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DESIGNING A MARKETING PLAN CAN BE A CHALLENGE

by: Clifford Mitchell

Part 1 of 2

The most challenging aspect of the purebred seedstock business is designing a marketing plan that will reward each program for a job well done. Many factors influence the success or failure of the execution of this plan, but an experienced sales staff will usually make a positive difference.

Professionals approach marketing livestock with the same enthusiasm most cattlemen display when breeding and presenting top livestock. Traveling countless miles and spending many hours in phone calls is part of the call to action to make sure each event is a success. These professionals often have close ties to the industry and approach honing their skills to be the best with the same diligence as any successful athlete.

“You have to experience the basics of the livestock auction before you can ever sell a purebred sale. I started in the back and worked the ring before I ever sold one,” says Stanley Stout, a well-known purebred auctioneer from Bonner Springs, Kansas. This veteran auctioneer spent time as a field representative with the Weekly Livestock Journal, was field staff director for the Drovers Journal and the Charolais Banner. Although he went to auction school while still in college, he picked up the gavel with Curt Rodgers at North American Livestock Auction Co. in 1973 and started his own auction business in 1975.

Becoming a professional livestock marketer is no easy task. The constant travel and the level of professionalism demanded by other individuals in the business leaves it for only the most dedicated individuals.

“To be a fieldman you have to love it or you wouldn't be doing it. It is not the kind of business you get into and stay unless you enjoy it,” says E.C. Larkin, owner of Gulf Coast Publishing, a company that produces the Beefmaster Cowman and the Gulf Coast Cattlemen. Larkin was inducted into the Livestock Publication Council Hall of Fame in 2001 and has been working sales since 1968.

Along with the challenges of traveling the road, going to the next sale is a natural occurrence. Working in a market that presents different situations every day, adds to the passion of making an event a success.

“You have to like what you do, because taking off and going to the sale is the fun part of the business. Every day is a new day. There is enough variation in people and cattle to keep it new,” says DeRon Heldermon, Director of Field Staff for the Limousin World. Heldermon began his career with the Drovers Journal in 1988.

The publications that provide the ring service fall under two categories, either all breed or one breed. The goal is the same, providing advertising that helps the firm market a product and the customer service that goes with the purchase of the promotional opportunity. Often, the representatives involved with one breed have to be more specialized in their approach to marketing.

“The biggest difference working with a breed publication compared to an all breed, is you work a lot closer with that group of people. You may have to go to more sales with an all breed publication, but they aren't as time consuming,” Heldermon says. “There is more one-on-one communication with the breeders throughout the year concerning tough marketing decisions. A lot of breeders become good friends rather than just customers.”

Many breed publication representatives offer specialized information and are in tune with current genetics in their particular breed. However, all breed publications offer a different perspective and usually reach a broader audience.

“I operate both a breed and an all breed publication. I encourage a lot of clients to also advertise in all breed publications because nearly every breeder I have met was a commercial cattleman first,” Larkin says. “When someone is spending their advertising dollar they look for the publications and the sales staff that will help the sale.”

The commitment the livestock publications make to keep this time honored tradition alive goes deeper than most in the cattle business realize. The dollars spent on advertising amount to a sizeable sum, but there are expenses incurred to get that qualified professional ringside at your event.

“We're in a different time in the business than it used to be,” Stout says. “Today, it is expensive for publications to keep their field staff on the road.”

“A lot of operations are operating on minimum budgets and we have to help them decide which advertising will help make a more successful sale,” Larkin says. “We have to work harder to sell our services today than we did in the past.”

The competition that takes place, when these representatives battle for that advertising dollar, is fierce at times. However, the respect factor plays a role in developing this rivalry into a healthy race and friendship forms, like any other team atmosphere, where competition exists.

“It's just like a football team, if you are on the same team even though you are competing, the other players will help you along the way,” Larkin says.

“The competition is a lot like two quarterbacks trying out for the same team. There is competition, but it is still a team effort,” Heldermon says. “We work like heck against each other, but in the end there is a certain amount of respect and you try and help each other.”

Like no other business, except maybe a pro sports team, professional livestock marketers nurture their young talent to try and develop future stars in the field. New field representatives are exposed to an initiation period comparable to the plebe system at one of the service academies. Once proven, they are welcomed members of this fraternity.

“There isn't anybody who can make it in this business without help,” Heldermon says. “When I started, the legends in this business helped me out a lot and you pass that down. I don't know if it is out of respect or if it's just the right thing to do.”

“I was really green when I started. I grew up on a small farm with commercial cattle and was not exposed to the purebred livestock business. I wasn't on the livestock judging team at college, but I always wished I was,” Larkin says. “I had the right attitude and watched and learned. The older guys helped season me and get me up and down the road.”

Making a successful event is a team effort. The captain of the team is the auctioneer. Like any leader, he takes control of the environment to ensure each animal is marketed to its full potential.

“I like a rapid fire, electric atmosphere for a sale because I believe it brings in more dollars for my client in a professional manner,” Stout says. “You have to be clearly understood at all times. If the crowd can't understand you at all times it is hard to create a spirited atmosphere. It is a lot easier to be successful when it's fun. A boring slow sale isn't fun.”

For the auctioneer to move the sale along and gain the confidence of the people sitting on the seats, it takes an equal effort by the professionals at ringside. The years of training and working together form the cohesive bond that any successful team shares.

“The fieldman is closest to the prospective buyer. A good bid taker gets the confidence of the people sitting on the seats. If the people don't have confidence in him they won't bid,” Stout says. “A good ring man will know the pedigree, the buyer number, the man's name and what they were interested in. It requires special attention to make the event a production. Working the ring requires 100 percent attention at all times, if his mind strays he'll miss something.”

“When the sale starts a good auctioneer has complete control of the situation. We're there to do business and a lot of money is going to change hands,” Heldermon says. “The ring man is the link between the auctioneer and the crowd. Rhythm and enthusiasm are part of a successful auction and you want the least amount of confusion as possible.”

The responsibility taken by each of the livestock professionals is second to none. Each sale presents its own unique challenges and the seller depends on these professionals to handle the pressure and get the job done.

“There is a lot of responsibility and naturally you want the sale to go well. It is a big payday and you have to realize what's at stake,” Heldermon says. “You have to make people feel comfortable buying something at an auction. If you make the people feel comfortable you can have a big influence on the decisions they make.”

“We do a lot of things the same at every sale,” Larkin says. “Just changing breeds does not change the way we conduct business. A good sales team has to be in place to make it a success.”

When a date is taken on one of the professional's calendars, the firm that has hired them is expecting a first rate job. The code of ethics established in the business is something that is passed to each generation of marketers. It is part of the tradition expected in the purebred livestock business. Honoring commitments is the one constant that defines successful marketing professionals.

“Once that commitment is made to be at a sale, only a handful of excuses are acceptable that will release you from that commitment,” Heldermon says. “We feel there is an obligation to be there no matter what. My life revolves around those sale dates.”

Publications providing ring men, as a customer service program to go along with the advertising dollars received, operate in a little different situation than most businesses. In most cases, those dollars are already committed before sale day.

“Even though the advertising has already been sold, we are counting on the business long term,” Larkin says “You have to do the best job you can at every sale.”

“The ring service is part of the deal. If the breeders aren't happy with the service, you won't be successful long term,” Heldermon says. “You have to be serious about doing a good job to keep their business.”

The auctioneer's salary is often determined by the gross dollars generated by that offering. Just like the athlete who spends the extra time perfecting his game, it takes the same effort to be successful as a purebred auctioneer.

“A lot of guys claim to be auctioneers, but they don't do enough homework to know the popular genetics. It's paying attention to details, not just getting up there and having a good chant,” Stout says. “Every breed is different. You have to know the important information. Before each sale I have to study the catalog and digest what is important to each program.”

Part of the professionalism that goes along with the job title is salesmanship. Potential buyers are relying on the knowledge of each professional to help make buying decisions and be confident in the purchases they make.

“You are a salesman for that firm that day. Arrive at the sale early that morning and meet people back in the pens. It is amazing the number of questions people have,” Heldermon says. “The owner can only answer so many questions and having a breed representative on hand helps potential customers. It gives them a vote of confidence with their purchase decisions. There are a lot of things that go on behind the scenes that lead to merchandising cattle.”

“The good people I had helping me when I first started out instilled in me you had to be there an hour and a half to two hours before the sale starts,” Stout says. “Another day at the office won't get the job done as a purebred livestock auctioneer. There is more to it than that.”

“We are constantly having to answer questions. We travel a lot of miles and see a lot of cattle,” Larkin says. “People trust us to know what genetics are working and where the good cattle are.”

Another duty in the long list of tasks that must be completed by the livestock professionals is sight unseen purchases. Customers rely on the dedication of these professionals to help them take advantage of a buying opportunity.

“You have to be honest and ask enough questions. There is usually a breeder or a program that fits that customer,” Heldermon says. “If you are honest and sincere about doing a good job it will work out for both buyer and seller. If you help a person locate cattle or buy a herd bull and it works out, nothing will establish more credibility.”

“The good ring men know their clients, gain their confidence and carry orders,” Stout says. “It isn't going to happen at every sale, but sometimes it does. Credibility is important in this business.”

The most significant challenge many livestock professionals face is the miles they travel in a year. Life on the road can take its toll when this amount of time is spent away from home. Every sale day is equivalent to the big game for these road warriors and they have to be prepared.

“I drive to more sales than I fly, because too many things can happen. If I drive at least I have a little better control of my time,” Stout says. “The guy we're working for that day doesn't care where you've been or where you have to go. You have to take care of yourself, keep your health and not get run down.”

“You have to answer the bell and expect to give a full days work. The firm we are working for has one or two days to market their years production,” Larkin says. “You have to give 100 percent and honor your commitment.”

Just like any industry, times and people change for different reasons. The purebred livestock business has had its fair share of ups and downs, but it continues to prosper because of the dedication and constant improvement of all parties involved. Most professionals have had to adapt to the industry to remain a wanted commodity.

“Sales aren't the social event they used to be when you had as many people at the pre-sale event as you had sale day. The buying crowd gets there later. Used to, if the crowd wasn't there at 11 a.m. for a 1 p.m. sale, it was going to be a tough day. Today, you can still have a big crowd gather closer to sale time and have a good day,” Heldermon says. “There is so much more presentation involved with pre-sale advertising. Breeders have to do it to measure up. A lot of pictures I take today, cattle are presented better than they were at the state fair 15 years ago.”

“I have the same number of sales, but they are larger sales featuring one program. The smaller auctions and consignment sales have kind of withered away because everyone who is big enough has their own sale” Stout says. “The more quality and volume the seller presents translates to leaders in that breed. This appeals to the smaller breeder and is a place where they can improve their herd.

“I have been involved with sales for in five different decades. A lot has changed and a lot has stayed the same,” Larkin says. “I travel faster than I used to, we used to go in groups, now it is more individual travel.”

Few occupations provide more camaraderie than the livestock marketing profession. Maybe it is the open door approach to new talent, the respect factor or the time spent together away from the comforts of home, but these professionals respect one another in a very competitive atmosphere. The relationships established are often long term with a stronger bond than some families.

“There are people I have met in this business that I can call at any time and talk to them just like family,” Larkin says. “When I started that was how it felt with the professionals I worked with. I had been accepted into the working family.”

“There are a lot of people out there willing to help. They teach you the do's and don't's of the business,” Heldermon says. “A lot of your best friends work for other publications, but you eat, sleep and travel together when you are on the road.”

“I think it's a combination of miles and respect. We know each other better than our wives know us at certain times of the year,” Stout says. “The travel sometimes is not that easy. The guys you travel with, you won't hesitate to drive 100 miles out of the way to pick them up, because you know they'll do the same.”

Satisfaction is something few people in the professional world get on a daily basis from their job. Each person involved in livestock marketing understands the main goal at every sale. Even though each sale day presents a challenge, the rewards are not overlooked. The all-star sales team at each event works to gain the respect of the buying public and their peers to make each production sale a success.

“I accept the challenge of working for someone year round. I am blessed with the professionals I have been associated with and the families I work for are really important to me,” Stout says. “Before every sale I still have butterflies. If I don't have butterflies I'll be flat and not on the top of my game. Just like my logo says, the only sale that matters is yours.”

“I love the people and it is a great way to make a living. There is a lot of diversity with the people you get to know and contacts are made with a lot of influential people,” Larkin says. “The travel is not all bad, I have had opportunities to take my family places we normally wouldn't go.”

“There isn't a better feeling than leaving a good sale and there isn't a worse feeling than leaving a bad one,” Heldermon says. “One of the most rewarding things is when relationships go beyond business. I have made a lot of personal relationships with the people I deal with.”

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