With his emphasis on communication, Walt Payne helped strengthen blue Diamond Growers standing in Californias almond industry
When Walt Payne
took the role of president and chief executive officer at Blue Diamond Growers, he vowed
to strengthen communications throughout the organization, especially with the growers who
own the cooperative.
His determination "to listen and communicate effectively" has earned unofficial personal kudos over the past six years and numerous local and national awards for the cooperative. Now comes official recognition of Payne's role as chief communicator.
Payne was named 1998 CEO Outstanding Communicator of the Year by the Cooperative Communicators Association (CCA) at its annual meeting June 9 in Santa Fe, N.M. This prestigious national award is the only one of its kind in the cooperative business community. The annual honoree is chosen for his or her support of a co-op's communicators and active participation in communication efforts that meet exceptional standards.
The CCA award recognizes chief executive officers who integrate communications into their cooperatives 'planning and management processes, demonstrate support for their communications staff, possess extraordinary personal communications skills, and maintain a record of successful communication programs All of that matches the approach that Payne has taken as Blue Diamond's CEO.
Payne became CEO in 1992 during a period when the co-op was experiencing a decline in profitability and membership.
A 20-year veteran of Blue Diamond's sales and marketing department, Payne had joined Blue Diamond in 1973 as director of marketing and planning. Working his way up in the company, he had become president and CEO in 1992. Prior to joining the California cooperative, he had worked for EXXON and played professional baseball with the Boston Red Sox Organization from 1957-1960. He had earned a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's degree in marketing/finance, both from Stanford University.
With his background, Payne knew he had his work cut out for him as Blue Diamond's CEO. Immediately, he set about correcting the problems.
Sweeping away barriers
First, Payne swept away the barriers between
business groups and individuals that blocked the flow of information and hindered
effective decision-making. He eliminated layers of management and championed the formation
of project teams that cut across departmental and functional lines, forcing people to work
out solutions to business issues face-to-face.
"If we were to improve our business performance, it was essential that we improve communications between people and departments that had become too narrowly focused," Payne explains. "We had become functionally oriented, with too little inter-departmental communication or cooperation."
It was slow going at first, he admits, while people from different departments and disciplines got used to working and talking - with one another. Corporate cultures don't change overnight; they evolve. But faced by a severe competitive challenge, Blue Diamond's people and leadership made a serious effort to adopt more effective, efficient ways. Memos gave way to frank discussions and creative decision-making. Ideas and suggestions flowed up, down and across the organization. Camaraderie replaced isolation. The value of the team approach became apparent to all.
"The team approach's power for problem solving began to have an effect," Payne recalls. "We discovered deep wells of ingenuity and talent in our organization. Our project teams developed new and more efficient ways of doing things. In the first year, and every year since, our performance improved."
Operating costs per pound of product shipped dropped and worker productivity soared. Grower margins climbed. In a few years, Blue Diamond's grower payments were once again at or near the top of the almond industry.
But perhaps the most dramatic change came in grower perception of the people and company that serves them. While Blue Diamond was becoming more efficient and returning to a competitive position in its industry, Payne was restoring contact and communication with its membership. Exchanging his executive attire for boots and an open collar, he walked the orchards with growers, met them in coffee shops and in their living rooms, in small groups on their own turf, and in co-op meetings across the state. He listened to their concerns. He acknowledged their ideas and suggestions. He answered their questions and "told it like it is," pulling no punches and gilding no lilies. He was accessible; he was honest; he was responsive.
As this breath of fresh air swept across central California, growers and the competition took notice. Bit by bit, member defections slowed and new sign-ups and renewals increased. In just a few years, the combination of competitive returns, a willing listener, and credible communicator reversed the slide. Blue Diamond's membership and crop share began to grow.
California's almond growers again regard
Blue Diamond as the handler of choice. That shift in perception is in part due to Payne's
personal efforts as lead communicator, but also is a credit to the sea change in corporate
thinking that he initiated. No longer is there a "we" and a "they"
mentality when employees refer to grower-members. Everyone at the co-op now sees his or
her role as a member of a grower-employee team that supplies customers with the best
possible products and service. And they relish their roles as communicators, sharing ideas
in team meetings, and creating new solutions to business challenges through discussion.
Good listening and clear communications underlie all of Payne's efforts to strengthen Blue Diamond and position it for the challenges of the 21st century. In 1992, he set high communications standards for himself and everyone else at Blue Diamond, while, at the same time, cutting costs - two goals that "may seem mutually exclusive," he admits. "But the people in our organization that make those things happen did not think so. We work hard at communications. Everyone contributes to the effort: the chairman, the board, and the staff. Sweat equity is what I would call it."
The result is a well-informed membership and staff, and an enviable reputation in the community, where Payne plays a leadership role on a variety of boards and commissions, helping achieve community goals and consensus, through effective communications.
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