Dr. Jeff Higgins

Our new Green Industry Greatness blog brings you advice and insights from some of the best that the Green industry has to offer. This week features Jeff Higgins, Ph.D., CPAg, CPWS. Dr. Higgins is currently responsible for managing the Turf and Ornamental granular fertilizer business at Harrell’s and has over 30 years of work experience in the golf and sports turf industry.  

What is the most important lesson that the green industry has taught you?

I have learned many lessons from the green industry over the past 30 years; however, one thing that sticks out is that this is a very small industry. There are no secrets and eventually, the word will get around no matter whether it is good or bad. In addition, this industry is one where the people are genuine and are willing to help one another out if and when needed. Yes, of course, there are the few exceptions with the huge egos and hidden agendas, but the majority of the individuals that I have been fortunate enough to work with and beside are “real.”  I have a lot of friends in this industry over the years that include customers and competitors. 

Who has been the most influential person in your career and how have they helped you?

As I look back on my career there are two individuals that I give a lot of credit and owe everything to for my success. The first person is my Dad. I grew up on a cotton and soybean farm and wanted to stay home and run the farm, but my Dad insisted that I needed to get an education. He never had that opportunity and saw the value that it would provide to me long term.  He told me that if I flunked out of college, I could always come back home and farm. As it turns out I went to college for 10 straight years and got a B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. degrees. Thank you, Dad! 

The second gentleman was my major professor at Auburn University when I was working on my M.S. degree in Weed Science. His name is Dr. Robert H. Walker (Harold). Not only was Harold a brilliant mind and taught me more than I could write in one sitting. He was very applied minded and challenged me on everything to push me and make me strive for excellence and taught me what work ethic meant.  When I graduated from Auburn with my M.S. degree I could calibrate a water faucet or a helicopter. I could walk through the woods and identify almost every plant you laid eyes on. I could also tell you what herbicide could be used to control that plant (weed). I truly would not be where I am today without his teachings and coaching. He made me a better man not only a smart man. Thank you, Dr. Walker.  

What is the biggest mistake you have made and what did you learn from it?

I started my career with Monsanto and left after 7 years of service working with some of the smartest people I have ever been around or had the opportunity to be affiliated. I left at a time when Monsanto had offered me the opportunity to accept an International assignment and move to Asia and be country manager of the Asia Pacific region (Asia, Australia, Malaysia), but at that same time my Mom had to have emergency open heart surgery and my parents needed help at that time, so I changed my career path for that reason and left Monsanto and moved back to Alabama to help them out. In hindsight, I wished I could have stayed at Monsanto to see what my future may have held, but the lesson that I learned from this decision is to not look backward but rather focus on the opportunity that you are given and do the best that you can going forward. 

What is the biggest mistake that you see people or companies make?

I see companies that are successful despite themselves. This is more common than not where they have no long-term strategic plan, yet are making millions of dollars by just reacting to short-term decisions. Normally, this will catch up to success over time and be a downfall to companies at some point in their life cycle. A goal without a plan is nothing more than a wish. I am a firm believer in strategic planning utilizing smart people to help make inputs and decisions and then follow that plan or adapt to ensure success and profitability while minimizing risks.

As for as people and mistakes that they make, where do you start? Greed, complacency, lack of ethics, etc… Long term I see people and the culture of society changing, not only this industry. The invention of cell phones and social media has changed our society. The young people that are entering into this industry do not have social skills or the ability to carry on a conversation and have a relationship as we have known in this industry for decades. This industry has been built on relationships. This is a problem in my opinion. This industry is very relationship focused, but these young folks are jeopardizing these relationships and making purchases online instead of from a sales rep, etc… which will change this business greatly in the long term.

What is the best way to have happy customers?

The best way to keep customers happy is to be honest and truthful and offer them value. Value being service, agronomic support, problem-solving, or whatever they deem as helping support them to be more successful. The old saying that the customer is always right is “right”. My goal is to always be responsive to a customer’s needs and tell them the absolute truth always, even if the consequences of that truth may affect short-term business but in the long run, they will respect the truth. 

What is the best way to drive profitability?

The best way to drive profitability to offer value to your customers. If your customers are more successful and/or profitability due to their relationship with you and what you provide to them, then they will continue to do business with you and it is a “win-win” relationship. Some customers are simply price shoppers and do not appreciate or recognize what value is in terms of service or support. You must offer some value to your customers or they could simply order your product(s) from the internet or a catalog. 

What is the best way to drive growth?

Innovation and new technology drives growth. Unfortunately, we have not had very much if any new innovation in the turf industry.  Our industry has become “flat” in that most all pesticides are off patent and even though we have national brands, it is rapidly becoming a commodity-driven industry. That is not good as the margin is being taken out of the business. 

What is one thing that differentiates you or your company from the competition?

For me personally, what differentiates me from others in this industry is that I have worked on every facet of the turfgrass industry. I have worked in academia, basic pesticide manufacturer, basic fertilizer technology manufacturer, turfgrass seed, golf course/sportturf construction, pesticide distribution, fertilizer formulation/blending, and end user (customer).

What’s the most exciting thing that you see in the future of the green industry?

I see opportunity in the future to separate yourself from competitors given the regulations that will be coming forth. Water and labor are going to be the two biggest challenges but by being smarter than your competitors on how to utilize products to replace labor and conserve water usage, then you are going to be of value to the industry and customers. 

What is the most important attribute of a leader?

Obviously, there are many attributes of a good leader and I don’t know if I can just come up with one.  In my opinion, a great leader is someone that can focus on what is important and not “major in the minors” as I call it so that they can set clear direction for the company and team. A great leader also motivates their employees and allows them to do their jobs and offers them support to grow and get better with positive critique and feedback.  A leader also must be a good listener and communicator to make sure employees understand the “plan” but more importantly so that employees can feel comfortable being open and honest with you in their communication and feedback. Lastly, would be to be humble. Give credit where credit is due to the employees and team that are making the business work. The spokes are the most important part of keeping a wheel together so rather than giving credit to the tire, each spoke should be recognized. 

If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice when you were just starting your career, what would it be?

God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason. As I have matured, I have learned to be a better listener but if I could go back and start over I would have certainly listened a lot more before I commented or spoke. 

What is one message that you would like to share with the world?

We are all truly blessed to be able to live in this amazing creation that God has allowed us to be a part of. My message to the World would be that everything we have, see, feel, touch or desire is God’s already. Everything is his and we are only being allowed to use it. So, give back to others and to him as it is not yours to start with!  Find peace in life and in knowing that.

What is your definition of Green Industry Greatness?

Finding passion in working in this industry to help individuals grow professionally and personally while building friendships.  

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