Not Your Father’s Buick

It takes more than a quality product to make a profit.

Published online: Dec 05, 2017 Articles Buzz Shahan, Chief Operating Officer, United Potato Growers of America
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This article appears in the December 2017 issue of Potato Grower.

Ten years ago, General Motors’ Buick division recognized that it faced a serious problem: The Buick brand was heading toward the same fate of two other once-great General Motors brands: Oldsmobile and Pontiac. What, exactly, happened to Oldsmobile and Pontiac? In a nutshell—and forgoing excuses made on their behalf—each of them continued doing business as they had in the past; they didn’t change with the times. Rather than coming up with models that the public would buy, they continued re-tooling previous models. Who were the people that did this to Oldsmobile and Pontiac? They were engineers and designers who could not see the future. What did Buick do differently?

Rather than rely on an intransigent group of engineers to lead Buick, top GM management selected a team of market-oriented individuals. Rather than having engineers decide what would be offered to the consumer, these market-oriented guys researched what sort of car consumers wanted, how many of them they wanted, and then aimed Buick in that direction. Once armed with this research, these eager innovators began changing Buick’s product line through state-of-the-art design concepts supported with superb engineering and promoted by catchy advertising. It worked. Buick has now carved out a market segment clearly identifiable as buyers who want a vehicle that is sporty, family-oriented, economical, of superior quality, and American made. If you haven’t followed Buick’s makeover, and you like cars, take a look.

A way of doing business similar to what brought down Oldsmobile and Pontiac and that threatened Buick’s survival still hangs on in certain areas of potato production; old ways die hard. What is that old way of doing business? Random potato production with no regard for market strategy is the Oldsmobile mindset that persists in some potato-producing regions. These outdated potato warriors think as did Admiral David Farragut, as his ship charged into heavily mined Mobile Bay during the Civil War: “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” ordered Farragut as his iron-clad vessel entered the perilous water. Well, in that daring run, Farragut’s ship made it through the mine field untouched while a companion vessel and its crew hit a mine—a torpedo—and were blown to bits. Is success 50 percent of the time the best business model? How about success 100 percent of the time? Is that possible?

Success as a potato grower is possible 100 percent of the time when a solid, collaborative market strategy leads each grower into the market; too many effective collaborative efforts in fresh produce make the point. Notably, lying at the core of each successful market strategy is supply economics. That is Buick’s way of doing business. Growing first-class potatoes is only half of what it takes to consistently succeed in the potato business. But the critical half, the half that finally and always provides a fair return, is a well-strategized collaborative market strategy, a market strategy that begins with supply economics.