University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives
Rural Cooperatives, March/April 1998, pp. 4-10
Published by the Rural Business and Cooperative Development Service

A Few Good Women

Though few in number, women in leadership positions are playing an increasingly important role in U.S. coops

Catherine Merlo

Their presence in the board rooms and manager's offices of U.S. cooperatives is still a fairly recent phenomenon. But for the women who are venturing into these once all-male bastions, the rewards can be great-both in terms of personal /professional fulfillment and the ability to help guide their cooperatives to new successes.

    Following are the accounts of seven women who have brushed aside gender questions and are proving themselves day in and day out in the trenches of the modern cooperative business world. Some have had to overcome the skepticism of members who felt the job was simply too challenging for a woman, while others have had the welcome mat rolled out for them by coops anxious to diversify and broaden their perspectives. Regardless of the help or hindrances of others, each has succeeded on their own merits and through their commitment to the cooperative ideas of mutual self-help.

"You don't think about your fence rows, you think globally. And cooperatives must think globally."
Nancy Thomas
Director, Nationwide Insurance Enterprise
Director, Farm Credit Services
Louisville, Ohio

    In making decisions as a board member of the diversified Nationwide Insurance Enterprise-with its 14 million policy holders-Nancy Thomas affects the lives of a lot of people.

    Thousands more feel her impact as a board member of Farm Credit Services, the largest agricultural lender in the U.S. Thomas represents the farmers of the 4th District of Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio, which alone makes $4 billion in loans each year.

    Nationwide board member Nancy Thomas can handle any of the equipment on her Ohio farm. (Photo courtesy of Nationwide Insurance Enterprises)

     But if there's anyone who has the experience, the desire and the energy to handle the responsibilities of those two major cooperative organizations, it's Thomas.
    "I am one of the 10 luckiest women in the world," says Thomas. "I'm truly blessed, healthy and active. Every day is very full. I'm 63 years old but I feel 45."
    What also helps Thomas is her conviction in the cooperative way of marketing. "I have always lived on a farm and been very interested in agriculture and coops," she says.

    Thomas and her husband operate a dairy of 3300 Holsteins, and are member of Dairy Farmers of America. They also have 500 young cattle. In addition, they run an 1,800acre farm, where she can operate any of the farm equipment.

    Equally important, Thomas has an ability to think beyond her own immediate surroundings.
    "We have a global agricultural industry today, a global everything," she says. "You don't think about your fence rows, you think globally. And cooperatives must think globally.

    "I think it's been difficult for a lot of middle-aged people to think beyond their fence rows," adds Thomas. "That has hindered a lot of cooperatives because their directors just couldn't think ahead or reach out with new ideas. With the changes in corporate America, you have to be broadminded."
    Thomas acquired her director's experience through a progressive string of board positions. Her first came in 1979, when she was elected to the Ohio Farm Bureau Board of Trustees, and to the board of Landmark, an Ohio-based agricultural cooperative that later became Country-mark. Then she was elected president of the Ohio Agricultural Marketing Association (an affiliate of the Ohio Farm Bureau).

    In 1985, she was elected the Midwest director for American Farm Bureau Women, representing 11 Midwest states.

    In late 1985, the Ohio Farm Bureau nominated Thomas to be a director for Nationwide and its six affiliate companies. She won the election, becoming the first woman ever to serve on the Nationwide board. Thomas resigned her other positions to devote more time to her new board responsibility. It required it.
    Nationwide Insurance Enterprise, headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, is one of the country's largest diversified insurance and financial services organizations. It has $83 billion in assets and its direct written premiums total $19 billion. The 15member board meets at least eight times a year in Columbus, and occasionally offsite.

    "Nationwide insures about 35 percent of the ag coops in the U.S.," she says.

    Thomas' election to the Farm Credit Board came in 1990 Again, she was the first woman director, although a second woman has since come on board. Its 17 directors meet 12 times a year in Louisville, Ky., 350 miles from Thomas' home.

    "There were a few 'good ol' boys' when I first came on the boards, but they've come a long way," Thomas says. "One of the biggest rewards now is just being considered one of the guys."

"When you're exposed to the whole dairy industry, you make better judgements because you see the big picture."

Susan Crane
Consumer promotion marketing manager and former director, Foremost Farms
Burlington, Wis.

    You might think that with seven children and a dairy farm, Susan Crane has enough to do already.

    You might think that serving on the board of Foremost Farms, a large Wisconsin-based dairy cooperative, would have been enough to keep Crane settled for a while.
    But you'd be wrong.
    In late 1997, Crane's life took another turn when she stepped off the Foremost Farms board, and took a staff position with the same coop where she had served as a director for the past four years.

    "It was a real transition going from board member to employee but it's been very positive," says Crane, 43. "I'm still working for the farmers I believe in. Now I get a chance to see another part of the business."

    Crane's new position as consumer promotion marketing manager for Foremost Farms allows her to bring her enthusiasm for the dairy industry directly to consumers. She handles all Foremost Farms' fluid divisions consumer events, including the state fair, school programs and farm progress days.

    Furthermore, since new labeling laws for milk went into effect in January 1998, Crane has also been busy seeing that Foremost Farms is making the proper label transition. For example, the new label for skim milk is now fat-free. One percent milk is now low fat, 2 percent is reduced fat and whole milk is Vitamin D fortified.

    "With my medical background as a registered nurse, I understand the importance of helping people select dairy products that are nutritious and will fit in their dietary requirements," she says.

    Before her board member days, Crane's only previous business experience had been working with her husband Bob on Crane Farms. Even today, their Wisconsin dairy milks 130 cows and the couple grows 900 acres of grain crops. Two sons also farm with them. In the past, Crane had also worked as a R.N. two days a week at a local clinic.

    But in 1993, she was elected to the 36member board of Wisconsin Dairies. At the time, she was the only woman on the board. "It was the first time I had been exposed to business in an industrial sense," Crane says.

    Busy days followed. In 1995, Wisconsin Dairies consolidated with Golden Guernsey Dairy Cooperative to become Foremost Farms. Later that year, the coop acquired the Morning Glory Farms regions of Associated Milk Producers, Inc. And, during all that, Crane got an MBA from Marquette University.

    By 1997, Foremost Farms represented nearly 6,500 milk producers within the Upper Midwest and Great Lake states. Members supplied Foremost Farms with more than 5.4 billion pounds of milk.

    Today, the coop operates 29 manufacturing plants and employs more than 1,750 people.
    "Being on the board exposes you to the inside of your cooperative business," says Crane. "It takes you a step beyond to see where your milk goes. Being in a business that creates a value-added product like cheese, you're able to see how your coop can be successful. When you're exposed to the whole dairy industry, you make better judgements because you see the big picture."

    It doesn't matter, says Crane, whether one comes on the board as a man or woman. "What we need," she says, "are good people."
    Crane's new position should keep her set for a while. "I feel very lucky to have been home on the farm and now employed at Foremost Farms," she says. "I'm doing just what I would pick to do. A person's lucky when their heart's desire becomes what they do for a living."

"Many women are scared to run for board positions because they think they don't have the knowledge they need to serve."

Cheryl Borth Cheryl Borth

Director, Consolidated Telephone Cooperative Past president, National Telephone Cooperative Association
Dickinson, N.D. 

Cheryl Borth is the first woman and North Dakotan to serve as president of the National Telephone Cooperative Association. 
(Photo courtesy of NTCA) 

    She's the fulltime postmaster in Manning, N.D., a local farmer and rancher, and a small-town girl who married her high school sweetheart.

    But Cheryl Borth has risen to national heights in the telecommunications industry, and knows firsthand what it's like to make decisions for thousands of people concerning local telephone exchange services, long distance telephone operations, direct broadcast satellite, wireless TV, mobile radios, cellular and key systems and Internet access.

    In 1994, Borth became the first North Dakotan-and the first woman-to be elected president of the National Telephone Cooperative Association (NTCA). A nonprofit trade association, NTCA represents some 500 independently owned and locally operated rural cooperative and commercial telephone companies.

    She had campaigned earnestly for a national position in NTCA as far back as 1989, first against two male competitors in North Dakota, then rallying for support in South Dakota and Minnesota. Eventually, Borth was elected president, a post she held for the maximum two years.

    "The national position wasn't handed to me," says Borth, 44. "I had to campaign for it, so the victory was that much sweeter."

    Once in the NTCA top spot, Borth quickly brushed aside comments that she might not be able to handle her own in the male-dominated world of national telephone cooperatives.

    "People who knew me didn't doubt my ability," she says. "I've always had the ability to speak up and express my views. People know I'm committed, and that when I take on a job, I'll do my best."

    Borth already knew what serving on a coop board entailed. She'd originally been elected to a board position in 1985 when she became the first woman director of Consolidated Telephone Cooperative, a local exchange carrier in Dickinson, N.D., with 3,700 subscribers and 6,800 square miles of territory.

    "That's when my education started," she says. "It's a major understatement when people say that serving as a director takes some time."

    Encouraged by Consolidated Telephone, Borth and the rest of the board attended seminars to get up to speed on the telecommunications industry, where technological change was rapidly taking place. She came to board meetings prepared for discussion, with her board book tacked with notes about questions to ask.

    "It's always been a challenge to stay informed, to keep up on the changes in technology, and to find the time to commit," says Borth. "But the reward is knowing I'm helping provide affordable communications to rural areas."

    A former director of the North Dakota Association of Telephone Cooperatives, Borth remains a director on the board of Consolidated Telephone.

    "Many women are scared to run for board positions because they think they don't have the knowledge they need to serve on the board," she says. "But you don't gain that knowledge until after you acquire the position, just as the men do. The men don't know any more details of the cooperative than anyone else does when they first come on board."

    Borth would like to see a concerted effort made to appoint women to board vacancies, and more encouragement given to women to run for open slots. Borth also believes that members who attend annual meetings and get involved in other coop activities are more apt to be considered for leadership positions.

    "If you have to get up in front of the members at an annual meeting, be prepared with a few short sentences," she says. "Speak from the heart. Let them know you can represent them when you need to."

"The No. 1 job of a board member is communicating back to the members you represent."
Joyce Bupp Joyce Bupp 
Director, Dairy Farmers of America Seven Valleys, PA. 

Pennsylvania's Joyce Bupp is one of four women on the board of Dairy Farmers of America. 
(Photo courtesy of DFA) 

    Joyce Bupp awakens every day at 5 a.m. but it's not to milk the 180 Holstein cows of Bupplynn Dairy. That comes later in the day.
    What comes first for Bupp is turning on her computer and checking her email. She reads, she studies industry information, and she writes.
    "It's the quiet time of the day for me," says Bupp.
    Bupp needs the morning quiet to handle the workload that comes with running a Pennsylvania dairy with her husband, writing a weekly newspaper column on farm life, and serving on the board of Dairy Farmers of America (DFA), the largest dairy coop in the United States.
    "I take my role as a DFA director very seriously," she says. "DFA represents dairy farmers in 42 states, and there are a lot of people whose livelihoods in large part depend on our decisions."

    Today, Bupp represents District 7 of the Northeast Council of DFA. She is one of four women on the 104member DFA board, which meets monthly.

    "I have always tried to be accepted as another board member," she says. "I don't want to be thought of as different, and I know the three other women on the board feel the same way."
    Bupp would like to see more women play influential roles in coops, but acknowledges that women have not been encouraged in the past to serve on boards.

    Bupp herself was first elected to the board of her local dairy coop, Maryland Cooperative Milk Producers, in the mid1980s. Her husband had been on the board but had decided not to run because of a busy work schedule.

    "People suggested I run for the board, so I did," she says. "Maybe that's because it's never been difficult for me to express my views. And I believe that the No. 1 job of a board member is communicating back to the members you represent."

    In 1988, Bupp became the first woman to be elected to the board of Dairyman Inc., a dairy cooperative then headquartered in Louisville, Ky. Seven years later, the organization merged with MidAmerica Dairymen, where Bupp again found herself the only woman on the new board. In 1998, the coop merged with three other dairy coops to become Dairy Farmers of America.

    While cultural bias may have kept women out of leadership roles in the past, Bupp says it's time more women got involved.

    "The Young Cooperator Programs are excellent training grounds for young people coming into co-ops," Bupp says. "There's a growing trend of young couples-not just young men-in these programs. And programs are moving away from flower decorating and shopping trips for wives. They've become more educational. Women need more encouragement to get involved in these."

    Leaders-both men and women-are needed more than ever in co-ops, Bupp says. "Co-ops will play an increasing role in agriculture because there are fewer farmers," she says. "You know the saying: we can hang separately or we can hang together. The strength of co-ops will be a vital part of agriculture's future."

"If I got knocked down, I came back the next day and did the job even better. I learned not to take things personally."

Marsha Pyle Martin 
Marsha Pyle Martin 

Chairman of the Board, Chief Executive Officer Farm Credit Administration, Washington, D.C. 

Marsha Martin has risen through the ranks to become chairman of the board and CEO of the Farm Credit Administration. 
(Photo courtesy of Farm Credit Bank of Texas) 

    It's a big mistake for women to make their gender an issue," says Marsha Pyle Martin. "It gets in the way of progress."

    Martin should know. During her 30-year career in agricultural finance, Martin has risen through the ranks to achieve a status no other woman in the industry has ever attained.

    And she did it, she says, by following a firm philosophy.

    "I've always felt that my job is to make my boss look good," says Martin. "I've translated that now into making the government look good."

    Martin is chairman of the Farm Credit Administration Board, the only woman to have held the post. Appointed to the three-member board by President Clinton in 1994, Martin serves as chief executive officer of the Farm Credit Administration. This independent federal agency is responsible for the regulation and examination of the Farm Credit System. The System is a nationwide financial cooperative that lends to agriculture and rural America.

    In addition, Martin serves on the board of directors of the Farm Credit System Insurance Corporation. This independent U.S. government-controlled corporation is responsible for ensuring the timely payment of principal and interest on insured notes, bonds, debentures, and other obligations issued on behalf of Farm Credit System banks.

    Both jobs come with formidable challenges, Martin says. The Farm Credit System faces serious and threatening competition, not only from non-regulatory institutions but also from commercial banks.

    "I'm a big believer that there must be more than one source of credit for agriculture," says Martin. "That's what keeps agricultural credit competitive. Without the Farm Credit System, you'd see a 1-2 percent increase in interest rates in rural America, which would translate to higher food costs. That's the very basis on which I make my decisions as a regulator."

    There are other challenges as well. "We're dealing, as are all government agencies, with limited finances," she says.

    Since 1994, her budget has decreased 15 percent, and her staff of 400 has been cut by 25 percent.

    "But we still have great resources in the talented people here," Martin adds.

    Martin certainly has the experience- and the track record-to help the Farm Credit System succeed. Her career began at the Federal Intermediate Credit Bank of Texas in 1970. In 1979, she earned the distinction of being the first woman appointed to a senior officer position.

    Martin gained even broader management experience at the Farm Credit Bank of Texas, providing leadership and direction in virtually all of the bank's operations. (In fact, the Bank's board honored Martin in 1995 as the individual who had made the greatest contribution to agriculture and Farm Credit in Texas and awarded her the Academy of Honor in Agricultural Credit.)

    Martin also holds a B.A. from Texas Woman's University and an M.S. from Texas A&M University. She has held leadership positions with various agricultural councils and advisory committees in Texas.

    In 1996, Texas Woman's University presented her with its Distinguished Alumna Award. And in 1990, Martin received the Cooperative Communicators Association's H.W. Klinefelter Award, the organization's highest honor, in recognition of her distinguished contributions to cooperative communications.

    So how did Martin achieve all that?

    "I never dwelled on the fact that I was a woman," says Martin, a high-energy person who has been known to send e-mail messages in the middle of the night. "I was an employee, a professional, and if I got knocked down, I came back the next day and did the job even better. I learned not to take things personally."

    Martin adds, "I'm a Texan, and always will be, which translates into independence. I have a strong work ethic and I think it's important sometimes to challenge the rules and look ahead."

    It's clear that, in looking ahead, Martin  has always had a strong sense of direction. What remains to be seen is where she goes from here.

"As the only woman on the board, I think I see things in a way that maybe other board members don't."

Connie Cihak
Director, Land O'Lakes Lonsdale, Minn.

    A spokeswoman for a food safety group, Connie Cihak divides her time between her Minnesota farm and family, and the corporate board of Land O'Lakes. (Photo courtesy of Cenex/Land O'Lakes/David Lundquist)

    On any given day, you might find Connie Cihak driving a tractor on the farm she and her husband own in southeast Minnesota. Or she's in the farm office, handling payroll, insurance reviews and other financial matters.

    Or you might find this 44-year-old woman behind a microphone, speaking out for Ag In The Classroom or for Food Watch, the food-safety program developed by the Agricultural Council of America.

    And at least once a month, you'll find Cihak (pronounced "see-hawk") in the corporate offices of Land O'Lakes Inc., where she is the first woman ever to serve on the corporate board of directors of the cooperative with the famous brand name and Indian maiden logo.

    "As the only woman on the board, I think I see things in a way that maybe other board members don't," Cihak says. "Being a mother gives me a different priority on food safety issues."

    Cihak is propelled in her decisions not just by her own family's wellbeing but by the 7,000 dairy farms, 1,000 member cooperatives, and 300,000 farmers and ranchers that Land O'Lakes represents across 15 states. As a leading dairy foods manufacturer and marketer-as well as a supplier of feed, seed and agronomy products-Land O'Lakes is one of the best known and most successful co-ops in the United States.

    "Being on the board is quite an experience," says Cihak. "It's demanding and educational. We are required to do a lot of research and reading. I need to be committed so I can make intelligent decisions to take Land O'Lakes into the next millennium."

    Cihak was 10 years old when her father got out of farming. After her marriage to husband Jim, Cihak's life revolved around his construction business. But their longing to get back to the farm never died. In 1985, when she was 35, the Cihaks reentered farm life in Lonsdale, Minn. (population: 1,160).

    "We started the dairy from scratch," she says. "We leased 28 cows until the herd was established."

    But the couple exited the dairy business just last December. With their farm just 45 miles from the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, they were subject to stringent EPA regulations. Keeping up with new requirements would have meant a $250,000 investment by the Cihaks.

    Today, they farm 1,500 acres of corn, soybeans, alfalfa, and forages near Lonsdale. They also custom farm. Cihak was elected to her Land O'Lakes board position to represent the farmer-members and member cooperatives of southeast Minnesota.

    Afirm believer in cooperatives, Cihak has been a member of Cannon Valley Cooperative, a local farm supply cooperative in Northfield, Minn., for 13 years. She buys the farm's seed, fertilizer, crop protectors there, and utilizes the co-op's soil testing and nutrient-determining services. The association also markets the Cihaks' grain.

    "We do womb-to-tomb business with them," she says.

    In addition, their farm's electricity is supplied by Minnesota Valley Electric Cooperative. And when the Cihaks had their dairy, they marketed its milk through Land O'Lakes.

    When Cihak was first elected to the Land O'Lakes corporate board in 1993, there were 32 directors. Since Land O'Lakes merger last year with Atlantic Dairy Cooperative, the board numbers 42 members. They meet nine times a year at the co-op's headquarters in Arden Hills, Minn., where they set policy and have strong fiscal oversight responsibilities.

    The reward for Cihak is seeing projects brought to fruition. For example, several years ago, Land O'Lakes' board was contemplating an expansion from a regional cooperative to a national one.

    "There was a cheese plant out on the West Coast that we talked about," she says. "It's a reality now. Not only did we buy the plant in Orland, Calif., but last year we merged with Atlantic Dairy Cooperative of Pennsylvania. Land O'Lakes offers a good value to members on the East and West Coasts, and these expansions of Land O'Lakes fit in with our long-range goals."

    Cihak describes herself as "a pretty average Midwesterner, with three children and a husband, involved and supportive just like other farmers."

    For women interested in playing bigger roles in co-ops, Cihak has this advice: "If you're a member, learn as much as you can. Go to meetings, ask questions, be a good listener. There are a lot of capable, qualified, talented women out there in agriculture who just need that little nudge."

"In running a co-op, you have to know who your boss is. For me, it's the 230 members of Fairfield Grain."

Jackie Tee
General manager, Fairfield Grain Growers Fairfield, Wash.

    In some ways, Jackie Tee's rise to the top [position in her company reflects the American myth: through hard work, the hero climbs from a lowly position to become the boss and achieve wealth and success.

    In fact, Tee started as a secretary at Fairfield Grain Growers in 1983, and five years later became the general manager.

    But this is a co-opt Staff and management won't find wealth here. And as Tee well knows, the members are the boss.

    "In running a co-op, you have to know who your boss is," Tee says. "For me, it's the 230 members of Fairfield Grain. You have to keep in mind that everything you do will affect their bottom line. If you're working in a co-op and you don't have that philosophy, you're in the wrong business."

    Fairfield Grain Growers, formed in 1945, is a grain marketing and storage cooperative with members in Washington and Idaho. An affiliate of Harvest States, Fairfield Grain has sales of $13 million annually. The co-op employs 10 full-time and 45 seasonal workers. There are five directors on the board.

    In addition, the co-op processes, cleans and bags lentils, and cleans and treats wheat, barley, peas and lentil seed. It also sells some petroleum.

    According to Tee, she rose from secretary to assistant manager as the result of retirements and illnesses that occurred within the co-ops When one manager who had been hired didn't work out, the board named Tee manager in 1988.

    "At first, I felt I had to be very accurate in my statements," Tee says. "If I wasn't, I'd lose credibility, which is very important. I put the pressure on myself to say what was right, and if I didn't know, I would admit it and then find out." Managing the co-op hasn't been easy, she admits. "A general manager's biggest challenge can be people, especially employee problems," Tee says. "Sometimes you have to force yourself to do things you don't like to do, like firing and disciplining."

    The first and only woman ever to hold the general manager's position at Fairfield Grain, Tee says that having a woman on the board it is even more important than having a woman in the general manager's office.

    "The board is part of the management team," she says. "Of course, you need to have the best person for the job-man or woman. But too often, nominating committees don't consider asking women to run for the board. They just don't see beyond the men's names on the membership list.

    There needs to be an educational process.

    Women can offer good balance and provide input that men may not think of."

    Tee encourages women to apply for assistant manager's positions in co-ops. "It's a long shot, but you will learn a lot about the co-op and can work your way through the ranks," she says.

    Tee's role as general manager ends June 1, the result of Fairfield Grain's merger with two other co-ops last February. "I opted out," says Tee, 48. "I evaluated what I wanted to do, and realized that what I liked best was crunching numbers. I'm a grandmother too, and I didn't want to work full-time anymore."

    Tee now is working to obtain a Certified Public Accountant's license, and will take the exam later this fall. But Tee looks back on her co-op career with satisfaction.

    "The biggest reward has been the people in this industry," she says. "They are great, honest people just trying to do a good job."

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