Breaking New Ground for the Future of Farming

John Deere Manager Nathan DeFord came to the Mergers and Acquisitions program to learn how to forge successful business alliances – and make farmers’ work easier.

June 24, 2024

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Nathan DeFord

Most businesses would agree: nothing is better than meeting your customers face to face. For John Deere manager Nathan DeFord, his Iowa neighbors — many of them farmers — are his customers.

“We’re talking about people that we run into at church, or in a restaurant, or on hunting expeditions,” he says. “I prioritize reaching our customers and understanding how their lives work — and what causes them to stay up at night. We work to enrich and simplify our customers’ lives and help them experience less pain or friction in their daily work.”

Nathan started out as a design engineer for GE Aviation in Florida. After a few years, he returned to his Midwest roots, taking a job with John Deere in 2006. He is now market insights manager — identifying opportunities for business growth by leading research focused on customer needs and preferences, technology advancements, and economic conditions.

John Deere is an iconic brand synonymous with tractors, dozers, and other farming and off-road vehicles and machines. Now, advances in technology present new opportunities to streamline farming practices. Much of Nathan’s market research focuses on expanding use of renewable energy in John Deere’s agricultural equipment, enabling farmers to use more biofuels that originate in their fields.

“John Deere has become more focused on developing software-based innovation to enhance the value of our equipment,” says Nathan. For example, he points to sprayer machines equipped with cameras and artificial intelligence (AI) to help farmers target weeds with greater precision, reducing the amount of herbicides used. “We want to help customers do more with fewer inputs like herbicides, fertilizers, and tillage work,” he notes, with the goal of saving them time and money.

Nathan has become more interested in establishing external partnerships to expedite John Deere’s technology development and capabilities. With an MBA and an MS in finance under his belt, he wanted to dig deeper into mergers and acquisitions (M&A) and business strategy. “I wanted to be seen as a leader who can set a vision for how M&A can help the company reach its goals. That’s when I decided to dive in.”

After doing some research, Nathan discovered the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) Executive Education program Mergers and Acquisitions.

The Makings of a Successful M&A Strategy

Nathan came into the one-week, on-campus program to learn more about successful business deals and negotiations, or as he puts it, “To gain knowledge and expertise about key ingredients for successful M&A activities, with visibility into steps in the deal-making process. How do you initiate dialogue and convey interest and earnestness without conceding too much negotiating leverage?” Nathan learned about all these topics, and more.

The curriculum covers why the majority of M&A transactions fail to provide the expected benefits — while revealing tactics and strategies behind those that succeed. Sessions on financial valuation and strategy built on Nathan’s previous education and experience, while sessions on negotiating demonstrated how to understand potential partners’ needs and craft value-creating proposals. The program includes an M&A Team Simulation Project, providing hands-on experience for participants to apply the skills they’ve learned throughout the week.

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If there's a specific conundrum you're facing, bring that to Stanford. You'd be surprised how they can help you identify multiple paths forward as you try to solve that problem.
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Nathan DeFord

“I’ve been on multiple college campuses throughout my lifetime, but I never saw the same level of interest or passion for learning among faculty and students as I did at Stanford,” Nathan notes. “The faculty’s insight and expertise, combined with their approachability, showed their genuine desire to be among students and strike up conversations at lunch, dinner, or after classes. Every lecturer put their email and phone number out there so we could stay in touch.”

Nathan enjoyed his time in Silicon Valley and learning with business leaders from other industries around the world. “There was a broad mix of people, with backgrounds not typically encountered in the Midwest,” he says. What’s more, Nathan says he appreciated the welcoming atmosphere and engaging learning environment. “Stanford didn’t try to cut corners,” he says. “They focus on hospitality. The food was exceptional!”

Laying the Groundwork to Become an M&A Leader

“Making M&A more of a central focus in my day-to-day work is still my goal,” Nathan shares. The program gave him the inside knowledge and tools to develop his negotiation skills and strategic outlook, as he seeks to help John Deere innovate and meet customers’ challenges — for the good of farmers, consumers, and the environment.

To other students considering the M&A program, Nathan says, “It’s a week you won’t forget. It exceeded my expectations in every way. Investing in your learning over your lifetime is key. There’s a high level of energy and breaking frontiers when it comes to innovation. The on-campus experience reinforced my goals 100 percent.”

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