view my role to build strong relationships that capitalize on people’s strengths, to provide a common goal and allow folks to do what they do best. It’s a team effort. It’s not one person who floats the boat or sinks the ship,” says Kelvin.
And people took notice of how Kelvin related to others. “He cared about the people; it was always about the people. I’ve never seen a person in his position – at that level – be that personable. From a macro perspective, he totally got it. But he also was out there shakin’ hands and kissin’ babies getting to know everyone. He genuinely cares about people.”
And what kind of people did Kelvin work with over the years?
“These are some of the most talented and dedicated people that I’ve had the privilege to work with.
It sounds easy, making sugar: grow a beet, harvest it, and throw it into a factory and turn it into sugar. But the weather has such an impact. It affects each campaign.
To work in this industry, you have to be very adaptable and flexible. This is not a widget business. There are a lot of challenges that must be overcome in the course of a campaign, to not only get the final product produced, but delivered to the customer.
Some people like consistency, but the sugar industry is totally the opposite of that. Not everyone is suited for this work – suited to enjoy it, and appreciate the challenges. To those of us in the industry, it’s not only challenging but at the end of the day when you complete a crop and get it all harvested and get it processed and get it to the customer – well, it’s very rewarding.
They always say, if it were easy everybody would do it. But not everyone does this work…”
Todd Geselius, V. P. of Agriculture at SMBSC, worked with Kelvin for years and valued the team approach: “You felt that you were in a partnership with Kelvin, trying to get the right answer. It was never, ‘This is how it’s going to be.’ It was always ‘Let’s find a solution together.’”
Kelvin also looked for ways to support the professional and personal growth of his team. Todd says, “Kelvin was very generous in providing opportunities for a lot of us to stretch ourselves, that otherwise we wouldn’t have had the chance to do. It was not only good for our careers, but very rewarding from a personal standpoint.”
FINDING ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
A sugar beet is 75% water, which makes water a big deal in sugar production. At SMBSC alone, several million gallons of water are generated every day. Kelvin led capital improvements to address everything from water management to storing beets and final product:
- Increased number of ventilated piling sites to now total 9
- Increased receiving equipment at piling sites
- Added six (6) new silos
- Improved efficiency and capacity at SMBSC’s waste water treatment facility
- Added 200 acres of land for irrigating waste water
- Constructed additional storage ponds for holding and managing water
- Added several mud filter presses to more effectively and efficiently handle water in a responsible way.
On the financial side of things, Kelvin breathed new life into the cooperative. Jerry Bahma, former chief financial officer of SMBSC, worked with Kelvin for seven (7) years and notes that Kelvin had some “phenomenal accomplishments” at SMBSC. He says Kelvin “dramatically strengthened the financial well being of the cooperative – it is now in a very different position than it was before Kelvin came on as President and CEO.” Among his many achievements:
- generating some of the best payments to shareholders in the cooperative’s history
- reducing debt to equity ratio significantly, which included paying off loans years in advance of the payoff dates and negotiating favorable interest rates going forward
- reducing the unit retain revolvement term, so shareholders are able to receive complete compensation for their sugarbeet crops sooner
- and, most recently, negotiated a new marketing partnership with National Sugar Marketing LLC, under which SMBSC took an ownership interest.
WORK ETHIC, PATIENCE AND CONSISTENCY
Kelvin says the work ethic of SMBSC, Spreckels and Holly employees comes from the “high level of dedication and commitment to see every campaign through and make it a total success.”
Yet, Kelvin’s own work ethic doesn’t go unnoticed.
“He was always putting in the time. He would come in early, stay late, go to events. He’d go to growers’ fields. He’d be at the plant. 24/7. But he didn’t feel like he was working, because it was a passion for him. And he did it with positivity,” recalls Ian.
When it came to navigating the inconsistent day-to-day of sugar production, Ian says that Kelvin had a unique style — a quiet patience and rock-solid stability:
“He’s firm, but friendly. He’s consistent. And he’s patient. He can make a decision very quick, but he understands the value of deliberating at times. Importantly, when times are tough, he understands ‘This too shall pass.’”