Serving as the CEO of a farmer-led nonprofit organization is never easy. But Ryan Findlay’s termination after a little more than two years as the CEO of the American Soybean Association has proven to be a head-scratcher in many ways.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon in late June, an industry source texted Agri-Pulse with this: “Did you know that Ryan is out at ASA?” Our team proceeded to check with other sources and break the story. But there was no explanation about why Findlay’s contract was terminated by the American Soybean Association after serving about 28 months on the job. Their previous CEO, Steve Censky, served as CEO for 21 years before being tapped to serve as the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture.
In a statement to Agri-Pulse, an ASA spokesperson said the group’s board of directors “is appreciative of Ryan Findlay’s dedication to and hard work on behalf of the soybean industry.” In another text, ASA President Bill Gordon said he couldn’t comment.
However, since that time, numerous industry sources have contacted Agri-Pulse to provide additional detail and background about Findlay’s termination and a series of decisions that are still creating controversy within the soybean “family.” Multiple sources spoke frankly about the situation under the condition of anonymity. Some were warned that both their computers and cell phones could be subpoenaed if they talked to the media. Findlay did not respond to our request for comment.
In a statement emailed to Agri-Pulse, ASA noted: "The privacy of ASA’s present and prior staff is paramount; therefore, ASA declines to comment."
Findlay was selected by the full ASA board in February of 2018 after the organization hired a search firm and went through an extensive selection process. The Michigan native worked for the Michigan Farm Bureau for several years before joining Syngenta to work on regulatory issues. At the time he was hired, the ASA President was John Heisdorffer, a soybean producer from Keota, Iowa. In 2019, Kentucky farmer Davie Stephens became president, followed by Minnesota farmer Bill Gordon in 2020.
Sources say Findlay (pictured above) started off strong and had good relationships with his farmer-led governing committee during his early months on the job. But in 2019, it became obvious that his style of operating was dramatically different from that of incoming president Bill Gordon.
“They were like oil and water,” noted an industry source.
Gordon is a fourth-generation farmer who also owns Worthington Tax and Business Services. He became frustrated with Findlay for not following through on all of the initiatives and directions expressed by the governing committee. On at least one issue, Gordon accused Findlay of misconstruing the facts.
Complicating the relationship between the farmer president and the CEO was an incident during the summer of 2019. In front of a group of men and women, Gordon told a story that he apparently thought was humorous. However, multiple people in the same room said they were uncomfortable with the story. These individuals reported Gordon's behavior to Findlay, who called for an investigation.
“As the CEO, he had to do something,” noted a soybean leader. “If an individual would come back and say — I brought it to Ryan and he did nothing — then he would have been liable.”
Another industry source who has worked in agriculture for many years told Agri-Pulse that Findlay needed to take action regarding the alleged improper behavior so women who work at ASA understand there is no place for such activity.
“Good God, it’s 2020. You should not be afraid to come forward with your concerns,” our source emphasized. “Especially for younger women in agriculture, we can’t have them be hesitant or nervous about speaking up.”
“I was very disappointed and mad that he (Gordon) didn’t seem to take the incident seriously,” the source added.
Findlay conducted an investigation with the help of a human resources firm and attorney, which resulted in a letter of reprimand for Gordon, who also apologized. At the December 2019 board meeting, an individual was brought in to talk to the full board about sexual harassment and diversity training.
“In my opinion, that’s the root of why Ryan was fired by Bill,” the industry source explained. “You can’t put processes and procedures in place and have them followed and then have that type of retaliatory outcome. That’s what we are trying to avoid.”
However, the decision was not Gordon’s alone. The eight-member governing committee voted to terminate Findlay, but the vote margin was not reported. Two separate sources said it was a split vote, 5-3.
Reached by Agri-Pulse to discuss the situation, an ASA board member immediately said “that’s a question for Bill Gordon” as soon as Findlay’s termination was brought up.
After Gordon became president in December of 2019, he worked with Findlay on numerous initiatives, including standing up the organization’s new D.C. office staff. Findlay had told Gordon that he could probably have the office up and running with a new team within six months, but the process of finding the right people took longer.
The delay frustrated Gordon, along with several other issues, according to sources he briefed. He compiled a list of concerns over things that either his CEO had not done correctly or needed to work on — dating back to the early months of Findlay’s career at ASA, even before Gordon became president. The list grew to three pages and was circulated to the governing committee, which had nine members at the time. One farmer described it as a “Personal Improvement Plan” but another thought that many of the items were “petty.”
“Ryan had his faults but, in my opinion, this was just a way to nitpick,” noted the source, who added that the new CEO was not originally given a chance to respond to the list.
One member of the nine-member governing committee, Ohio farmer Bret Davis, expressed concerns about how Findlay was being treated and the items on the three-page list. He contacted John Heisdorffer, the ASA President when Findlay was hired and a fellow board member, and Ron Moore, an Illinois farmer and former ASA president who led the ASA search committee that recommended Findlay, to discuss his concerns and to verify some of the items that were listed. He shared the list with Moore, who also served on the ASA board.
Sharing the internal document about the CEO’s performance outraged Gordon and some of the other governing board committee members. There was an effort to remove both Davis and Moore from the board. Both remain, but Davis was removed from the governing committee and Moore was removed from the Commodity Classic committee. An effort to reinstate both of them to their previous positions failed during the most recent board meeting in July, which was a closed session. Heisdorffer was not reprimanded.
Eventually, the governing committee agreed to hire someone to work as a coach and help Findlay improve as a CEO.
This “coach” reportedly told at least one farmer leader that Findlay was making good progress on the personal improvement plan by May of 2020.
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However, in June, an industry leader was contacted by Gordon to be updated on how ASA was doing on a variety of initiatives. During that call, the individual said Gordon referred to one of the individuals who originally complained about Gordon’s story by name — a clear violation of human resources protocol for handling complaints regarding any type of sexual harassment. This individual reported the conversation to Findlay, who shared it with the governing committee.
Gordon denied that he shared the complainant’s name, according to industry sources.
The governing committee voted to terminate Findlay's employment later in June.
Some state leaders have called for a more transparent discussion about the entire process for terminating governing committee members and hiring and firing staff — especially now that an official search for the next CEO is underway.
Findlay did not respond to requests to comment on his performance or tenure at the helm of ASA. Sources report that he did not originally accept a four-month severance payment that was initially offered. ASA would not confirm or deny that a settlement has been reached.
One state soybean executive described Findlay as a “good, honorable person” but “I know how easy it is for an association staff person to get sideways with a farmer leader.”
Editor's note: Spencer Chase contributed to this article.
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