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Front & Center: Financing the future of food, forestry and fishing

Phil DiPofi is the CEO and president of Northwest Farm Credit Services, which has about 17,000 customers. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Phil DiPofi is the CEO and president of Northwest Farm Credit Services, which has about 17,000 customers. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
By Michael Guilfoil For The Spokesman-Review

Phil DiPofi’s résumé resembles a career catalog.

Before joining the banking profession, he was a paperboy, delivered vegetables, worked in a gas station, washed dishes, tended bar, waited tables and appraised real estate.

Asked whether he had a mentor, the CEO and president of Northwest Farm Credit Services replied, “Not really.”

Yet perched on his corner-office desk is a plaque that reads: “Do or do not. There is no try.”

Next to the admonition is an image of Yoda.

“I don’t like the words ‘hope’ or ‘try,’ ” DiPofi explained. “We create plans, and we follow them.”

Perhaps his résumé should include “apprentice Jedi knight.” That might fit the jeans-wearing boss better than “banker.”

“I’ve been in banking since 1989, but I’ve never really considered myself a banker,” he said. “I’ve always thought of bankers as stiff, bureaucratic, by-the-rules types. I prefer to think of myself as a businessman.”

During a recent interview, DiPofi discussed his circuitous route to CEO, how skills he learned in restaurants help in the boardroom, and what about him annoys people.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

DiPofi: Niagara Falls. I lived in western New York – either Niagara Falls or Rochester, 60 miles down the road – until I was 40.

S-R: What was your first job?

DiPofi: I started delivering newspapers when I was 9 or 10. I had to get up at 5.

S-R: What were your interests as a teen?

DiPofi: Baseball, football, fishing and hunting.

S-R: Did you envision a particular career?

DiPofi: Not really. I grew up in a blue-collar town. My dad managed a car wash before going into real estate sales. My mom stayed home raising four children. Half the kids I graduated with went into construction or manufacturing trades, and the other half went to college, so I was sort of one foot in, one out.

S-R: Which did you do after graduating?

DiPofi: For a year I delivered produce for a vegetable wholesaler. Once I figured out I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life, I enrolled at Buffalo State College and earned an undergraduate degree in broadcast communications, thinking I’d go into media sales.

S-R: Looking back, was there a moment that changed the direction of your life?

DiPofi: Getting married and having kids when I was 24. That got me more focused.

S-R: What did you do after college?

DiPofi: I got a job as a real estate appraiser because my dad had a friend in the business. I had no qualifications, but I found I really liked it. By the time I was 28, I’d worked my way up to manager in a small appraisal company. From there I got a job as chief appraiser for a commercial bank, and earned an MBA with an emphasis on accounting at Niagara University.

S-R: What brought you west?

DiPofi: A colleague in Rochester became president of CoBank in Denver, which is part of the Farm Credit System, and he invited me to join his leadership team. I was chief banking officer, in charge of CoBank’s agricultural cooperative customers, before joining Northwest Farm Credit Services in 2011.

S-R: How is Northwest Farm Credit Services different from commercial banks?

DiPofi: We’re owned and governed by the people who borrow from us. Our customers get a 1 percent patronage – essentially an annual rebate – on their average loan balance, and 11 of our 14 board members are elected by our customers.

S-R: Anything else?

DiPofi: Unlike commercial banks, we focus on a limited part of the economy: food, forest products and fisheries.

S-R: How has the Farm Credit System evolved since you joined it 17 years ago in Denver?

DiPofi: Federal regulations have gotten more complex, and our customers have grown larger. At Northwest FCS we have around 17,000 customers. But here, as with the rest of the country, the vast majority of food production comes from a small number of producers.

S-R: What challenges does your industry face?

DiPofi: Staying current with technology is a big one. Customers want to transact business online – increasingly on their smartphones. Cybersecurity is another huge issue. So is attracting young people to farming and living in rural areas.

S-R: Which of your customers were most affected by the recession?

DiPofi: The timber industry and nursery industry – landscaping materials, flower growers. But we finance 150 different commodities, most of which weren’t impacted by the financial crisis.

S-R: How about now?

DiPofi: During the past 24 months, small grains – wheat, barley – as well as potatoes, beef and dairy have been stressed by oversupply and the dollar’s rise. But we’re also coming off some of the most profitable times in those industries, so producers’ flexibility is generally good. And low interest rates help.

S-R: Who’s doing well?

DiPofi: The forest products and nursery industries are doing fairly well. So are the tree fruits and wine grapes. And hop growers are doing very well, because of all the craft brewers.

S-R: What skills from your previous careers transferred to your current one?

DiPofi: I’d say working as a bartender, dishwasher and waiter was most transferable, because you have to interact with a range of people, make decisions and solve problems quickly.

S-R: What’s an important lesson you’ve learned about leadership?

DiPofi: Everything a leader says or does is watched very closely. You have to be aware of that, and be accountable.

S-R: Is your job typically held by someone with farming experience?

DiPofi: It was 20 or 30 years ago. Now there’s more emphasis on a banking background. But we try to recruit employees out of land grant schools or with some connection to farming. And we tend to attract field staff who want to live in places like Havre, Montana, or Yakima.

S-R: The Trump administration has been critical of international trade, threatening to impose tariffs on Canadian lumber and withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement. Does that posture concern your customers?

DiPofi: Roughly 30 percent of America’s gross agricultural production goes offshore, so any disruption in exports could have pretty negative effects on our customers.

S-R: What else worries them?

DiPofi: We have 188 customers we call local advisers. Their top three worries are federal regulations, state regulations and labor. If they’re in the Columbia Basin or the Willamette Valley, where almost all the crops are hand-harvested, their No. 1 concern is the adequate flow of migrant labor.

S-R: What would you like to see in next year’s farm bill?

DiPofi: Continuation of crop insurance, which is a critical risk-management tool for producers. We’re one of the largest crop insurance agencies in the country. We insure a couple of million acres, and our gross premiums are around $120 million.

S-R: What does the insurance protect against?

DiPofi: It’s mostly weather-related – hail, drought, freezes, floods and fires. Producers also can buy insurance to cover losses if crop prices decline.

S-R: Are you concerned about global warming?

DiPofi: I think about climate change, which is pretty controversial in our circles. Whether who’s causing it and how long it will last, there are some issues that have to be managed.

S-R: Very diplomatic.

DiPofi: (laugh)

S-R: Are there common misperceptions about your business?

DiPofi: People who don’t spend time around the food, forest products and fishing industries underestimate how sophisticated those industries have become, in terms of technology, production, marketing and finance. They still imagine pastoral farms with a couple of dairy cows roaming around.

S-R: What’s your business philosophy?

DiPofi: Don’t let short-term worries get in the way of long-term strategies.

S-R: How do you divide your time?

DiPofi: I try to spend 50 percent of it traveling to see customers and staff. The other 50 percent I’m pretty regimented. I get up, work out at home, and get here around 8 o’clock. Then I go through my emails and have a series of established meetings.

S-R: What is your greatest virtue?

DiPofi: I’m very loyal.

S-R: Any guilty pleasures?

DiPofi: I like cigars.

S-R: What’s at the top of your bucket list?

DiPofi: I’d like to go on a high-end elk hunt with my son and two sons-in-law.

S-R: What would you change about yourself?

DiPofi: I’d listen better and not interrupt people. I tend to process quickly, which annoys the heck out of people because I don’t let them finish their thoughts.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

DiPofi: I have a great team of people who work well together. I also enjoy being around our customers. I didn’t grow up around farmers, but I appreciate their straight-shooting, hand-shaking approach.

S-R: What do you like least?

DiPofi: Getting on airplanes. It’s more of a hassle today.

S-R: Do you fly commercial, or does Farm Credit Services own its own jet?

DiPofi: We fly commercial. There are things you can afford, but it doesn’t mean you should do them. (laugh)

Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at mguilfoil@comcast.net.

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