Answering the Call(s)

Ag Engineer goes from the middle of nowhere to the middle of the tech universe.

John Deere & Blue River Technology

In 2017, Ben Poutré received a call that had all the earmarks of a prank. There was a job offer, but the caller couldn’t say exactly what the job was. Or whom Ben would be working for. Or even where he’d be working. Still, in a career filled with good calls, not hanging up on this one may be the best move he’s ever made.

Benoit “Ben” Poutré grew up about 15 miles north of the U.S. border in French-speaking Québec in a village called Saint-Ignace-de-Stanbridge. Population: 800.

Ben Poutré joined John Deere in 1999 after a call from his former college professor turned Deere employee.

Though from a small farming community, Poutré had big ambitions.

From an early age, for example, he knew he wanted to become an agricultural engineer. But even his loftiest ambitions didn’t include working for John Deere, a company determined to revolutionize not just agriculture, but all the industries it participates in.

“I’ve always liked solving problems,” said Poutré. “I love science and math, and I had fun going to school. I think I’ve always liked to learn.”

Poutré grew up on his parents’ farm, surrounded by relatives who also farm.

“Beyond family, which was our foundation, I was really focused on three things growing up,” Poutré recalled. “One was school. Number two was farming. And number three was hockey.”

Ah, hockey — the Canadian national sport. And national obsession. Poutré played competitive winter and spring hockey throughout his youth, through his junior years, and at the major college level.

He earned his agricultural engineering degree at Université Laval in Québec City. During college, Poutré worked summers on the farm and consulted for a couple engineering firms, working on developing swine buildings, dairy housing, and similar projects. He seemed destined for a life in rural Québec.

Call No. 1 — Come to Deere

Carol Plouffe works for Deere and had been one of Poutré’s professors at Université Laval in the 1990s.

“He gave me a call,” Poutré said, “and he told me, ‘Ben, I’d like to give you a chance here at the Technical Center.’ We had a good relationship in college, so he knew my background, my skills. Carol told me, ‘I think you’d be a good fit for Deere.’”

Poutré and the Blue River team are helping to deliver the next generation of smart agricultural equipment.

That call came in 1999. When he arrived at Deere, Poutré barely spoke any English, but he actually turned this to his advantage.

While learning English on the job, he overcame the language gap by paying close attention to others’ body language. Today, the skill he developed to quickly “read” a roomful of people is still an important supplement to his English, which is now fluent, though, he admits, noticeably accented with his native Québécois.

At the Technical Center (which later became the Moline Technology & Innovation Center), he focused on soil dynamics and high-speed tillage, or what Poutré described as designing tillage equipment to go faster without throwing soil in the neighbor’s yard.

“To be 100 percent honest,” Poutré admitted, “my goal was to work with Deere for maybe five years and then go back home to farm.”

That was before the second call.

Call No. 2 — Come to Des Moines

Poutré’s work at the Moline Technical Center focused on research and was very science-driven, but he began wanting to do work that produced more immediate, tangible results.

“This was a great learning experience for me. I was on a very small team, which means we all did a lot of things, not just engineering. We did our own testing, sourced components, talked with suppliers, and supported manufacturing. It was almost like a multi-discipline role, which was a catalyst for my career growth.” —Ben Poutré

“I wanted to do something where I could go to a dealership and say, ‘I actually worked on this, I can actually buy it,’” Poutré said. “So when I got a call offering me a job in tillage, I took it.”

The job took him to John Deere Des Moines Works (Iowa), where he spent nearly five years as a tillage design engineer focused on improving ground-engaging components.

“This was a great learning experience for me,” Poutré said. “I was on a very small team, which means we all did a lot of things, not just engineering. We did our own testing, sourced components, talked with suppliers, and supported manufacturing. It was almost like a multi-discipline role, which was a catalyst for my career growth.”

Call No. 3 —  Come to the factory floor

A Des Moines Works factory business unit manager noticed Poutré’s outgoing personality and leadership skills and in late 2005 proposed he move from engineering to supervising factory production.

In that new role, Poutré oversaw machining, welding, painting, and assembly — a real cross section of the factory — and that experience helped teach him how to arrange matters not just for manufacturing, but also for a business.

“I’ve always enjoyed being part of highly aligned teams,” Poutré said. “Being on the shop floor, leading a group of employees in making the best machines in the world, was an outstanding experience. Keeping them inspired and motivated was a new challenge and another important building block to my leadership growth.”

Call No. 4 — Come to Waterloo

In 2007, Poutré received a call from another friend.

“I was asked if I was interested in going to Waterloo, Iowa, for a while,” said Poutré. “I went to John Deere Waterloo Works to work in manufacturing engineering on new product programs. We did a lot of great things to transform the factory.”

In this current role, Poutré plays a critical role connecting John Deere's Ag division and Blue River Technology, which was acquired in 2017.

While there, he collaborated with a Deere engineering team in Mannheim, Germany, on the 7MW tractor line, which became the 6R tractor, designed in Mannheim and produced in Mannheim and Waterloo.

A year later, Poutré returned to school — remember, one of his three favorite things — joining the executive MBA program at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

“That was remarkable,” Poutré said of the experience. “I was the only participant from Deere, and learned from working with different folks from different companies, which really helped me synthesize what I knew already from engineering with what I would need to know about management and business to move forward in my leadership role.”

In 2009, when Deere reorganized its Ag & Turf Division into a global management and manufacturing structure, Poutré was appointed factory engineering manager for the Waterloo tractor cab and assembly operations.

“That was remarkable. I was the only participant from Deere, and learned from working with different folks from different companies, which really helped me synthesize what I knew already from engineering with what I would need to know about management and business to move forward in my leadership role.” —Ben Poutré

“For me, it was quite an honor to be the first person to be named in that position,” he said. In this expanded role, he was responsible for all tractor cab engineering and assembly operations in Waterloo, with about 100 engineers working for him.

“I had a good time and still have some very good friends there and in the Bruchsal and Mannheim [Germany] factories,” Poutré said.

During this time of rapid overseas growth at the company, he was supporting tractor operations in Russia and Brazil. Poutré also spent time in Brazil as a member of Deere’s inaugural Inspiring Leadership Program.

“Eight of us were in the middle of nowhere in Brazil for a month and a half,” he said. “We were there to help the local community on several projects to help make their lives better.”

Call No. 5 — Come back to Des Moines

In 2012, Poutré received a call asking him to come back to lead the sprayer operations at Des Moines Works, where Deere was expanding the factory to accommodate rapid growth in its sprayer product line.

“Working on sprayer operations was one of my favorite roles,” Poutré said. “We had impressive teams working on three shifts. I learned a lot from them. Being part of a brand-new building is quite unusual, so I was very pleased to be there, to be able to put my fingerprint on how the factory should be designed and run.”

Call No. 6 — Come join global sprayer R&D

“My favorite parts of the job were empowering a diverse global program management staff and leading cross-functional teams to ultimately delight our customers and continually grow our global sprayer product line.” —Ben Poutré

Following his stint in sprayer operations, in 2015 Poutré answered another phone call.

This time he was asked to lead current and future product development programs for the global sprayer product line. The role not only gave him the opportunity to demonstrate leadership skills in high-risk situations, but also allowed him to make decisions that improved overall work. His team of program managers was spread across the U.S., Brazil, and the Netherlands.

“I strongly believe we achieved results that had major impacts on the global sprayer product line and overall crop care platform,” Poutré said. “My favorite parts of the job were empowering a diverse global program management staff and leading cross-functional teams to ultimately delight our customers and continually grow our global sprayer product line.”

Call No. 7 — Come to . . . well, we’ll tell you later

Then in 2017, “Someone I have a lot of trust in at John Deere gave me a call,” Poutré said. “For a while, I just listened, trying to put the pieces together. I’ve been so blessed at Deere, often getting the opportunity to be part of something new. I knew that this could be something that would revolutionize the way our customers work.”

What he said “yes” to was basically a roll of the dice. Deere was offering to acquire Silicon Valley-based Blue River Technology, but securities law prohibits parties to an acquisition from sharing any details beyond a small circle of people who negotiate the terms and conduct due diligence.

Deere completed the acquisition in September 2017, and saying “yes” to the ambiguous phone call made Poutré manager of Blue River Technology Success. His experience working on a farm, as well as his experiences at Deere in engineering, research, manufacturing, operations, leadership, and global teams, gave him the right background to help the integration succeed.

“I would describe my role as a bi-directional, semi-permeable membrane,” said Poutré, always the engineer. “Deere pretty much acquired a bunch of super-smart people with unique skillsets working on super-complex problems to make their customers more efficient and more productive. I’ve created the ‘Blue River Success Team’ — two Deere individuals at Blue River in Sunnyvale, California, and two at Deere’s Intelligent Solutions Group in Urbandale, Iowa — to help make certain Deere and Blue River maximize what they learn from each other and minimize the distractions.”

It’s extremely important that his success team lives up to its name. Each year, companies around the world spend about $2 trillion on acquisitions, but a recent Harvard Business School report estimates the failure rate among these acquisitions may be as high as 90 percent. It made perfect sense, then, for Deere to put Poutré in charge of protecting its investment in Blue River, ensuring the company would be among the 10 percent of acquisitions that succeed.

One danger is that Blue River’s work will be irresistibly fascinating to Deere employees.

“I want to avoid what’s called ‘Silicon Valley Tourism,’” Poutré said. Imagine having Albert Einstein join your research team. If everyone who wanted his help was given access to him, he’d never get any of his primary work done.

“Deere has around 70,000 employees, and that represents a lot of potential growth Blue River isn’t yet ready for,” Poutré said. “The intentions are always positive, always good. But a big part of my role is making sure we collaborate at the right level and on the right projects. I have to say ‘no’ a lot. That’s been a big part of my job, which sometimes is not easy to do.”

Poutré and his family enjoy spending time in the outdoors.

But the “yesses” — the positives — are by far the biggest and most important part of his unusual job. And the most satisfying.

“Both Deere and Blue River have super-smart folks working on complex problems, so there are great, great conversations to be had,” Poutré said. “We’re trying to protect, extend, and improve the culture and employee environment at Blue River. At the same time, we’re trying to create this great connection between John Deere and Blue River. If we succeed at those two things, we’re going to make both companies hyper‑successful.”

Blue River CEO Jorge Heraud appreciates Poutré’s help. “Ben is a good listener and a passionate individual, and he’s been a key to leveraging the best parts Deere and Blue River have to offer.

“On one hand, he has taken the time to get to know Blue River, and now he understands how we work, how we innovate, and how our culture supports our work.” Heraud said. “On the other hand, he is very experienced in how Deere’s processes and people work and how best to get things accomplished. Ben protects Blue River’s culture while allowing us to leverage Deere. He has an operations mindset and can quickly create simple and effective plans where no area gets overlooked. And he has a healthy bias for action.”

Call No. ?

At the same time Blue River’s 60 or so employees were adjusting to life after being acquired by John Deere, Poutré was adjusting to life after moving from Iowa to California, where the rent on his San Jose apartment caused a bit of sticker shock.

Poutré shows his sons the fine art of snowmobiling.

“Based on the dramatically higher cost of living,” he said, “being in California sometimes feels like having an expat assignment in the U.S.” Nevertheless, he said, “it’s been a great learning experience.”

Great, though tiring. On average, he spends most weekdays working from his office in Sunnyvale and then flies back to Iowa on the weekend to spend time with his wife and their three young boys: a 10-year-old and eight-year-old twins. The 10-year-old and one of the twins excel at the third of Poutré’s favorite things — ice hockey.

This summer he’ll spend grueling hours at his job along with many hours at the rink, accompanying his eight-year-old son, along with his family, to elite tournaments in Toronto, Boston, Chicago, and Vancouver. All five Poutrés enjoy sports, as family photos are heavily weighted toward snowmobiling, snow skiing, boating, and hockey outings.

And it all started with a phone call from a one-time college professor.

“That’s how I ended up where I am today,” Poutré reflected. “I truly enjoy serving as a trusted advisor to the Blue River leadership team. Deere has been nothing but great to me in terms of helping me grow both professionally and personally. As I’ve said numerous times, I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.”

And now, after working at Deere for 20 years and having an American wife and U.S.-born children, Poutré wonders whether his early dream to return to Québec to work on the family farm will be deferred indefinitely.

“Whenever we go to visit my parents,” Poutré said, “they ask, ‘You’re not coming back, are you?’ It’s bittersweet. But they appreciate what I do at Deere and they know how much I love my job and the life I have created with my family.”

Poutré has devoted his professional life to being ready to take the next phone call. But at the moment, he’s having too much fun to take the call to return to the farm in Saint-Ignace-de-Stanbridge.

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Answering the Call(s)

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