Management Tip

The most important thing I have learned
about running a co-op

Editor’s note: Larry Swalheim is retiring at the end of this year as CEO of Landmark Services Cooperative in Wisconsin. Since being named CEO in 1991, Swalheim helped Landmark grow from a one-location cooperative to one of the largest co-ops in Wisconsin. He guided Landmark through several strategic partnerships and mergers that boosted the co-op’s annual sales from $25 million to more than $300 million. The co-op provides agronomy, energy, animal nutrition, grain, retail and transportation products and services to more than 15,000 members in a territory that ranges from east-central Wisconsin to northern Illinois. Several other recently retired (or about to retire) co-op leaders have also been asked to comment on what important lesson(s) they learned about running a co-op. Their responses will appear in future issues. Other leaders of co-ops, large or small, are also welcome to submit their thoughts on this question. Just send an e-mail to:

By Larry Swalheim

have had the privilege of being a part of the leadership team at Landmark Service Cooperative for nearly 24 years. During that time, I have had the opportunity to learn from our board, our employees and our members on the importance of communication, collaboration and commitment in creating a sustainable, successful cooperative business.

Communication is the cornerstone on which a cooperative stands. To be a successful leader in this unique busine environment, you must engage in active, transparent communication with your board, your employees and, ultimately, your membership.

Our board meets once each year for a strategic planning session to create a game plan for the future of Landmark. In addition, we have developed a GO (Growth and Opportunity) Committee, made up of key members of our management team, that meets year round to discover and develop new business opportunities.

We try to ensure that the voices from the entire Landmark team are heard throughout the strategic planning process, so that we create an environment where honest feedback is encouraged and acted upon. That honest feedback is where the spirit of collaboration at Landmark is born. By listening to the individual voices of our cooperative, we use that collaborative knowledge to build a better business model.

Each person that is a part of Landmark — whether he or she is in a leadership position, an employee or a producer — has a viewpoint that is valuable in making Landmark both profitable and focused on meeting the needs of its members. Listening to the collective voices of all of our people allows us to be a more dynamic company that is better able to find and implement innovative solutions to the issues our producers face. This ability to “stay ahead of the game” is what has allowed us to achieve the success we have seen over the past several decades.

As an agricultural cooperative, we have made a commitment to the longterm profitability of both our business and that of our growers. This commitment to the “big picture” is reflected in our mission statement and in the values that each member of our leadership team uses to make decisions regarding the future of our cooperative.

In addition, our members have made a commitment to the success of the cooperative by supporting us with their business and loyalty. This three-way street of communication, collaboration and commitment keeps our board, our staff and our membership fully engaged with each other and allows us to stay in unison in the ever-changing and everexpanding agriculture industry.

Making Landmark a leader

In the past two decades under Larry Swalheim’s leadership, Landmark has been a leader in many areas, including: Swalheim has also been actively involved in cooperative education and community outreach while serving as CEO. In recent years, he has traveled to the Ukraine and Moldova (both former Soviet republics) and to the Philippines as part of the United States Agency for International Development, which teaches cooperative leadership and principles to under-served rural areas around the globe.

In addition, he currently serves as the president of the National Co-op 401K Plan (a retirement program designed to enhance the long-term financial security of co-op employees nationally), chairs the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives Advisory Committee, is a director for Wisconsin Community Bank and was recently appointed as a member of Thrive, an economic development enterprise for the eight-county Madison region.

“Without Larry’s guidance, we could not provide the wide variety of products and services at competitive prices to our patrons that we do today,” says John Blaska, Landmark’s board president.

An avid world traveler who recently completed a trip to Antarctica, Swalheim says he feels that this is the right time for him to step back. “Now is the time. Landmark is financially strong, with the best management team we have ever had. This leaves me with the feeling that the momentum of this company will keep moving forward at full speed.”

November/December Table of Contents