UnleashWD: ABS General Manager Seeks to Inspire Innovation in His Organization

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ABS North America Richard Williams brings a team of managers from across the United States to the UnleashWD innovation summit every year. The summit provides ABS with innovation strategies, and it inspires attendees to experiment with new ideas.

“I still go back to my UnleashWD notes,”ABS General Manager Richard Williams says. “I will refer to my notes when someone at the company says we cannot do that. It opens their minds.”

Why would a successful distribution company go against tradition?

For Richard Williams, general manager of ABS North America, hiding behind tradition means an unwillingness to try something new, and it today’s market a failure to experiment means allowing other companies to disrupt your market.

Unless you work in the livestock industry you probably have never heard of ABS Global.

You will not find their product in stores, unless you count the end results: beef, milk and cheese. As a distributor of bovine genetic material, the livestock bioengineering firm would seemingly be immune to disruption. Yet, even this specialized distribution company feels the need to change. What does Williams hope his team takes from UnleashWD?

“To gain the ability to stimulate our minds and open up to what is possible,” Williams says. “To see the challenge that is ahead of us, and the changes that you can’t even see happening day-to-day.”

Williams will send a team of six ABS managers from around the country to UnleashWD on Oct. 29-30 in Chicago. Williams wants to create a culture that allows for experimentation and fresh ideas at ABS, and after attending the first UnleashWD conference last year, Williams left convinced that the conference provided his organization with an infusion of innovative thought.

Prior to attending UnleashWD 2012, Williams thought that bringing a group to the conference was “excessive,” and he was skeptical that hearing from storytellers from outside of the industry would offer his organization much value. The lessons of the storytellers quickly changed his mind.

“I still go back to my notes,” Williams says. “I will refer to my notes when someone at the company says we cannot do that. It opens their minds.”

ABS Global Inc. has been changing minds about the way the world eats for that last 75 years. The company breeds superior livestock to provide a dependable supply of beef and milk. Since its creation, ABS has created innovative livestock breeding techniques to preserve genetic material for transport, which has allowed ABS to enter into markets on every continent other than Antarctica.

How did Williams, a dairy farmer from Scotland, become a general manager at ABS North America’s Wisconsin headquarters?

Williams has performed nearly every task in the diary and cattle industry including working for the Gerald Grosvenor, the Duke of Westminster and one of the wealthiest men in Great Britain. Williams’ cattle expertise has brought him to Iran (“one of the most beautiful and misunderstood places in the world”), Turkey (“a very emotional country”) and most of Eastern Europe (“alcohol is part of the business culture.”)

At one point Williams thought that he had done it all in the cattle industry, and he sought to shift into a finance career. He did not stray far before his “love” of selling cows brought him back. ABS provided a perfect match for Williams, who is a self-described “Holstein Cattle junkie”—with an economics degree from the University of Cambridge, the third oldest English speaking university in the world.

“I love Holstein breeding,” Williams says. “”And the US is the home of it.”

Unlike his native Britain, agriculture is “front and center” in Wisconsin. Williams credits the state with providing the necessary infrastructure for farming to thrive. Williams arrived at ABS North America as a sales director before settling into a role as the general manger. He quickly tried to gain an understanding of the country surroundings by visiting 22 different states. For Williams, the US is like dealing with three different countries, with each region operating their livestock industry differently. For example in California, the number one dairy producing state in the US, independent contractors run many of the farms. In the eastern US, farms are managed by employee-based organizations.

“People and culture matter,” Williams says. “People think differently in Pennsylvania than they do in California.”

Culture is one of the reasons that ABS continues to send employees to UnleashWD. Williams wants to build a culture that supports innovation at ABS no matter the location of the office because he knows that distribution must change.

“I like change,” he says. “I enjoy it. Our segment doesn’t. They like to do it the way our fathers and grandfathers did.”

Williams says that UnleashWD founder Dirk Beveridge shares his appreciation for change. Beveridge founded UnleashWD in 2012 to bring in innovative ideas from other industries into wholesale distribution. Beveridge says that many distributors continued to operate on business models virtually unchanged from the post-World War II era.

“When you are steeped in tradition, it limits your imagination,” Williams says. “A lot of people will say we tried that before. It does not work here.”

The failure to change causes the problem of commoditizing products Williams says. In agriculture especially, many customers may not understand the difference in livestock, which means that companies like ABS must continue to work hard to add value and keep their customers informed.

For 75 years, ABS has been pioneering animal genetic improvement to provide nourishment to the world, according to a company motto, and Williams wants to ensure that the organization never loses its commitment to how it achieved its current status: innovation.

“We are sending a group of people to UnleashWD to be challenged by the fact of change,” Williams says. “And to expose them to innovation, what it really is and how to innovate. I want them to open their minds and to take things from UnleashWD that will cascade down into their teams.”

After attending UnleashWD last year, ABS is in the midst of examining their business model and rolling out innovative initiatives to meet the increased global demand for improved agricultural efficiency. While change is a challenge for any organization, it remains an interesting and rewarding challenge for Williams, who discovered that he truly had not done everything in the cattle industry in time to return to it. For Williams, dairy farming is “in his blood,” after UnleashWD he hopes to make innovation and change a part of the ABS culture as well.

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Christopher Troksa
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