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AGRI CAREERS: What does it take to be the CEO of an agribusiness?

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Have you ever wondered what it would be like working for a successful agribusiness that promotes the image of agriculture in Mzansi and have the buck stop on your desk? Johan Ehlers (59), Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Agri-Expo (The Cape of Good Hope Agricultural Society) wears this hat with pride.

His agricultural journey started in 1984 when he worked as a community developer throughout various parts of the Western Cape, creating opportunities for agriworkers.

Then, after filling both a regional manager and training manager position, Ehlers joined Agri-Expo in 1996 as marketing manager. He was appointed as CEO in 2002. Ehlers says his position as CEO is quite extensive and can be tough at times. But what exactly does it take to steer the mothership?

1Sum up your job:
The position of a CEO is extensive. For me, the three most important aspects are to develop and implement the operational and strategic plans of the company, provide inspired leadership and create an environment that promotes great performance. I am also responsible for reporting to the Agri-Expo council, act as spokesperson for the company, oversee the day-to-day operations, monitor and manage budgets and assess risks to the company.

2So, what does the day-to-day of your job entail?
Agri-Expo’s main objective is to promote the image of agriculture with more than 30 projects throughout the year. Many of them overlap in the planning processes. The CEO is steering the mothership.

You are launching a bunch of speedboats from the mothership on a daily basis and I need to know where everyone is heading (goals), see that each one has enough fuel (facts and motivation) for the trip, where the stormy waters are (challenges), and guide everyone to get to shore safely. The buck stops on my desk.

3

What qualification do you need for this career?
I have studied B.Sc. Agriculture and completed several short courses over the years. Today an MBA (Master of Business Administration) will definitely count in your favour. Since I came through the ranks to become a CEO, a QBE (Qualified By Experience) qualification also remains a good one in my opinion!

 4What are the character traits you need to be great at your job?
You need to be curious and keep searching for new opportunities, be prepared to take calculated risks, keep building relationships (networking), learn from the past and believe in the people that you’ve appointed.

Be a realistic optimist – be aware of all the pieces on the chessboard and how certain moves will have an effect on the company, but be willing to make some unconventional moves. Never forget to use the royal “we”, instead of “I” – it’s all about teamwork!

5Have you always worked in the agriculture sector?
Yes, I started my career at the then Rural Foundation as a Community Developer. Creating opportunities for our agri-workers to better their lives on the farms. I moved on to become regional manager and ended as training manager after 13 years. I joined Agri-Expo in 1996 as marketing manager and was appointed as CEO in 2002.

Johan Ehlers.
Johan Ehlers

6What do you love about agriculture as a space to work in?
The people, the products and the environment, but most of all the honesty. There is respect and compassion for each other and for mother earth. Here you’ll find a culture that I’m sure you won’t be able to find in any other industry.

7Don’t be modest, tell us about your proudest career moments?
Being a founder member of the National Youth Show movement in 1998 and experiencing how the organisation evolved into the dynamic entity it is today. When we opened the gates to the first South African Cheese Festival in 2002. I never thought it would grow into the biggest outdoor culinary event in Africa and win numerous accolades for the best exhibition in Africa.

Being elected as a Trustee on the Board of the Royal Agricultural Society of the Commonwealth and finally, after presenting the bid on behalf of Agri-Expo, to host the 30th Commonwealth Agriculture Conference. To hear the words: “Congratulations Agri-Expo, It will be in Cape Town in 2022!”

8What do you do when you’re not at work?
I play… I challenge myself! I’ve reached the top of Kilimanjaro, swam the Midmar Mile. Bungi at Bloukrans, shark cage diving. Hiked for 10 days on the Great Wall of China. Skydiving. But most of all, I like to enjoy a bottle of wine with my two daughters, Landi and Mienke, and their partners.

9Any advice for young people who are inspired by your career story?
Surround yourself from an early age with positive people and remember no one is perfect – recognise your weaknesses. Failure is an important element to success – if you fail, fail gracefully. Challenge yourself, be nice to everyone and enjoy the journey!

Duncan Masiwa
Duncan Masiwa
DUNCAN MASIWA is a budding journalist with a passion for telling great agricultural stories. He hails from Macassar, close to Somerset West in the Western Cape, where he first started writing for the Helderberg Gazette community newspaper. Besides making a name for himself as a columnist, he is also an avid poet who has shared stages with artists like Mahalia Buchanan, Charisma Hanekam, Jesse Jordan and Motlatsi Mofatse.
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