Water Street Solutions: Putting the Farmer First

by Stevie Sigan

Becky and Darren Frye are committed to the American farmer. Their company, Water Street Solutions, has grown from two employees to 85 by fostering a unique culture that encourages employees to build lasting relationships with their clients.

American farmers are the most important people in the world, Becky Frye declares. She and her husband’s business, Water Street Solutions, is a testament to that belief. The company employs a team of experts in ag finance, crop insurance, commodity marketing and legacy planning, working together to tailor plans to help farmers with profitability, business strategies and estate planning.

“Farmers love to put the crop into the ground… [and] watch it grow. They love to be out there doing the manual labor,” Becky explains. “The bookkeeping…and business aspect is not always what they enjoy, so we come along beside them and give them advice on some of those things they’re not as passionate about.”

A Farming Start
Darren Frye, company president and CEO, grew up on a large farm on the current site of The Shoppes at Grand Prairie in north Peoria, where his father, Warren, pursued a passion for poultry. At its peak, the Frye family farm harbored 30,000 chickens that laid 22,000 eggs a day, all sold direct out of the property. The farm was also known for its turkeys. Back in the day, the Pabst brewery would gift one to each of its employees every Thanksgiving.

“We always thought we’d be on the family farm, but Darren’s passion was production agriculture. [He] loved the corn and the soybeans and running the tractors and working in the dirt—but his dad never wanted to expand that aspect of the farm... His dad’s love was poultry,” Becky explains.

So Darren pursued his passion, and with his high-school-sweetheart-turned-wife, Becky, at his side, he started a business in 1987, working as a dealer selling fertilizer products. The company prospered, and Darren’s 65 clients would often ask his advice on what the markets were doing, and how they should approach business. After several clients suggestions—“You seem to be good at this… Why don’t you start a marketing company?”—Darren’s tinkering in the markets became a serious endeavor in 1994.

“We started on the marketing side of things… giving [farmers] advice on when to buy the crop, when to sell, and all the tools they needed for doing that better,” Becky explains. “The evolution of the business has been that in order to help sell their corn and beans, we knew we needed to understand their financial picture, so we now have a whole team of ag finance specialists that run financial analyses for our clients.”

Bridging the Gap
To Becky, it’s simple. “What does the farmer need? How can we help them get better at what they do?” she states. “A lot of times a farmer will tell you, ‘This is my break-even.’ But they’re only figuring the cost of what it takes to put the crop in the ground—fertilizer, seed, chemicals—those costs. But since that’s their livelihood as well, they usually don’t figure their family living, depreciation or equipment… into the actual cost.”

Through feasibility studies, Water Street Solutions assesses how the purchase of land will affect farmers’ overall financial statements, if and how to make cash flow decisions, and the possible risks and benefits of their decision-making. “As soon as we brought the feasibility piece into the picture, we could actually know: we need to sell the crop for this much to be able to make them profitable. Then we also brought in crop insurance, because that’s their risk protection.”

With a second office in Nebraska and clients across the Midwest, Water Street Solutions hosts regular client events featuring educational workshops on a variety of topics including communication, HR, risk management and increasingly, estate planning. The company’s newest service line, the estate planning division, assists farmers in creating a transition plan for the next generation.

“Just to sit down and facilitate those conversations is hugely valuable,” Becky says. “It’s one of those things people always say, ‘I’ll do later,’…but when there’s farm land involved and a [need to] transition it estate-wise…to actually get things down on paper, filed like they need to be, and to get a plan made is huge.”

Instilling Core Values
Becky officially joined the company in 1995, learning the financial side of the business and taking charge of bookkeeping. But her real passion is in shaping the culture of the company.

Water Street Solutions is not unique in designating a set of core values. What sets them apart, however, is their total devotion to the cause. When COO Mike Gustafson came aboard in 2011, for example, he told Becky that in all his experience working with Fortune 500 clients as a senior manager for Ernst & Young, he had never seen a company as committed to putting the client at the top of its pyramid of priorities. It would always be a company’s starting goal, but behind closed doors, he’d see strategies shift toward improving the bottom line. Becky and Darren refuse to let that be the case. Their belief is that by putting the farmer first, profits will follow.

Becky speaks of the company’s seven core values with a contagious enthusiasm. “Passion, integrity, commitment, loyalty, courage, and two that I don’t think you’ll find on many company lists,” she says. “Stewardship and servant leadership. “What those values breed is a culture that doesn’t reward politicking, backbiting or stepping on people to get where you want to go,” she explains. “It breeds a culture that says ‘We’re in this together, and you’d better help the people around you to get where they want to go to, because then the team is so much stronger.’”

In an effort to put forth this agenda, Becky created an intensive six-month orientation plan for all new employees. The guidelines mandate that every individual, regardless of position or rank, sit across the table from a farmer within their first few weeks on the job, because “there’s no better way for them to understand the impact of what we do.

“I tell all our new employees that I am the ‘guardian keeper of our culture.’ We put a lot of time into being very deliberate in protecting our core values and making sure people align with [them] and believe the same things we do. It makes for a great working environment,” she says.

Also among the new employee agenda: a homemade dinner at the Frye house. She believes this, too, promotes the family atmosphere on which the company prides itself.

All in the Family
In spite of the family-oriented goals of their own company, Darren and Becky have always encouraged their two children to pursue their own dreams, whether related to the business or not. But eventually, both daughter and son chose to join the company…and the company chose them. Becky ensured both stood on their own merits and passed the company's rigorous interview process to land their jobs.

Though Becky believes each family member’s role within the company complements each other, their vision for the line of succession for Water Street Solutions will likely be to develop an employee stock ownership plan, or ESOP.

“My husband and I are the ones who started the business, but it will probably not be our children who take it on. Our daughter has a great passion for her clients, but not necessarily to run the business. Those are two very different things. And our son is in crop insurance, [and] his passion is educating people….a CEO’s seat is so different than that.”

In 2008, faced with growth, the Fryes made the move to clarify their mission statement and vision. “We realized we had to say, ‘Decisions will be made on these core values. These must be our foundation, and we will never do anything—a strategy of the company, a promotion, anything—that violates these. This is where we hang our hat.’”

The vision: Sought after advisors empowering every farmer to fulfill their legacy. The ten words echo throughout the open structure of the renovated Water Street warehouse building, physically etched into the walls and internally infused by the company’s ‘guardian of culture.’ Here, the farmer reigns. »The company lives by Darren’s father’s motto: “If you take care of people, you’ll always have everything you need.” iBi

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