The power of teamwork is at the heart of Jim Sutter’s approach as CEO of the U.S. Soybean Export Council (USSEC). Teamwork is evident, too, in his personal style, which can quickly make you feel you’re working with him on a project.
“If Jim was farming, he would say, ‘come on, guys, let’s all go walk beans,’” says Roy Bardole, an Iowa grower and USSEC chairman. “Jim’s view is, ‘We as a team can get this done.’ He uses his staff as a team, and he’s done a remarkable job of staying in close communication with his volunteer leadership.”
What Sutter says more formally is that soy farmers must have a coordinated message for communicating with overseas buyers, policy makers, and others who influence exports: “We need to get the whole soy family, that has international activities and perspectives, to work together in a collaborative way.”
One particular challenge he cites is the issue of sustainability. “I believe the U.S. has a competitive advantage because of what our growers have been doing for 25 years. The challenge is how we get everybody aligned as we deliver that message. How do we tell that story to the world’s consumers who want to know?”
That alignment is just one of many challenges for Sutter, who joined USSEC only 16 months ago after a 30-year career with Cargill.
Another challenge is that USSEC is also relatively new – established in 2005 to maximize the role of U.S. soybeans, soy meal, soy oil and soy products internationally. Such youth calls for a short-term emphasis on establishing management systems so that complying with all the rules becomes routine, according to Sutter.
“We have internal process improvements to make, external activities going on around the world, and quite a learning curve for me coming to a non-profit,” he explains. “My biggest surprise is the complexity of the compliance and reporting requirements. In industry, we handled many dollars of business in a much more streamlined fashion.
“At USSEC, we’re using other people’s money to invest in our export efforts. We’re working for the United Soybean Board, USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, with the American Soybean Association as a cooperator, and with the qualified state soybean checkoff boards.”
Sutter “has a steep mountain to climb,” says Bardole. “He gets X dollars to invest [in market development] and when he gets done, it must still total X dollars.”
Still, the No. 1 challenge for Sutter and USSEC is continuing to build U.S. soybean export opportunities.
“We’ve seen exports setting records in volume and dollars over the past few years, with China being the biggest new market,” says Sutter. “China was once a net soybean exporter. I think the opportunities are there for other developing markets to follow in China’s footsteps. We’re starting to see it happen in Vietnam, and we could see it in many other places around the world.
“At USSEC, we are thinking about where we can make the biggest difference, and that’s probably different from private industry’s focus. We may need to be ahead of them in some cases, or there may be others where industry has abandoned a market and we need to resuscitate it,” Sutter concludes.
“We have the opportunity to take a long enough vision to see other spots where we can deploy resources to build exports.”
Jim Sutter grew up on a crop and cattle farm in northeast Colorado and earned a degree from Colorado State University in agricultural business/economics. He joined Cargill as a merchant trainee in 1980. There, he held a variety of management positions in vegetable oil and oilseed processing and was posted to Malaysia, England, Singapore and Holland before his final assignment as vice president of Cargill’s Grain and Oilseed Supply Chain Business Unit.