December 4, 2020

Turning Setbacks Into Comebacks: Iowa Institute for Cooperatives Inducts Joe Anniss Into Hall of Fame

Joe and Bev Anniss.

Joe and Bev Anniss.

There had to be an easier job. When Joe Anniss became the general manager of the West Bend Elevator Company (WBEC) in 1998, the situation he inherited could only be described as disastrous.

“The co-op was broke, both figuratively and financially,” said Bob Burkhardt, then MaxYield’s CFO who retired from the cooperative several years ago.

The co-op had negative retained savings. The hedge-to-arrive (HTA) debacle of the mid-1990s was still not settled. WBEC’s relationships with lenders and suppliers were shaky at best. Employee morale was dismal. Member-owners had lost confidence in their cooperative.

It was a devastating time for an Iowa cooperative with such a rich history. After all, WBEC had been founded in 1915 and was one of the first cooperatives in Iowa. It boasted one of the first cooperative soybean processing plants in Iowa, plus it was an innovator in unit train shipping. (Remember those pink grain hopper cars?)

Undaunted, Anniss viewed all this as a challenge and wanted to take it on as the final chapter in his cooperative career. “From the moment I met Joe, I wanted to be part of his team,” Burkhardt said. “Why? I knew Joe was the right person to turn WBEC around.”

Leading a quiet revolution

Turn it around he did. Anniss transformed a cooperative that was on the brink of collapse into a thriving, vibrant organization. In honor of his remarkable leadership, the Iowa Institute for Cooperatives inducted Anniss into its prestigious Hall of Fame in November 2015.

“If you don’t have cooperatives, you don’t have anything,” said Anniss, who was humbled and honored to be named to the Hall of Fame. “While the model has changed through the years, the original mission behind the cooperative system is as valuable today as it was in the beginning.”

Saying that Anniss’ first few years at WBEC were tough is an understatement. Unpopular decisions about personnel and facilities had to be made. “Change is hard for people,” Burkhardt said. “Joe often made the comment that the only folks who like change are babies with wet diapers.”

The changes started to pay off, however. Anniss worked with legal counsel to bring the HTA issues to an acceptable conclusion. He regained CoBank’s support and financial backing. Sales increased. Local savings again became a reality. Retained earnings grew.

A quiet revolution was also taking hold with the co-op’s culture. Employees became team members. Customers became clients. The co-op stopped “selling stuff” and began focusing on providing solutions. As WBEC regained a sense of purpose and direction, the organization became
MaxYield Cooperative.

“Joe’s positive attitude and tireless effort left little doubt that together we could make this company something special,” said Chad Meyer, MaxYield’s client relations/communications team leader.

20131010_maxyield_465 compGrowing for the future

This win/win attitude positioned MaxYield for future growth. In the late 1990s, regional cooperatives still owned and operated local grain and agronomy facilities in the area. Anniss and his team worked with the regionals to get these facilities back under local ownership through innovative financing and partnership agreements, preserving the local cooperative presence in their communities.

Anniss also led the cooperative through a unification with Fostoria Cooperative Elevator and Farmers Cooperative Company of Britt. In addition, he guided the company through a lease-purchase of facilities in Belmond and Clarion and the purchase of facilities in Garner, Klemme and Meservey. In each case, the cooperative was able to either preserve cooperative markets or introduce cooperative principles in the case of Belmond.

During this time, some ag leaders feared the emerging ethanol industry in northern Iowa would mark the end of local co-ops. Not so, Anniss said. “Ethanol was going to be a good thing for our producer members. I wanted to work with the ethanol plants, not against them, by investing in cooperative plants and helping them and MaxYield succeed by developing innovative grain origination agreements.”

Through Anniss’ leadership, MaxYield Cooperative built its financial strength, growing sales from
$94 million in 1998 to $179 million in 2007. Retained savings for the cooperative rose from $1.1 million to $8 million during the same period.

“When Joe began his tenure here in 1998, this cooperative was at a critical juncture,” said Howard Haas, chairman of MaxYield’s board of directors. “Joe not only helped us survive a very tumultuous period, but thrive. Thanks to his leadership, the cooperative created and executed a plan that brought stability, growth and an ambitious vision for the future.”

Anniss’ legacy lives on

Part of this vision included precision ag technology. “While some people thought this was just a new fad, Joe helped MaxYield become one of the first co-ops to recognize this pioneering approach to production agriculture, years before many other cooperatives got involved,” Burkhardt said.

While Anniss retired in 2007, his legacy endures. “Joe’s vision for MaxYield helped us create
a true ‘client-first’ culture,” Haas said. “While many cooperatives are just now recognizing this importance, MaxYield embraced those values years ago.”

Anniss is grateful that CEO Keith Heim and MaxYield team members have embraced those values. He also appreciates clients’ strong support for MaxYield. “It’s vital to carry on the values of the cooperative system,” said Anniss, who learned the value of the cooperative system while growing upon his family’s farm in southeast Illinois. “Where would we be without the cooperative system? Farmers would be facing a whole different scenario, without a doubt.”

Iowa’s rich cooperative heritage and modern cooperative community are a tribute to dynamic, visionary leaders like Anniss, said Dave Holm, executive director of the Iowa Institute for Cooperatives. “Our Hall of Fame represents a select group of people who’ve promoted the cooperative system. Joe not only worked throughout the United States developing cooperatives, but he helped create the remarkable culture that has become MaxYield.” Those who served with Anniss are forever grateful for what he did to position MaxYield for the future, Burkhardt said. “MaxYield wouldn’t be what it is today without Joe’s dedication and passion.”

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