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Build Success through Mentor/Protege Relationships

November 10, 2015, 1

Indiana windbreak - photo courtesy of USDA NRCS My work brings me face to face with the very best agripreneurs in the nation. As a succession planning professional and a subject matter expert for the media, I’m paid to learn the hows, whats and whys of entrepreneurial success. Every encounter is a learning opportunity. Most stretch my rather conventional brain beyond normal dimensions and allow me to absorb some facet of business, succession or family that I’d hadn’t otherwise fully appreciated. Some visits take me by surprise and astound me into a realm of new possibilities. And a few are so exciting they set my hair on fire.  

Though David Eby doesn’t sell farm equipment, manage a service department or train sales people, his operation deals in a service, is supported by a growing team of support personnel and serves a rather specialized niche. His operation is a picture of success and his methodologies are admirable. As an aerial applicator, his business fraught with demands, restrictions and risk. His product is pricey; the customer demands perfection and, with each job, a life is on the line.  

David started his business from scratch back in 1973. As a farmer with an interest in aviation, he learned to fly and bought a Cessna AgTruck to service the needs of his operation. With some experience, and at the request of neighbors, he began doing some custom spraying. To answer the growing demand and serve a larger area, it wasn’t long before his son Ryan joined the operation. The rest, as they say, is history. Today, AgriFlite employs 4 full-time pilots, and pulls in many contract flyers on a seasonal basis. AgriFlite is a diversified operation, also manufacturing check valves and designing software.  

Who better to mentor a next generation? David has the experience, the education and the commitment to help the next generation of aerial applicators succeed. To that end, he’s mentoring an unrelated young person into the vocation, helping him learn the work and avoid the pitfalls of being a agripreneur. In the process both mentor and protégé are learning from each other. Theirs is a relationship based in mutual benefit. 

When I asked David why he would take the time and responsibility to mentor someone he responded without hesitation, “Because I enjoy this industry. It’s been a dream of mine all my life to be able to do something like this. I’d like to pass it on to the next generation.” 

I pressed him further for why he chose this person and why now, at this point in his career, he replied, “Kevin was a farmer who always had a dream of being able to fly. When I met him he sounded like a person that I could trust and who wanted to do this, and had the ability as well. So we developed a relationship, and I instructed him on how to do the things he needed to do to get started.” 

“He bought an airplane and started flying.” David went on describing their beginning, “He built up his time and worked through the different ratings. When he was ready to start flying ag, we had a 301, which is a piston-driven air tractor, which we let him start flying. We helped him out for the first year, and he helped us out in return. It’s been real encouraging for me to be able to help somebody---helping him to fulfill his dream, allows me to achieve mine.” 

Based on years of interviews, and many conversations with successful agripreneurs, the subject of mentoring continually bubbles to the top. Key to professional success and personal satisfaction are the deep relationships we build with the people around us. We remember and admire those people who help us, or whom we help, achieve goals. It doesn’t cost a dime, yet it’s worth can’t be measured in dollars and cents.   

Each of us has the opportunity to give and receive in a mentor/protégé relationship. Whether formal or informal, both parties to the relationship can share valuable insights and wisdom. The characteristics of a good mentor/protégée relationship include:  

  • Professionals with the education, experience and commitment necessary to succeed.
  • A relationship based on trust, respect and an open dialogue.
  • Common interests and specific goals to achieve.
  • The maturity to disagree and discuss differences of opinion/approach to business and personal matters.
  • Long-term perspective, as growing into a better person/professional is a work in progress.

As David and I were concluding our visit, he reminded me of the age-old measure of success. He said, “When a person dies, you don’t remember how much wealth he had. You don’t recall how many assets he accumulated. People remember the relationships you have, and how you’ve helped others.” Going on, he said, “That’s what I want to be remembered by---the people I’ve helped.”  


Originally published as 'Are You a Mentor?' (July 2012), by Kevin Spafford for North American Equipment Dealers Association

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