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

Fireworks in the night sky.

A New Millennium Begins

On January 1, 2000, the world celebrated the start of the new millennium  though some would say the party came a year too early. But early or not, the 21st century was upon us. 

Fireworks lit up the skyas the world held its breath to see if computers would crash as the date turned from 1999 to the year 2000Fortunately, the Y2K bug didn’t bite, and all was well … with our computers, that is

All was not well with the U.S. presidential election. The outcome was embroiled in controversy and it took a Supreme Court decision to determine that George W. Bush would become the 43rd president in January, 2001. Later that year, the world would mourn as nearly 3,000 people lost their lives in terrorist attacks in the U.S. on September 11thStill later in the decade, Barack Obama would become the first African American U.S. president in 2009.

Globally, China and India were experiencing rapid economic growth in the 2000s. But Asia also faced devastation after a massive 2004 earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean, which impacted several countries where Wilbur-Ellis does business (see sidebar). Wars erupted in Iraq and Afghanistan during the decade, and the Great Recession began, battering economies worldwide. 

On a happier notethere was new hope for curing disease, as human DNA was mapped in the largest international scientific project ever. The Apple iPhone came on the scene, launching a mobile revolution, and social media evolved from a novelty to part of everyday life. 

At Wilbur-Ellis, the 2000s was decade when the company celebrated momentous birthday, transitioned its top leadership twicedoubled revenues, and intensified its focus on technology and strategy.

Brayton Wilbur Sr. and the matriarch of the Wilbur family.

First, the celebration …

Mrs. Matilda “Dita” Wilbur was an extraordinary lady. Throughout her life, she saw the world – and a century of history – as the wife of company founder Brayton Wilbur Sr. (left) and the matriarch of the Wilbur family.

On September 17, 2000, the company joined with the Wilbur family in celebrating Mrs. Wilbur’s 100th birthday.

The “1930s – Through the Decades” writeup tells the story of Mrs. Wilbur’s birth in the Philippines in 1900 and the fascinating life that followed. On her 100th birthday, a story in WilCon Trader wished her well:

Mrs. Matilda “Dita” Wilbur.

“Now at age 100, Dita has experienced the entire 20th century, observing the changing times with interest and a lively sense of humor. ‘To go from horse-drawn carriages to jet airplanes is to have experienced great changes,’ she notes. As she reflects on the richness of her life, she continues to enjoy each new phase. Perhaps only one thing has remained unaltered: her love of family. And with 10 grandchildren and 14 great grandchildren, she is herself surrounded with love.”

On March 23, 2007, at the age of 106, Mrs. Wilbur passed away peacefully at her home in Hillsborough, California, where she had lived for over 50 years. And just as WilCon Trader marked Mrs. Wilbur’s centennial birthday, the publication also marked her passing, remembering her as “an inspiration.”

The Human Side of Business

Meet George John Poppin and read his letter to Wilbur-Ellis about a kindness in the 1930s that changed his life. Mr. Poppin’s letter is an inspiration, and a reminder about the human side of business.

Meet George John Poppin

CEO Herb Tully congratulates John Thacher.

CEO Herb Tully (left) congratulates John Thacher, who took over as CEO in 2006.

Transitions in leadership

The company’s transitions in leadership began in 2000, when Brayton Wilbur Jr., son of the company’s founder, stepped down as CEO after a dozen years, becoming Chairman of the Board of Directors. The new CEO, Herb Tully, had joined Wilbur-Ellis in 1981 and served as Controller, Treasurer and Chief Financial Officer before taking the top job.

Tully served as CEO for six years, until a second transition in 2006. That’s when John Thacher, the current Executive Chairman of the Board of Directors, became CEO – following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Brayton Wilbur Sr., his father, Carter Thacher, and his uncle, Brayton Wilbur Jr.

John Thacher came to Wilbur-Ellis with extensive business experience. Before joining the company in 2002 as Vice President of Strategic Planning and Business Development, he had a 25-year career with Cuvaison Winery in Napa Valley, including serving as its President. In 2005, he became Executive Vice President of Wilbur-Ellis, and rose to the CEO role the next year, a position he held until 2018.

Financially, the 2000s were a time of rapid growth for Wilbur-Ellis. Revenues more than doubled during the decade.

Rural highway.

A roadmap for the future

Financially, the 2000s were a time of rapid growth for Wilbur-Ellis. Revenues more than doubled during the decade, increasing from $1 billion to $2.2 billion. That trajectory has continued, with annual revenues of over $3 billion today.

Acquisitions also continued during the 2000s, including: the John Pryor Company (retail fertilizer), Helm Fertilizer, Woodburn Fertilizer, Ag Supply, Ripon Farm Service, Knox McDaniel Company, Western Feed Supplements, Fauna Industries, Sutter Trading, Alberta Timothy, Integra Fortified Seed, Olson Seed, Northern Star Chemicals, Schall Chemical Supply, Barnett Chemicals Australia, Nexus Ag Chemicals, Gulf Chemicals – Malaysia, Ag Flight, Smith Air and Muckel’s Aerial – to name a few. (See acquisition timeline)

The company also took steps to formalize its support of communities where Wilbur-Ellis employees live and work. In 2004, the Impact Fund was created, and since then $7 million has been donated to local community organizations chosen by employees worldwide.

But of all the changes the new millennium brought, an intensified focus on technology and strategy were among the most important.

Helping in Times of Trouble

On Dec. 26, 2004, a devastating earthquake (over 9.0 in magnitude) and tsunami in the Indian Ocean caused massive destruction in Asia – including countries where Connell does business. Read about how Wilbur-Ellis provided support during this time of trouble.

Wilbur-Ellis Providing Help

Digital data with hand.

Advancements Through Technology

In 2001, Wilbur-Ellis took a major step toward a common information technology infrastructure, investing in a companywide program called SMART (Strategic Mobilization of Assets Through Re-Engineering and New Technologies).

With SMART, JD Edwards Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software was implemented across the divisions. ERP software integrates and automates major business processes, providing a common shared database and real-time information access.

When the new technology was introduced, it was clear the investment would be substantial. At the time, the cost was estimated at $20 million. But the benefits were substantial, too. This new infrastructure would provide improved customer service, more efficient inventory procurement and management, enhanced processing and accounting systems, and better analytical tools and reports. The system would also bring consistency to the different platforms used by acquired companies.

With less paperwork, better information, and more effective business management tools, the goal was to spend less time on administrative and business management tasks and more time serving customers.

Compass pointing to word strategy.

Pursuing a Unified Strategy, as “One Wilbur-Ellis”

Another important change in the 2000s was a more unified company strategy.

In 2003 – for the first time – managers from all divisions came together to “learn, strategize and interact.” The One Company Meeting promoted a common understanding of where the company stood, where it was going, and how it would get there. Here are some highlights:

Where we stood – a position of strength

  • Financially, Wilbur-Ellis was well-positioned to grow earnings and returns in all divisions.
  • Agribusiness ranked among the top three U.S. distributors of fertilizer, crop protection chemicals and seed.
  • Nutrition was growing, with unique market-share niches, especially in the pre-mix and lambs-meal segments.
  • Connell had over two dozen locations, offering complete geographic coverage and extensive knowledge of local markets in Asia-Pacific.

Where we were going – growth and a unified strategy

  • Continued growth would be essential to success, and strategic acquisitions would play a big role. In the four years prior to the 2003 One Company Meeting, over $100 million had been invested in acquisitions.
  • In the past, managers functioned fairly autonomously, which worked well for its time. But going forward – in a time of consolidation, economic pressures and technological advancement – the company would pursue a more unified business strategy, in addition to regional and branch strategies. As CEO Herb Tully said after the meeting: “At Wilbur-Ellis, we truly are one company.”

How we’d get there – a future based on talent, knowledge and relationships

  • Wilbur-Ellis had an important advantage – the talent, knowledge and customer relationships of its people. This recognition increased the focus on hiring, developing and retaining top talent. With that in mind, in 2005 the company introduced the 20-20-20 Program, which recruited the best candidates from major agricultural schools. Another program was NextGen in 2006, which groomed young men and women to be outstanding salespeople.

When John Thacher became CEO in 2006 – three years after the One Company meeting – he reiterated the positive outlook: “Wilbur-Ellis is well-positioned to achieve consistent long-term earnings growth. We have momentum, capital, a solid infrastructure, a committed and supportive shareholder base, and remarkably talented people. Our success is due to the commitment and dedication of everyone in the company.”


Coming in April 2021

In our next installment of Wilbur-Ellis Through the Decades, we’ll look at 2010 to the present day. This period has been a time of new faces and initiatives, as well as a major global challenge – the COVID-19 pandemic.