Agriculture is a vast and varied field with opportunities for entrepreneurs, scientists and visionaries. With a fascination for new ag products and inventions Kim McConnell launched into agribusiness marketing from humble beginnings in the basement of his home.
He was keynote speaker at the 2023 Southwest Business and Entrepreneur Expo in Kola, Manitoba on Feb. 8.
“I’m a farm kid from Hamiota, Manitoba and I’m proud of that,” he told the audience of elected officials, municipal economic development practitioners and up-and-coming entrepreneurs. “I spend the summer in Hamiota. “We have a cottage right by the family farm, so I get to go back.”
McConnell pursued post-secondary studies at the University of Manitoba and obtained an undergraduate degree in agriculture – a path that was encouraged even before he left home.
“We had two rules,” he said. “One was that you had to get an education and you had to do something off the farm for two years, because my mom and dad didn’t have that opportunity.”
Heeding his parents’ advice, McConnell took a job in the crop inputs industry, followed by a stint overseeing advertising and promotion for a multi-national company in Calgary. This was despite the fact he was a total novice.
“I knew absolutely nothing about what I was doing,” he said. “But we had good products and I could see all the new technologies that were coming down the pipe – herbicides, pesticides, seeds, equipment. With that, I could see that there was an opportunity for some marketing. All the agencies that were doing it were good, big agencies (but) they didn’t understand agriculture and they didn’t care about it.”
With limited resources to draw on, McConnell’s foray into business began in marketing in 1984 as Fieldstone. It was a vision that his family didn’t necessarily share.
“Everybody I knew either farmed with their parents or had a job,” he said. “When I was leaving a good, high-paying job, my mother and mother-in-law thought I was nuts, my father-in-law said he would pray for me and my father said “I don’t have a clue what you’re doing but you’ve made some pretty good decisions before. Good luck and we’ll see what you can do.”
The early going was your typical “rags to riches” tale.
“I had a dream that I could make this little entrepreneurship go and maybe at some time we could have an assistant that could help me,” McConnell said. “I had no bank…no equity in my house, so we were stone ass broke. I had no clients. Nobody knew who I was and we were out on our own.”
McConnell’s first leads came by way of two farm-oriented newspapers, the Western Producer and Manitoba Co-operator, and the subsequent cold-calling, pitches and persistence paid off. The rest, as they say, is history.
“I could see that there would be a company that either had a problem or an opportunity,” he said. “I would call the highest person in an organization I could think of and say, ‘You don’t know me. I have an idea for you. Could I take ten minutes of your time and buy you a cup of tea?’”
Not wanting to let growth opportunities slip away, in 1999 McConnell agreed to sell to a competitor who saw potential in the United States market through amalgamation.
“I chose to do it because I wanted to be able to do some bigger projects (and) work with some bigger clients,” he said.
Forming an alliance with an undercapitalized company that had negative cash flow and concerns over making payroll wasn’t all smooth sailing, however they eventually rebounded. In 2001, owners of Parker Group amalgamated with McConnell’s company and AdFarm was born.
“Then we started to be able to hire people that actually knew what they were doing and that’s how we grew,” he said. “We would be one of the largest in North America in our field and the largest agency of any kind between Toronto and Vancouver, but nobody knew that because all we did was agriculture and we’re proud of it.”
McConnell is now well known as Co-founder and former Chief Executive Officer of AdFarm, one of the most respected marketing and communications firms in North America.
His contributions to Canada’s agricultural sector have proven fruitful. He has won national business awards like Agri-Marketer of the Year and a Canadian Youth Business Foundation Mentor of the Year Award. In addition, he has been inducted into the Canadian Agriculture Hall of Fame (2012) and appointed a member of the Order of Canada (2017). He serves as a director on corporate boards throughout the continent, including the Calgary Stampede Foundation and the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute.
Even after decades as a seasoned businessman, McConnell still gets excited about blending his entrepreneurial spirit with his knowledge of the discipline of agriculture. He has played a role in educating urban consumers regarding where their food comes from.
“What excites me the most about agriculture right now is that we’re sexy,” he said. “There’s a lot of people looking at the potential, not just in terms of food, but in terms of offshoot business and science. Right now, I think our industry is vastly underperforming for the potential it has.”
At the event in Kola, McConnell was asked to give advice to present-day and up-and-coming entrepreneurs in the audience regarding launching themselves into business.
“I get asked to speak quite often, but it’s always about agriculture and the opportunities that I see in agriculture, or it’s about marketing or public trust,” he said. “I rarely go back and talk about what we did.”
While he stopped short of reciting his “how to” list, he stressed that making it in the business world can be a bumpy ride without knowing how to weather each storm as it blows in.
“I’ve skinned my knees on more than one occasion and that’s good, because you learn from your mistakes and move on.”
McConnell erred by not recognizing the importance of hiring a Chief Financial Officer in the early going “to interpret my numbers, show me what we were really doing well and areas where we could do better.”
He says, “I think I could have done a bit more had I had my Chief Financial Officer in place to give me the confidence I needed to make those decisions to grow and push forward a bit harder.”
With the benefit of hindsight, putting a board of directors in place was a big help. “The board supports you, encourages you and provides direction to you.”
Calling himself an inspirational leader, McConnell is currently involved in business mentorships in both the private and public sector.
“I get to spend time with four fast growing entrepreneurial ventures and I enjoy that,” he said.
Life in general is brimming with enthusiasm.
“It’s been a hell of a ride. I’ve loved it. To have grown up in Canada, to have been raised in a rural area… to have had 4-H to guide me as well as my parents… to have surrounded myself with some great people to be able to grow… to have new experiences.”