We often get the chance to listen to hear Dr. Ray Ward speak about soils, we seldom get to hear Dr. Ray Ward’s Business Advice. However, Dr. Ward was invited to speak on a panel, Big Businesses Start Out Small, at the 2022 MarkeTech conference here in Kearney.
The moderator stumbled over Dr. Ward’s bio which is extensively decorated with academic degrees, soil science awards, and business awards. “Wow!” He exclaimed in admiration of Dr. Ward as a novel addition to the panel. “Let’s hear it for Dr. Ward.” And of course, the audience gave a well-deserved round of applause.
Then, the moderator then gave each panelist the opportunity to give a brief history of their organization. Each panelist also explained their role in their respective company. Dr. Ward gave a very brief history, mentioning his
move to Kearney, and the state of the aquifer increasing in nitrate. He then mentioned how the lab had grown to fully serve farmers and ranchers including fertilizer, plant, feed, water analysis, and most recently soil health.
Next, the moderator inquired about customer loyalty. Dr. Ward answered very concisely with two words:
These two words have been the foundation of Ward Laboratories, Inc. since its beginnings.
Tools to build
Then, the moderator asked the panel what their best business tool has been in building their business. Dr. Ward jumped in saying word of mouth, you never know who people know! So, you must have integrity when you talk with everyone.
Dr. Ward went on to speak about his two rules of business he holds for his employees:
- The customer is always right
- See rule #1
However, he does say, it is important to communicate and have conversation with your customers to ensure that they are always right. It is important to have those conversations to help the producer make the best decisions for their operation.
Now, if you know Dr. Ward, you know he has a lot to say! Mostly, he has a lot of stories to tell. So, while that was as far as his panel discussion went, I decided to continue and ask some more questions about the business Dr. Ward has built.
First, I asked “What have been your biggest challenges faced while growing your business?”
Dr. Ward said when he first started, he looked at the banker as his boss. He had to create business plans when he asked for a loan. He had to know how long it would take to pay off a new instrument. He also was literally doing the ‘Rise and Grind’. He and Jolene woke up and started grinding soils at 6 am. They would break for breakfast. Then, run the analytical tests from 8am to 4pm. Then, from 4pm to 6pm they would hand enter the data into a report, print the report, stuff the envelopes and get them to the post office.
Fast forward to today, Dr. Ward’s biggest challenge has been getting the right people in place to get things done. He used the example of how he has handed off the marketing responsibilities. He also mentioned the struggles involved with managing the large projects we have coming through the laboratory today.
Next, I asked, “Who were your biggest supporters while you were building your business?”
To this Dr. Ward recited the full history of the lab. It is extensive and will be covered in another post. For now, I will highlight his greatest supporters in the early days.
Primarily, his wife Jolene Ward. Jolene encouraged Dr. Ward to start the business. The story of Ward Labs start is just as much hers as it is Dr. Ward’s. She was up at 6 am and supporting the laboratory in the early days.
Next, Dr. Ward mentioned Ed Curry who put the thought in his head. Mr. Curry wanted Ray to start a lab in Elk Point, South Dakota.
Then, Dr. Ward said Mark Kottmeyer who Dr. Ward knew through their time together at Servi-Tech. Mr. Kottmeyer had moved to Kearney to work for the Lexington Coop. He then started his own business, Central States Agronomics, Inc. He encouraged Dr. Ward, telling him it was great to have his own company. A little-known fact is that in the early days of the lab, Dr. Ward also scouted fields for Mark Kottmeyer.
Finally, the last supporter Dr. Ward mentioned was Jerry Schmidt. Mr. Schmidt built the first building that housed the lab in Rovar park. He also encouraged Dr. Ward and helped get things set up for Dr. Ward and Jolene to be able to move to Kearney and start the lab.
The next question, “Who were your critics and how did you handle them?” gave Dr. Ward a moment of pause. He said he didn’t think he had any critics. But then he remembered that with the basis of his lab being to provide producers with fertilizer recommendations based on university research, the cooperatives were not happy with this at the time. In this time, fertilizer dealers were over recommending products and over selling. Conservation, and regeneration did not have the strong hold they do today. However, with honesty and integrity being the cornerstone of Dr. Ward’s business philosophy, he held his ground and kept his fertilizer recommendations low compared to other soil testing laboratories.
Business advice for producers
The next question was, “for producers looking onto diversifying into different enterprises, what advice did Dr. Ward have for them?”
Dr Ray Ward’s Business Advice for growing operations:
He simply said: “Do it!” His vision is to keep rural America alive. Bringing on new enterprises, new people and rebuilding rural communities. Dr. Ward wants to see rural family life continue.
Dr. Ward is an influencer
I then asked Dr. Ward, “You have a huge sphere of influence, how have you fostered this type of following?” I’m betting by now you know what his answer was….
- Honesty and Integrity
- Recommendations and advice based on science
- Speaking with farmers and ranchers on the phone everyday for many years.
Business advice for Ward Lab’s next generation
Finally, I asked Dr. Ward a question for myself and others who advise farmers and ranchers here at Ward Laboratories, Inc, “What can the next generation of leaders at Ward do to uphold this kind of following and legacy?”
Dr Ray Ward’s Business Advice for the next generation:
We need to continue to follow his established philosophy, be conscious of the person. Dr. Ward went into business to help the farmer, rancher, homeowner etc. He was not on a mission to turn a high profit. Proceed with caution when serving the larger corporations. Remember to serve the producer first. Finally, tying everything together, Dr. Ward would encourage us to have honesty and integrity along with being knowledgeable in the guidance we provide to producers.