100 Years and Growing: 100 Years and Innovating | 100 Years and Giving | 100 Years and Evolving

U.S. and Russian flags.

Growth, Innovation and Technology Highlight the 1990s

Globally, the 1990s was a time of relative peace and prosperity. The Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In just a few years, U.S.-Russia relations had thawed, and an American space shuttle docked with a Russian space station for the first time.

There were other breakthroughs, as well. The World Wide Web entered the mainstream, and by the end of the decade nearly 300 million people were using the Internet – beginning a new era in communication, entertainment and business.

But even in a decade of relative calm, the world was shocked when the U.S. experienced the worst act of domestic terrorism to date, with the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. Globally, there were also growing concerns about chaos erupting if the world’s computers crashed when 1999 turned to the year 2000. Work got underway to fix the Y2K bug … but it was a wait-and-see proposition.

Closer to home, Wilbur-Ellis continued its growth trajectory, making more acquisitions and looking for new ways to serve customers in an increasingly complex marketplace. In 1995, the company took a major step with an important new venture.

Keith Boyer.

Keith Boyer

The Birth of WILFARM

It was big … it was exciting … and the WilCon Trader captured the moment:

“We are pleased to announce that on January 6, 1995, the contract was signed to create one of the largest joint ventures ever created between a privately owned company and an independent grower cooperative – WILFARM L.L.C.”

The combined entity created one of the largest wholesale distributors of agricultural chemical inputs. It brought together more than 50 Farmland and Wilbur-Ellis wholesale distribution locations in more than 20 states in the central U.S. WILFARM provided wholesale distribution of cereal grain and row crop protection products to independent and cooperative retailers.

WILFARM also introduced branded, private-label products, including private-label seed and grain protection products, micronutrients, surfactants and adjuvants, and post-patent products, including atrazine and phenoxies.

The President and CEO of this new joint venture was Keith Boyer. And he summed up WILFARM’s potential. “WILFARM is a leaner, more effective distribution network that allows us to achieve significant efficiencies from our distribution and administrative operations. The joint venture expands our dealer services (including information services), strengthens our ability to assist retailers with regulatory compliance and business management, and escalates our leadership role in bringing new technology to the dealers.”

“WILFARM was one of the finest joint ventures the company has ever had.” – CEO Brayton Wilbur Jr.

With that, WILFARM took its place in Wilbur-Ellis history as “one of the finest joint ventures the company has ever had,” said Brayton Wilbur Jr., CEO from 1988 to 2000.

At the 1995 signing of the contract to create the WILFARM joint venture were, from left: CEO Brayton Wilbur Jr., Controller Bob Pantzer, Manager of Human Resources Ofelia Uriarte, and VP and Treasurer Herb Tully, who would become CEO in 2000.

At the 1995 signing of the contract to create the WILFARM joint venture were, from left: CEO Brayton Wilbur Jr., Controller Bob Pantzer, Manager of Human Resources Ofelia Uriarte, and VP and Treasurer Herb Tully, who would become CEO in 2000.



Insights from WILFARM

With so many acquisitions and expansions in the 1990s, some might ask why the WILFARM joint venture stood out. The answer is two-fold.

First, WILFARM was very successful. A financial report indicated that the venture delivered “excellent increases in sales and profits, exceeding expectations.” Second, WILFARM delivered cost efficiencies. And those savings were re-invested into the business, fueling continued growth.

But even with these benefits, like many business ventures, WILFARM eventually came to an end. In 2002, the joint venture dissolved when our joint venture partner, Farmland, became over-extended and filed for bankruptcy.

Although the joint venture ended, it provided valuable insights. WILFARM demonstrated that Wilbur-Ellis could expand its role in meeting customer needs – whether those needs are for more effective products and technology, information services, help with regulatory compliance, or business management.

Growth on Other Fronts

There were other important expansions in the 1990s as well, including John Taylor Fertilizers (a major crop protection service provider) and Soilserv (a supplier of pesticide application services), which played an important role in California and Arizona. Inman & Company (a manufacturer of vitamins, minerals, and feed supplements) and Willamette Seed (fertilizer) also joined the fold. See acquisition timeline.

Globally, the company expanded in Mexico’s fertilizer market, bought Harricros Chemical (paints and coatings in Singapore), expanded forage exports to Japan, Korea and Taiwan, and grew the Canadian feed trading business. Connell opened an office in Ho Chi Minh City, building on its position as the first U.S. trading and distribution company to be licensed in Vietnam since 1975, when the Vietnam War ended. With continued growth in Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand and India, Connell developed a business network across the Asia-Pacific region.

John Thacher (left), Ted Eliot (right)

“CEO Brayton Wilbur Jr. was determined to grow the business and was prepared to make some big bets,” said John Thacher, the current Executive Chairman of the Wilbur-Ellis Board of Directors, former CEO, grandson of company founder Brayton Wilbur Sr., and son of former CEO Carter Thacher. “I can’t overstate how big those bets were in terms of financial risk. But he was prepared to do that, and in hindsight, it was totally the right thing to do.”

Ted Eliot, who served as Connell’s President, said being a family-owned company may help explain Brayton Wilbur Jr.’s willingness to invest.

“Acquisitions have always been extremely important. It was part of the culture of invest and grow … take a risk … and look long-term. That’s a luxury, perhaps, that a family-owned business has over other businesses.”

A Clear Recognition – “Technology Is a Must”

As CEO, Brayton Wilbur Jr. described the business landscape of the 1990s: “Precision agriculture was becoming the norm, genetically bred and altered seeds were moving into the markets rapidly, generic chemicals were entering the market, and biotechnology was becoming more important,” he said.

“In the rapidly changing world of agriculture, the most advanced crop protection technology is a must for us to provide to our customers. This is what Wilbur-Ellis is all about.” – CEO Brayton Wilbur Jr.

With growing complexity, in 1998 he introduced a new mission for the company’s agriculture business. The mission was: “To provide the most advanced crop protection technology, with the goal of maximizing our customer’s return on investment.”

In a letter to employees, the CEO explained: “In the rapidly changing world of agriculture, the most advanced crop protection technology is a must for us to provide our customers. This is what Wilbur-Ellis is all about.”




New logo designs from the 1990s for Wilbur-Ellis and Connell Bros Company LTD. A division of Wilbur-Ellis Co.

New Logos: In 1992, the company introduced new logos – one for Wilbur-Ellis and a similar logo for Connell. The globe image signaled “the company’s unification, recent growth and future direction,” said CEO Brayton Wilbur Jr.


Wilbur-Ellis celebrating 75 years.

75th Anniversary: In 1996, the company celebrated its 75th anniversary. In a letter to employees, Chairman Carter Thacher and CEO Brayton Wilbur Jr. wrote:

“It is hard to envision that this company will change its philosophy or its management style in the years to come. The history of the company and its current culture are intertwined. We believe our future prosperity will depend on the dedication of our management, and particularly our employees in locations, big and small, who are comfortable with our style and share the core beliefs that are the underpinning of Wilbur-Ellis’ history.”

Headquarters Moves … A Little: In 1997, the headquarters of Wilbur-Ellis and Connell moved from 320 California Street to 345 California Street, our current headquarters location in San Francisco, California.

The move was only from one side of California Street to the other, but the move up was pretty dramatic – from the 2nd floor to the 27th floor, offering an expansive view of the “City by the Bay.”

Connell Celebrates Its 100th Year: In 1998, Connell celebrated its 100th anniversary.

Frank Brown, Connell’s President at the time, thanked employees and challenged them “to continue working together, and with our valued customers and suppliers, toward success in the 21st century.”

Group of Connell employees with a banner, Connell Bros. Company 1898-1998. "Looking towards the next hundred years.


Coming in March 2021

In our next installment of Wilbur-Ellis Through the Decades, we’ll look at the 2000s, a decade when technology, strategy and leadership transitions drove change.