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Business and science

Barry McNamara
Dennis Plummer '73
Along with what he calls his “classic” rural upbringing in eastern Iowa, Dennis Plummer credits his Monmouth College education for preparing him for his very successful agribusiness career with Monsanto.

Now, says the 1973 graduate, M Club Hall of Fame member and new Monmouth College trustee, his alma mater is putting its best foot forward to educate a new generation of students, especially with its focus on integrating business and the sciences.

When Plummer joined Monsanto in the 1980s, it was a solid company with two or three well-known products – including Roundup herbicide – and some outstanding researchers, scientists and young salespeople.

“We were operating in silos but happy to be succeeding in some markets,” he recalls.

Plummer had a front-row seat to a transformation of the company, which came about as scientists got together with the marketing and salespeople. In the early 1990s, combining good science with a more sophisticated branding approach created a culture of innovation and success that bred even more success through acquisitions. As a result, Monsanto steadily grew, moving from sixth or seventh in its various markets to No. 1 or 2.

“We had some help from McKinsey Consulting in 1993, but we figured out how to innovate by taking some great science application to efficiently growing foodstuffs,” said Plummer. “We met the basic needs and provided solutions to farmers’ challenges, and presto, we had created a sustainable pipeline of new products and a process for innovation.”

Plummer said the pipeline was a result of a disciplined vetting process that was refined over the years so that hundreds of possible products became perhaps as few as 10 “really good” products.

“Eventually,” he said, “we attracted more and more great people and broke down the silo between the scientists and the marketing team. The result was a product mix that was unmatched in agribusiness.”

The key, he said, was becoming proactive, rather than reactive.

“We became a needs-shaping company rather than just someone meeting the farmers’ current demands. Real innovation meant sitting down with researchers and scientists and looking at where the puck was going to be in five to 10 years.”

Plummer also made his mark at Monsanto by helping it acquire national seed companies such as DeKalb and Asgrow, which added significant market share in corn and soybeans, along with a network of dealers that Monsanto utilized to cross-sell chemicals and other products.

While Plummer’s upbringing and being surrounded by talented colleagues were both part of his winning formula, so was his foundation at Monmouth College, which enabled him to work successfully with researchers and scientists.

“I appreciated the liberal arts approach that forced me to take science courses and labs that molded me in to a well-rounded guy,” he said. “I could speak science in ways my colleagues in marketing could not. I would have been intimidated or afraid to engage in conversation with some of those brainy scientists or researchers if I had not learned what I call ‘the soft skills’ during my four years at Monmouth.”

Plummer said his diligence to learning the science behind agricultural products “really paid off” when he was promoted to vice president of marketing and sales. Monsanto operated a traditional chemical dealer network when Plummer started, but he helped develop a sophisticated product mix that included dealers, big box retailers, direct sales and more marketing discipline, developing value-added brands in a commodity environment.

“It was a huge challenge to change the marketing culture of an industry,” he said. “I saw great work in innovative alternatives to time-intensive or mechanical solutions to improving agricultural yields, and I wanted to make sure we could monetize those discoveries globally, for the benefit of farmers and Monsanto. We grew from a Midwestern ag company into an international agribusiness giant during my tenure there.”

Monsanto now operates in hundreds of markets, including fruit crops, cotton, chemicals and organic herbicides.

Plummer was asked whether it was advanced science or innovative business practices that ultimately made Monsanto a great company.

“I guess the answer is you need both,” he replied. “I worked with a group of scientists that made huge business contributions. I like to think I made a difference, too. I understood the science behind our best products, and that helped me drive the marketing more efficiently. It all wouldn’t have happened if Monsanto hadn’t integrated its science capabilities with the best business practices.”

At Monmouth, Plummer chose to major in economics because he enjoyed the heavy quantitative emphasis. But as he progressed as a scholar, he began to appreciate his business courses and added a minor in that field. Plummer actually began his professional career as the marketing manager for the seed division of a major competitor, but he said he was “disappointed in their approach.” When he heard about Monsanto’s aggressive plans in agriculture, he pursued a position at the rival company.

“I always was fascinated by scientific discovery and innovation, but I did not realize the leadership skills I had gained from being the football team captain and being a key member of my fraternity,” he said. “These experiences, along with my coursework, molded me into someone that could work with a lot of different personalities and backgrounds.”

Plummer is currently a consultant as well as an adjunct faculty member at the St. Louis University School of Business, where he earned his MBA. He also serves on SLU’s International Business Advisory Board.

“My intellectual curiosity was developed during my time at Monmouth College,” he said. “The college’s new science and business focus is the way to add value to one’s education in the future. Monmouth is going in the right direction with that focus – I am sure of it.”