John (Rick) Benson
Age as of March 1, 2019: 50
Residence Location: Oakland, CA
Place of Operation: Brawley, CA
Business Experience: I am CEO/Cofounder of Desert Milling, Inc.. DM launched in 2012 to expand permanent crops in the Imperial Valley, with a focus on olives for oil and table. DM manages 300 planted acres of olives, and advises on 500 more acres. We are preparing to manage 2,000+ acres of citrus, dates and olives in 2019 for institutional investors. DM works closely with my family’s row crop farm, which farms 5,000 acres of alfalfa, other forage, lettuce & other fresh vegetables, onions, sugar beets and wheat.
Education: MBA from Arizona State & MIM from Thunderbird, with a focus on investment management.
Current Boards: Desert Milling, Inc. – Chairman & CEO, manager of permanent crops in Imperial Valley Agrothermal Systems, Inc. – Board member & co-founder, Ag technology company helping to improve fruit set & wine quality while reducing pesticide use in vineyards and farms Agralogics – Board member & seed investor, globe-scale cloud software company focused on big data for farmers & agricultural industry California Olive Committee – represent southern region board of COC, USDA-recognized table olive committee.
Strategic & Visionary Thinking: My strategic thinking was first nurtured in management classes in graduate school but now has become a key part of what I offer the many boards I serve. I’ve been on for-profit and non-profit boards, and the challenges are the same. I have helped non-profits and companies expand market share, grow sales and negotiate partnerships with vendors from small local businesses to huge companies. I have also had the vision to see possibilities in multiple new crops and introduce them to my family farm.
Corporate Governance: I was introduced to good corporate governance practices while a Senior Research Analyst at Lawndale Capital, where we used them as metrics to determine portfolio investments. As activists, we would encourage practices to help improve performance in our undervalued companies. I’ve seen good governance lead to improved business performance while bad governance lead to poor results. I believe in its ability to improve financial results, healthier work environments and better employment outcomes.
Financial Expertise: The only formal certifications I have are two masters’ degrees, an MBA and a Masters in International Management but my focus on investment management and financial statement analysis in graduate school was followed by years of putting that education to use in hedge funds as a portfolio manager and analyst. As a fourth generation California farmer, I have also over 30+ years of working with leases, contracts, loans both as borrower and lender, and real estate transactions.
Communication: My communication skills are a personal strength, as I am comfortable writing reports, reading detailed materials, discussing issues in groups and delivering presentations to thousands. I credit my father for giving me a childhood filled with public meetings and my mother for teaching me how to empathize with people. I also credit being happily married for 26 years and a father to two young adult women for teaching me how to teach, as I’ve embraced the roles for the last 23 years.
Technology: I understand technology, but am a power user of spreadsheets. I’ve been a board member for multiple software startup companies, so I have experienced the whole software development cycle, from prototype design through beta testing and release. I am dual platform capable, as I use both PCs and Macs easily. I’m not, however, a hardcore technologist but know many who are. Because of my experience, I am capable of adding value to discussions about technology as I know many of the right questions to ask.
Human Resource Management: I grew up in a family farming company with over 20 employees plus hundreds of contract day laborers. I’ve been involved in the process of hiring and firing hundreds of employees in multiple companies of all sizes, but do not claim to be an expert on HR. I’ve also been involved in enough employment situations with my board service to be comfortable with senior management employment contract negotiations, although most of my professional experience has been running my own or family companies.
Risk Management: Whether it’s running our family farm or trading $50 million a day in stock and derivatives, risk management is a fundamental part of the business planning process. I’ve seen where proper hedging prevented losses, where a diversified portfolio weathered market meltdowns and where excess leverage led to bankruptcy and business failure. This has led me to recognize that incorporating risk management into all business decisions leads to safer long term returns and optimal investment outcomes.
Leadership: I learned leadership as a boy from watching my father’s efforts to improve our local community. I learned it as a young man from Boy Scouts, where I earned Eagle Scout. I learned it as an adult from serving as president of a rowing club, neighborhood block captain, and CEO. The lessons are universal – telling the truth is hard but necessary, being empathetic and kind is more effective than being mean, and guiding people with attainable common goals leads to extraordinary results.
Candidate Statement: I am interested in joining the AAC Board of Directors because I would like to help lead AAC to be a better bank for its shareholders while also helping prepare the bank for the changing needs of agriculture. I have a broad background in both agriculture and investments, but my desire to work with AAC is driven as much by my recent history as anything. My family has been farming in the Imperial Valley for over 90 years, so we have a long history of banking relationships. In the last two decades, we’ve seen Rabobank go from zero market share to dominant in our region, and have seen our local farm credit flounder.
When I decided to expand into permanent crops six years ago by acquiring raw ground and planting an orchard, FCSW rejected my loan request after two months of promises because their loan officers didn’t like permanent crops. In a last ditch effort, their loan officer was willing to move forward with a Farmer Mac guarantee, but the analyst in Iowa rejected the request. This led to a scramble to save escrow that was solved with a purchase loan from RaboBank in weeks, due to the strength of my family’s relationship. This experience pointed out the weakness of the Farm Credit system to me, and made me think that change would benefit customers like me.
Three years later, as I considered how to resolve an impending balloon payment that was due on the purchase mortgage, I discovered that AAC liked permanent crops. AAC refinanced out my original purchase mortgage with a superior product at better rates. This experience pointed out what’s possible with a well-run farm credit system, and made me think about how to extend that to other farmers. That was when a seed of interest was born for me to join AAC’s board.