The Guy in Charge

Published online: Dec 12, 2021 Articles Buzz Shahan, Chief Operating Officer, United Potato Growers of America
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This column appears in the December 2021 issue of Potato Grower.

A few years back, Albany, N.Y., hosted a banquet for the Empire State’s political big shots. The event’s caterer assigned different duties to different people. One guy was in charge of putting a sesame seed roll on everyone’s plate. Another guy was doing the same thing with a patty of butter. When the guy doing the butter approached a certain table, the fellow sitting there asked for two patties.

“I’ve been instructed to place only one patty on each plate,” responded the waiter.

“But I want two patties,” the fellow insisted.

“I’m sorry,” repeated the waiter. “I can only give you one.”

Indignantly, the guest responded, “Maybe you don’t know who I am.”

“Well, who are you?” asked the waiter.

“My name is Bill Bradley. I’m in the Intercollegiate Basketball Hall of Fame and the NBA Hall of Fame. I’m also a current United States senator for the state of New York.”

“That’s great,” smiled the waiter. “Maybe you don’t know who I am.”

Surprised, Bradley asked, “So! Who are you?”

“Who am I?” responded the waiter. “I’m the guy in charge of the butter, and everybody gets one patty.”

It doesn’t matter if it’s a banquet, a business, or a nation, someone is—or should be—in charge. Before the 2008 economic collapse, there were two national consumer electronics chains, Circuit City and Best Buy. Circuit City peaked with 600 stores and 60,000 employees. Today, Circuit City doesn’t exist, and Best Buy has over 1,000 stores and 100,000 employees. How did these things happen?

They happened because the guy in charge of Best Buy knew what he was doing, and the guy at Circuit City did not. Circuit City began in 1949 with a single store. The originator developed a business model that would work in any population center. Over the years, as one CEO replaced another, and as the market went from vacuum tubes to solid state to digital, the company did not. To sum it up, the information that Circuit City needed to succeed was out there but did not interest them.

What about Best Buy? Best Buy began in 1966 and immediately put feelers out everywhere, testing consumers’ tastes and needs and consulting with consumer electronics manufacturers in matching those tastes and needs with specific equipment. The result of putting those two things together was that consumers could walk into a Best Buy and something exceptional happened: Not only could they find what they were looking for, they often found something better than what they were looking for.

Potatoes are not as complicated as consumer electronics, but the business principles that support each are the same: Know your market. Know what your market wants and how much it wants. Potatoes USA can tell you what the potato market wants, and UPGA can tell you how much it wants.

If you’re the guy in charge of your company’s butter, do it right.