In this excerpt from our Annual Report 2021, our President of Primary Products, Jim Stutelberg, discusses how Primary Products managed through a very difficult year and reacted quickly to a rapidly changing business environment.
At the start of the year, lockdowns in the US caused major disruption to your main markets - how did you deal with that?
It was an extraordinary time. All the things you can’t control shifted from one extreme to another and back again – not just in the US as a whole, but from state to state. And so two words come to mind – agility and resilience. Our people had to adjust incredibly quickly under very challenging circumstances to keep each other safe, keep our business running and serve our customers’ changing needs.
While demand for our bulk sweeteners was lower due to the reduction in the out-of-home soft drinks market, and office and school closures meant demand for our paper starches was also down, our packaging starches grew strongly as online shopping boomed. And, with more people cooking at home, we saw higher demand for corn oil.
How did you succeed in serving customers, despite the lockdown and restricted travel?
We rapidly switched to video meetings and virtual interactions, which actually led to more face-time with customers because we didn’t have to travel. We also went virtual to provide operational support.
In our industrial starch business, for example, we are in many cases an extension of our customers’ plant engineering team, helping them optimise their processes while using our products. Throughout the year, there are multiple examples of our people solving customer manufacturing issues remotely using video technology, with our technical service teams working from home partnering with customer teams in their plants to make recommendations, tweak starch input variables, and help troubleshoot problems.
For those few essential on-site visits, we worked in partnership with our safety and pandemic response teams to implement Covid-safe customer visit protocols, so our people could go onto our customers’ sites and could help them safely and effectively. And our customers really valued our can-do attitude – one of our largest customers, for example, awarded us preferred supplier status for the first time. I’m incredibly proud of how the team kept each other safe and took care of our customers in what was a very difficult year.
The team stayed incredibly focused despite the challenges. What kept them going?
Our purpose of Improving Lives for Generations is the starting point for everything we do, and, at a leadership level, we proved that through the pandemic. We were totally clear that the number one priority was to keep people safe and healthy, mentally as well as physically. Seeing this focus on our purpose in action was so important for our people. Our purpose also caused us to reflect on those parts of our communities hardest hit by lockdowns.
For example, our Black Employee Network, which I’m proud to sponsor, had the idea of marking Martin Luther King Day by getting volunteers to phone elderly folks in Chicago, check they had food in their pantries, and if not, order it for them. We also spent time helping to pack and deliver food parcels for our food bank partners. There are still millions of people in the world, including in the US, who aren’t sure where their next meal is coming from, and the economic effects of the pandemic have only made that worse.
Helping prevent hunger is totally aligned with our purpose, and our efforts are something I feel really good about.
The market changed significantly this year - does that affect your longer-term strategy in primary products?
A lot has changed – some of it is temporary, while some will drive more permanent changes that we’ll need to consider. And we don’t have all the answers now – no one does.
How quickly will out-of-home consumption recover? How will the move to home working affect our paper starches? Will the trend for online shopping move even faster?
But then, our strategy has always been about asking these kinds of questions, analysing our markets, and planning for many scenarios.
If anything, the pandemic has emphasised just how important our strategy is – optimising product and customer mix, driving operational efficiencies through our continuous improvement programme, and driving long-term value creation by being very intentional about identifying new and profitable end-markets for our products, whether that’s with new customers or for new uses.
What does the future hold?
We’ve learnt so much this year. We’ve found new, smart and efficient ways of working, and we’ve learnt how effective we can be in a non-traditional working model, with some people at home, some at plants, some doing both.
These learnings will last far beyond the pandemic. We’ve also learnt a lot about ourselves, about just how agile and resilient we are, which will serve us well in the years ahead. We’ve also learned the power of focusing on what’s important. One area that I am passionate about is sustainability.
All the products we make are plant-based and we take our responsibility to look after our natural resources very seriously. When I look at the co-generation project in Lafayette, Indiana which will significantly drive down greenhouse gas emissions at that site, and our industry-leading sustainable corn programme with Truterra LLC, it gives me great pride.
And looking ahead we can do more, such as helping people move out of plastic and into paper-based packaging, and increasing the use of bio-based products. These things matter to our customers and they matter to us. We have some big challenges for sure, but our agility and resilience this year have shown we have the team and the capabilities to succeed.
Read more from Jim, including the Full Year results for Primary Products on page 38 of our Annual Report 2021, here