Joe Wright
April 1, 2017

Leading With Optimism

 |  By: Mike Opperman

When asked about what makes a great leader, former Secretary of State Colin Powell said “Optimism is a force multiplier.” He said optimism was the secret behind President Ronald Reagan’s infamous charisma. Joe Wright owns V&W Farms in Avon Park, Florida, and he considers himself an optimist. Given the ups and downs of dairy farming,especially in the Southeast, staying optimistic can be a tall order. But it’s critical to a successful business.

Optimism got Wright into dairy farming, and it’s what has guided him along the path to becoming one of the foremost national voices in the U.S. dairy industry, all while running a 1,200-cow dairy. Wright has been on the National Milk Producer’s Federation (NMPF) board of directors since 1997. He was a founder of the co-op Southeast Milk, Inc. and is still the organization’s chairman and president. His first mentor was an optimist. That was his late father-in-law, Charlie Williams, who started the dairy Wright now operates.

“He was an eternal optimist,” Wright says. “When I look to successful business men and women, they need to have that optimism and he had it.” That confirms one of the tenants of what noted author and communications coach Carmine Gallo says are reasons why optimists are better leaders. “Optimists start businesses,” he says. “An optimist sees opportunity where others see uncertainty and despair. The optimist refuses to let macroeconomic trends dampen imagination.”

Wright is a successful dairy producer, but he has no formal dairy management training. He is an attorney by trade. Wright is the prototypical city kid who married a farm girl. However, his dairy is nowhere near prototypical. V&W Farms is a pasture-based grazing dairy. How did someone go from being an attorney representing health care, commercial litigation and bankruptcy clients, to operating a large dairy? “Well, you never know where life takes you,” Wright says as he smiles and pauses, reflecting on the path that led him to his current position. “I can honestly say that even on my wedding day, I never imagined that I would end up on a dairy farm.”

Optimism Abounds

Robert Noyce, co-founder of Intel, calls optimism “an essential ingredient of innovation. How else can the individual welcome change over security, adventure over staying in safe places?” Wright practiced law from 1982 to 1988 when he started on the dairy. He’s still licensed in Florida. As an attorney, Wright says he became “disenchanted” with the profession and began looking outside of his secure surroundings for an element of change and adventure. Something about that optimism from his father-in-law rubbed off on him and made him think about a new career.

“I thought, here’s a man who loved what he did so much, and was so optimistic,” he says. “I figured I would enjoy dairy farming much more than I would practicing law.” Not only did Williams teach his son-in-law about the dairy business, but he got Wright involved in leadership, too. Williams had been active in dairy organizations, serving as president of one of Southeast Milk’s predecessor cooperatives and on the NMPF board. He was also a Congressional appointee of the National Commission on Dairy Policy that issued a comprehensive report on the dairy industry in March 1988. By the early '90s Wright was on several committees for the local co-op. He says being on these committees as a young producer was critical for his own leadership development and the progress of the co-op as well. It was on these committees that he came in contact with another significant mentor, Red Larson.

A prominent figure in both the Florida and national dairy industries, Louis “Red” Larson served on the USDA Dairy Advisory Committee during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and was integral in developing milk marketing programs that benefited producers and consumers alike. “Mr. Red was getting off the board at Dairymen Inc. and he kind of hand picked me to take his place,” Wright says. Even today, as Larson approaches his 93 rd birthday, Wright goes to him regularly for advice, especially about challenges related to problems in the past. “I like to know why something was done at some point in time and if it would work again or not. Red gives me that perspective,” Wright says.

Falling Back On Training

Good leaders have to be true to their roots and rely on the training that helped them be who they are. Wright applied his law degree during the 1995 Farm Bill negotiations by testifying in a field hearing, which led to him testifying before Congress several more times on various topics. “Testifying that first time was my first foray into leadership,” Wright says. “And what I found out going to meetings at Dairymen, Inc. and later [at Mid-America Dairymen] was that it reinforced why I got into the dairy business, and that’s the people.” That fits another of Gallo’s philosophies—optimists are inspiring communicators.

“You cannot elicit enthusiasm for an idea unless you’re a strong communicator,” Gallo says. “It’s no coincidence that Ronald Reagan, one of the most optimistic Americans we’ll ever know, was designated ‘the great communicator.’” Wright became president of Florida Dairy Farmers Association in 1997 at the age of 41, which is young com - pared to other producer-led organizations. At the time, the state of Florida was down to two co-ops—Florida Dairy Farmers’ Association in Fort Lauderdale and Tampa Independent Dairy Farmers’ Association, Inc., in Tampa. He says the two organizations fought like co-ops close in proximity normally do, but Wright and others recognized a need for change if the co-op system was going to survive. “I was a new face,” he says. “My roots were in south Florida but with my background, I didn’t think like others did and that helped bring the organizations together.” On Oct. 1, 1998, Southeast Milk formed and Wright has been president ever since.

“When you look at what has happened to milk production in the Southeast and what has happened in Florida and Georgia, Southeast Milk has been good for dairymen down here,” he says. “I like to think that I’ve been a part of creating that environment that helped make it happen.” At about the same time, Wright took a seat on the NMPF board, and has assumed that role for nearly 20 years.

“Joe has a unique ability to see all sides of an issue, including aspects often overlooked by others,” says Chris Galen, NMPF senior vice president of communications. “As a result, his presence has been especially valuable throughout the years during our deliberations on the complex topics surrounding dairy farm and dairy cooperative policies and operations." Having been in leadership roles for nearly two decades, Wright sees himself filling another of Gallo’s beliefs—optimists rally people to a better future. Wright is doing things that ignite the flame of leadership in young people like it was ignited in him when he was a youngster. He gets fueled by the enthusiasm and optimism the younger generation offers and gets cues from books he’s read about Ronald Reagan. “It’s a lot easier to encourage people to do something out of a feeling of optimism than a feeling of fear.”

Dairy Farm Must Be Efficient

One of the downsides of being a leader in a trade organization is the time commitment. Being pulled to attend meetings off the farm means others have to be on the farm to keep the cows milking. Wright says today the farm is set up well to accommodate his travel schedule, but it wasn’t always that way. When he went to the dairy in 1988 cows were on pasture, but the paddocks were used more as dry lots. Housing evolved to semi-confinement and then total confinement. Now they are back to pasture-based, but intensive grazing is implemented.

Given his activities, “this is much more conducive to managing the dairy,” Wright says. There are significant opportunities in Florida to grow grass and in 2009, when the dairy industry hit bottom, Wright “kicked the cows out of the barn” and went back to grazing. “It needs less people, less capital, it’s just more conducive to our lifestyle choice,” He says. Today, Wright can operate the 1200- cow dairy with just 11 employees. That includes his son Charley, on the farm part time as he takes graduate accounting courses at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Fla. Farm acres total 1,335 with about 950 used for the dairy and the rest leased out for beef cows and recreational purposes.

Long term, Wright would like to use the beef land them- selves as Charley comes back to the operation or “I stop doing all of this co-op business,” Wright says. “I sim- ply have no time for more enterprises to manage on our land.” Wright says they do sell hay, and they added about $1.25 per cwt to their bottom line last year by selling hay and sod. The dairy is permitted for up to 2,000 cows milking and dry, and Wright says they are currently limited by parlor size, which is a double-12 herringbone. He says expanding will require building a bigger parlor, which they will do once they can pay for it with cash. “The secret of making a grazing operation work is cost and cash management,” Wright says. “We will have the opportunity to build a parlor paid with cash, we just have to pick the right year.”

An Optimistic Future

“Optimists see the big picture,” Gallo says. “We need leaders who see the big picture, reminding us of the long term.” Wright says producers need to get involved in leadership for the unknown challenges that lie ahead more than for the struggles of today. “Even though we could list three or four things that we think will change in the next four of five years, there will be three or four things that we won’t be able to list that we don’t see coming but will affect our future,” he says. “We have to be prepared. Even if you can’t anticipate change, you have to have some sort of framework in the industry to deal best with what happens that we can’t anticipate.” Former Secretary Powell, an optimist, was not unrealistic in his enthusiasm. He controlled his optimism with logic. “Maybe it can’t be done, but always start out believing that it can be done until facts and analysis pile up against it,” he once said. Similarly, Wright is looking forward to a better 2017, but with caution. “If 2017 is only a couple dollars better than 2016, then we are really looking at what happened in 2015,” he says. “The only good thing about 2015 was that we were coming off of 2014. We were flush with cash and had debt payed down, but that’s not the case coming off of 2016.” Of course, he’s optimistic 2017 will surprise people with prices on the high side of projections.