Pioneering female Homeland Grain president welcomes daughter into the business
Successful businesses are built on competence, not whether the leader is in possession of two X or alternatively one X and one Y chromosomes.
However, while women have always been a significant part of agriculture, ascension to more visible, leadership roles is a comparatively new development. The fact Homeland Grain Inc. is run by a mother/daughter management team still is of note in the year 2023.
But a woman at the helm was a lot more unusual in the early 1980s when President and CEO Lynne Cohoe accepted the challenge before her.
“I had to escape my own perceived limitations,” she summed up of a 40-year career at the helm of a successful grain elevator and feed mill operation.
“Compared to when mom started in this, the world has changed,” added her daughter and heir apparent Lindsay Menich, both aware and appreciative her opportunities have resulted from Lynne’s pioneering path.
“I think that in all aspects of work opportunities, we owe a huge debt to those women who came before to pave that way, who took those first steps, whether they were there out of choice or responsibility.”
The Cohoe family’s agricultural roots run deeply along New Durham Road, east of Burgessville, stretching back to an original 100 acres bought from the crown in 1832. Always with a family focus on education and innovation, Lynne’s father Fred moved the business forward through installation of an early milking parlour and one of the area’s first feedlots around 1960. Following sale of the dairy herd in 1967, grain elevators were added around 1970 to accumulate cattle feed.
Lynne jokes she had an unofficial business degree by the time she was a teenager, given every meal with her dad featured discussion around the business: agronomy, personnel, operations and finance.
“There was always something that needed to be fixed or managed or a new idea to be evaluated.”
She took economics and political science at university with the ultimate intention of getting involved in business.
“I just didn’t think it would be agricultural business,” she smiled.
However, in 1977 Lynne came back to the farm, drawn believes her daughter by opportunity, need and a mutual respect between Lynne and her father.
“I think he probably saw that mom could contribute to this business.”
Two years later, Fred was killed in a vehicular accident, a tragedy not only robbing the family of their father, but the business of its founder, driving force, figurehead and leader.
“The next ten years were very hard for the whole family,” says Lindsay.
Following an extremely challenging decade-plus featuring high interest rates combined with an economic downturn, Lynne, who had been established as an equal partner with brothers Dan and Leigh (their sister Liz is a fashion designer in B.C.), formalized her role in the early 1990s with ownership of the feedlot and elevator. Dan separated to pursue other agri-business endeavours, Leigh retaining a focus on agronomy.
Lynne’s mother Ruth had described her as ‘a good Croxford’ (her maternal grandmother’s family), a tribute to the fact Lynne “just put my head down and worked.”
The mountain of work itself was challenging, so too was a leadership role Lynne was admittedly uncertain or even uncomfortable in assuming. She had strong female mentors as a child, however as the gender roles of the time dictated, they tended to be good mothers, cooks or housekeepers rather than business people, leaders of a company.
By contrast, Lynne noted her brothers didn’t seem to second-guess themselves, seemed easier with just being who they were.
Having to step beyond one’s own feeling of limitations is certainly not restricted to women, however it could be argued they do face more of a societally-driven backdrop.
“I think generally all of us have more to offer than we are comfortable doing or being,” said Lindsay.
Lynne definitely stood out as a woman in the industry at that time, however counterintuitively discovered it could also be an advantage.
“I found I was treated very well,” she said. “If you were willing to do the work and had useful ideas and were willing to express yourself effectively, then the gender issue disappeared.”
Lynne also lists relationship-building, an objective view of numbers and ability to listen as what could be construed as female advantages.
There were times her mother would be passively excluded from events says Lindsay, “because you didn’t fit in with the old boys club.”
And while that has changed significantly in an industry populated more and more heavily with women, she believes some bias vestiges remain. Lindsay finds in general that when walking into a situation as a woman, the first assumption may be of less competence than a man.
“You can change that fairly quickly, but I see the opposite when they talk to a male. It’s not a big hill to climb, but it is a recurring hill.”
Lindsay’s own experience mirrors her mother’s in a sense. Educated as an engineer, Menich lived and worked in the GTA on projects including the World Trade Centre, prior to returning to her own agricultural roots. She and husband Drew grow horseradish, ginseng and tobacco in Norfolk County (the couple has three children, two sons and a daughter), as well as Lindsay joining Homeland roughly a dozen years ago. Currently, her title - if the business had a focus on them - would be office manager.
“In a small office you do a lot of different things,” Lindsay smiled, listing merchandizing and the grain origination side, along with ‘problem solver.’
“Crisis management,” her mother laughed. “And a crisis can be fairly minor to fairly significant.”
Since her daughter came on board, Lynne has consciously attempted to pass on operational lessons from her 44 years in and at the head of the business.
“Not from a prescriptive point of view, but so they don’t have to repeat the stuff I did.”
Those 44 years included surviving the very real threat of cessation of operations in the 1980s, bringing on Joanne McLellan as merchandizer in the 1990s as part of a rare for-the-time female team, expansion into direct farm purchasing, the addition of a feed mill, quadrupling bin capacity, and insulating growers from price movements through intelligent participation in the futures and other commodity marketing strategies.
“We really do concentrate on operational customer service, good marketing and merchandizing,” Lynne summed up.
“I would hope we are giving value to our customers through competence and a genuine desire to help our customers,” added Lindsay. “We’re a family business where everyone here wants to do well for our customers.”
She still hops into the cab of a tractor to plant or spray, but thoroughly enjoys the ‘market side’ of the business.
“The sky is the limit in how involved you want to get with the markets.”
Menich is also cognitive of how ‘extraordinarily fortunate’ she is to be in the position she is.
Her perception of her mother has developed over a lifetime, but certainly has progressed across the past 15 years.
“I understand the sacrifices she made and the hard work she put in to keep this business advancing. The path here was not easy in every moment and mom deserves everything she has built here.”
Generally and specifically, opportunities for women have also advanced during that time.
“I’m more worried about my boys than my girl, because opportunities for women are enormous,” Lindsay stated. “And my feeling is that girls may now feel even less restricted in their career decisions than boys.”
Part of that conscious decision-making process is an awareness around the responsibility to not only continue, but advance the operation. A 200-year family history has led to this point, which includes zero guarantees moving forward.
“Coming with that is the pressure to continue and grow the business and be worthy of that opportunity.”
For her part, Lynne is more than satisfied with how accepting and embracing the responsibilities thrust upon her worked out.
“It has been very rewarding and not without challenge, but I think women are actually very well suited to do this job.
“I can’t imagine life turning out any better than it has for me. I am continually amazed and grateful.”