Natalia Hordiichuk: Agriculture Is Not Only About "Planting–Harvesting–Selling"

Natalia Hordiichuk, Director of AgriFoodMBA project
Natalia Hordiichuk, Director of AgriFoodMBA project
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A friend of mine, who happens to be an economist, once said that Ukrainians should stop singing praises of black soils and leave it to the bards. What he meant was that Ukraine would not get any richer if the prices for grain were low, even if the gross output of grain was high. His simple conclusion was that unless we started processing what we harvest, our agrarian sector would hardly make much profit. The opinion is contradictory but it undeniably contains that proverbial "grain of truth."

Many Ukrainian universities teach planting and growing but not a single university teaches processing. However, Kyiv-Mohyla Business School (KMBS) has recently launched a new course AgriFood designed to teach just that. The Director of AgriFoodМВА project Natalia Hordiichuk told about the skills modern agro managers should possess, what it takes to build a family business which would last for generations, and what agricultural business would be like in 2030. What traits distinguish a successful agro manager today?

Natalia Hordiichuk: As any other manager, he needs to be good at handling responsibility. Taking responsibility should not be mechanical; it should come as an intrinsic need to be in charge of the decisions you and your team make. What does business demand of education?

Natalia Hordiichuk: Today’s business still values professional training but it has become less crucial than 20 years ago. HR managers of the past were interested in a diploma, these days they look for problem-solving skills. Hiring a person, they want critical thinking and flexibility to adjust to ongoing changes. Do Ukrainian universities keep up with the fast changing world?

Natalia Hordiichuk: Unfortunately, the educational system lives by the old paradigm of cramming heads with the achievements of the past. Today’s world is changing at lightning speed and we need to react to the changes on time. The past cannot teach us that, we need to study the present, monitor the trends which shape the future and build a business with an eye on tomorrow. What about agricultural education? What are the specifics?

Natalia Hordiichuk: It is a widespread belief that agriculture pays less attention to smart marketing or customer’s needs than entertainment or fashion industry. Many people think that agriculture boils down to the banal "planting–harvesting–selling" scheme.

In fact, our field is very intricate. If you don’t plant things right, they will grow wrong; if they grow wrong, there is nothing to harvest; if there is nothing to harvest, there is nothing to sell. Each stage requires skills and depth of knowledge. Agriculture needs super-qualified and technically grounded professionals; I call them "universal soldiers".

In agriculture, same as in food industry, graduating with honors just gets you started. Given that technology has found its way even into agricultural industry, a professional must keep learning and "updating her software." An agricultural manager not only needs to understand the intricacies of each stage of production but also know who her Client is, what her product is and of what value it is to the Client.

At KMBS office How is AgriFoodМВА at KMBS different from the existing world and Ukrainian educational programs?

Natalia Hordiichuk: Our program is unique because it is based on a deep understanding of both local and global agricultural market trends as well as a long experience in management education. There are few solid MBA programs in the world; there are even fewer quality programs which strike the right balance between business and technical courses.

Working on AgriFoodМВА, I was well aware of the responsibility I was about to take, because providing an MBA degree in agri-food industry virtually means teaching somebody to manage a whole ecosystem. It takes professional faculty, who have experience both in academia and gained on the job, to teach such business courses as strategy, systems thinking, finances, marketing, and project management efficiently. KMBS successfully introduced Agro MBA and has started AgriFoodМВА. How do these two programs differ?

Natalia Hordiichuk: That’s right. We had a specialized Agro MBA which had 5 enrollments. Many interesting and extremely successful managers and owners of agricultural companies got that degree. We are very proud of our Agro MBA alumni. With time, we realized that we needed to adjust our programs to the ever-changing world. 90% of AgriFoodМВА classes are conducted in English. It is impossible to teach global thinking and global market operations without teaching the international language of business.

The new program is titled AgriFoodМВА because business branches do not function on their own any more, they work in close connection with other market participants. Similarly, agricultural production cannot do without its extension — food industry. Both industries rely on IT, so it is another connected area, same as marketing, PR, finances, logistics, research, and mass media.

That is why we grounded the new program on the idea of business as an ecosystem. We have researchers, seed and crop protection products suppliers, agricultural and processing companies, marketers, journalists, layers, financiers, software engineers, logisticians study together. They learn from each other and by the end of the course, they have a perfect understanding of how the whole AgriFood ecosystem works. We give the basics of the latest trends in horticulture, animal husbandry, food technologies, quality and certification systems, precision agriculture, agrotechnology etc. Who is eligible to enroll in AgriFood KMBS?

Natalia Hordiichuk: We have two basic requirements: sufficient English knowledge (at an intermediate level) and up to 3 years of experience in management. We work only with people who are capable of assuming responsibility for themselves as well as others. We learn the rest from an essay in English and an application form. We get to know the applicant better during an interview in English and in Ukrainian. We look for potential, broad-mindedness, flexibility and ability to make an impact.

Natalia Hordiichuk How long did it take for the program to be approved?

Natalia Hordiichuk: Around a year beacause we needed to prove its usefulness. We realize that Ukrainian agricultural potential is great. Compared to other industries, it has a lot of peculiarities. When my colleague Elena Dragomirova and I were working on the first draft of the program, we thought it should be a program for the heirs, so to speak, for the children of the self-made farmers. That draft was not approved.

Then we suggested tailoring this program to the needs of executives who decided to try their hand at agriculture. It is not unusual these days when people from IT, finances, and other spheres see the potential in agriculture. They learned something about it, gained some experience and moved to agriculture. So we thought that our target audience was owners, executives, and people from other industries, because agro business does not exist on its own, it entails a complex ecosystem. 

By an ecosystem, we mean all the industries that relate to agriculture: processing, food industry, IT etc. There are IT managers who work closely with agro companies. They come to us because they to want to gain a better understanding of their client’s business. So do layers, marketers, distributers and owners of distribution agencies, top-managers of holding companies, managers of small processing companies, researchers. How is the learning organized?

Natalia Hordiichuk: Each month there are 4-day modules. Overall, there are 16 modules: 10 modules are held in Ukraine, 3 — in the Netherlands (Wageningen University), and 3 — in Canada (University of Alberta). The learning takes 12 months; the other 6 months are devoted to writing and defending a graduation project. Apart from lectures, our students discuss cases, solve group problems, take part in a day-long business simulation, an agro-game Business Intelligence which allows them experiencing several business cycles of an agricultural company and meeting the top executives of unique Ukrainian, Dutch, and North-American companies. There is also a stand-alone practical task to design one’s own agricultural cluster joining in with already existing companies interested in developing SMBs and regions.

30% of the time in the Netherlands and Canada will be devoted to lectures by local professors, 70% of the time is planned for real life case-studies of private and state small, medium and large agricultural enterprises. The participants of the program will have a chance to meet famous researchers, politicians, financiers, owners of unique agricultural and technology companies, introduce themselves and their ideas. This way we want to introduce Ukrainian business elite to the world and help our participants establish direct contacts with business leaders and politicians of two such different and relevant for Ukraine agricultural companies as the Netherlands and Canada.

Conference hall at KMBS office There is a lot of talk that "Ukrainian MBA" is no good on the job market. They say that executives take only overseas business schools seriously. Do you believe that "Ukrainian MBA" is prestigious?

Natalia Hordiichuk: I do because I often see this attitude in Ukrainian executives. I graduated from KMBS with an ЕМВА degree and I often deal with foreign partners who hold international MBA degrees, I can say we are not just level. Sometimes, the deep understanding of business as a system and strategic thinking that KMBS fosters make us way better. Presenting our AgriFoodМВА at the Dutch and Canadian universities, I was pleasantly surprised by how highly it was praised by their professors. They have even asked to borrow some of the ideas for their business programs. How do you get an adult to study again?

Natalia Hordiichuk: You can’t "get anyone" to do it. They should have their own motives to study. It is very time-consuming. One needs to devote much time to reading and doing homework; it requires to not only be away from work for 2 working days and 2 weekends once a month but also fit 5 modules abroad into one’s schedule. We do not persuade anyone. Executives and business owners come to us when they realize they need to change and they need to change their company but they don’t know how to do it and not to ruin what they’ve already achieved. Only such applicants do we invite to the interviews and strengthen their decision to enroll. Apart from knowledge, the program gives them an opportunity to meet interesting people with whom it is a great joy to study, share experience and maybe have a joint business in the future. How has the market reacted to AgriFood?

Natalia Hordiichuk: We’ve started receiving calls and emails from people of other countries. AgriFoodMBA is the first program in English; it is the first step to internationalization. I have personally had talks with people from the Czech Republic, Austria, and Kazakhstan. A person from Kazakhstan, who used to be a marketer and now owns 12 hectars of land and is involved in agricultural business, came to Kiev for the program. He told about his friends in other businesses who now work in agriculture and realize they lack knowledge about it. They are ready to fly back and forth from Kazakhstan for the classes. Mind that it takes them 600 km to get to Astana first, then a flight to Kiev and 4 days away from home.

We have people coming from other businesses who turned their attention to agriculture and want to learn about the program. You can learn things the hard way in the field and waste 5 years or you can come to us learn about the whole ecosystem, meet people, develop your idea if you have one or simply start from scratch. Many people are interested. Which areas of Ukrainian agriculture have the potential for the future?

Natalia Hordiichuk: Fruits and vegetables, meat and dairy, and niche legumes are top priorities for the domestic market and our largest import markets: the EU, Asia, and Africa. However, every agricultural branch will be effective and successful if you establish effective communication between its research, production, processing, and selling units. What was your way into agriculture? What was your first agricultural experience?

Natalia Hordiichuk: I started working in the food industry for Chumak in 2000. My husband and I were still students of the Roman-Germanic Philology at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kiev and had many contacts with the foreigners. One of our American professors suggested us helping his young Swedish friends Johan Boden and Carl Sturen with their new company. That summer we had an internship there and two years after graduation Nikolai became Chief commercial officer of Chumak. Initially, I worked as CEO assistant, later — as CFO assistant.

With time, Nikolai established his own company which specializes in importing, breeding and selling seed and table potato. When our younger daughter went to kindergarten, I decided to join the family business and since 2005, I have been taking care of marketing for Agrico Ukraine. At the same time, I headed the project of introducing an American producer of seed polymers and niche hi-tech seed products Becker Underwood. In 2012, that side-project developed into an independent business. It brought enough profit and had nothing to do with the potato, so I decided to establish a separate company Agritema. When did you realize that you lacked knowledge?

Natalia Hordiichuk: Right when the business started growing, I distinctly felt I lacked professional knowledge because I had a degree neither in economics nor in finances. I remembered how I always wanted to get an MBA and stared looking for a business school in Ukraine. Due to my heavy schedule, there was no time to go abroad. I visited several business schools and chose the school I considered the best — KMBS. While at school, I started using the new knowledge I was gaining and began consulting for international seed companies regarding branding and marketing strategies, and moderating strategic sessions. What about your own business?

Natalia Hordiichuk: There emerged qualitative changes as well. We moved from being a distributor of microbial drugs to being a supplier of customized solutions: soybean seeds — seed treating systems — microbial products — consultations. This is what distinguishes us in the market, we’ve evolved from the "distributor — logistician" paradigm to the "supplier — R&D partner" paradigm. In February 2016, I graduated from KMBS with an Executive MBA degree and got the highest mark in my year for the graduation project. My dream came true. When did you come up with the idea to try and create an MBA program?

Natalia Hordiichuk: In summer 2016, the dean of KMBS suggested the idea to create a new MBA for agriculture and I accepted the challenge. It was a challenge because I was never involved in teaching before (except for Business English courses). I had been working on the concept of the program and its contents for a year and then in November 2017 we launched AgriFoodMBA-1. We conducted a thorough selection process for the program and chose the best and the most promising young executives. They’ve already had 2 modules and they will start on the third module on January 25. At the end of March, we begin the admission process for AgriFoodMBA-2. If you hadn’t started the agricultural business, what would you be doing?

Natalia Hordiichuk: I definitely would not stay at home. It is not in my nature to be a homemaker whose only concern is cooking. I am not very good at cooking (smiling — editor’s note). As a teen I dreamed of becoming a sculptor, I took classes in drawing and molding, I think I could have become an artist. I am also big on organizing different thematic events and invite interesting speakers and professors to inspire ambitious and decisive people like myself to create something new.

At KMBS office What is your list of 3-5 books every successful agricultural executive must read?

Natalia Hordiichuk: I wouldn’t recommend any business books on agriculture. They are boring (smiling — editor’s note). It’s better to read about business in general because the underlying principles are the same. There are some short videos on the newest agro technologies that I could recommend:  

  1. The Agriculture Manifesto. 10 key drivers that will shape agriculture in the next decade. Robert Saik, PAg, CAC;
  2. Know GMO movie by Robert Saik;
  3. Sustainable Marketing. Ynte K van Dam.

Speaking of business literature in general, I’d recommend reading Pour Your Heart into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup At A Time by Howard Schultz and Dori Jones Yang and Value Migration: How to Think Several Moves Ahead of the Competition by Adrian J. Slywotzky. There is also inspirational fiction about strong-minded people, for instance, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. What is your list of traits every successful agricultural executive should possess?

Natalia Hordiichuk: 1. Top-notch communication skills to interact with your employees and partners, investors and media. Storytelling and networking capabilities have greater value than experience today.

2. Strategic thinking. If you do not see your business as a system, you can’t plan ahead.

3. Ability to make decisions swiftly and take responsibility for success and failure.

Natalia Hordiichuk How do you see agriculture in 2030? Are there farms aswarm with drones? Test-tube meat? Vertical gardens?

Natalia Hordiichuk: All the technologies you’ve mentioned are quite real and they may well be around in the next 5 years. The main trend and even necessity will become sustainability because it holds the key to the rational use of resources. Besides, there will be robots, drones, and unmanned machinery to provide precision agriculture and exclude the waste of seedstock, fertilizers, and plant protection agents. There should be effective communication between agricultural chains on each level of production. Another important thing is conscious consumption, i.e. smaller food portions and lower waste rates in developed countries and lower product loss at the stages of production and logistics in developing countries (those include Ukraine), and energy-saving/"green" technologies. In short, all that which will allow dropping the levels of resource consumption, atmospheric pollution and enhancing efficiency and profitability of production. What would be your advice to agricultural executives who want to succeed? What should they focus on in the first place? What widespread mistakes should they avoid? What should they expect?

Natalia Hordiichuk: They need to work hard and learn all the time (including learning from mistakes), travel the world, broaden their horizons, learn to tell their personal and business stories so that others would listen. We are not used to bragging but in America if you have no story to tell, you are nobody. That’s why it’s important to learn storytelling. Present yourself so that others want to have business with you. Of course, there should be hard, persistent and inspirational work behind each story. Be successful! Tell the world that Ukrainian business is the best!

Konstantin Tkachenko,

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