No Substitute for Experience

CEOs are rarely given the opportunity to lead an organization for more than 10 years, according to Forbes. Despite these odds, Tim Lust has successfully helmed the National Sorghum Producers (NSP) for 25 years. Headquartered in Lubbock, Texas, NSP represents the interests of sorghum and its farmers. There have been big changes to the once little commodity. Sorghum is going places, and it’s because CEO Tim Lust was there.

Lust never expected to stay in the same place and after graduating from Angelo State University, he also got an MBA at Texas Tech University.

“I graduated at a time coming out of the ‘80s where the economy wasn’t very good,” Lust said. “I had a lot of education, and I thought I probably needed to use that somewhere outside for a year or 18 months before I went back home. And somewhere along the way, 25 years, I missed that turn, apparently.”

Lust said he is blessed to raise his family in West Texas and grateful he did not leave this part of the world.

“I have a 19-mile and 7-minute commute,” Lust said. “There’s not many execs in America that can say that.”

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Lust and his wife, Lea Ann, have been married for over 25 years and have two adult children.

Lea Ann Lust, wife of Tim Lust, is the senior director of system relations in the Office of the Chancellor at the Texas Tech University System. “He is a fantastic husband, and very much the leader of our home. A great father, and our boys adore him,” said Mrs. Lust.

Lust may not have gone to school specifically to lead an agricultural organization, but his goal at that time was to go back home and take over the family farming operation, which included sorghum.

“I came in on the research and marketing side, but obviously I also had a lot of practical experience with my family raising sorghum growing up,” Lust said. “We raised sorghum grain, sorghum silage, and sorghum seed. I had been exposed to all aspects of the industry.”

Lust started at NSP as the marketing and research director in 1993 and became CEO in 1998.

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The National Sorghum Producers and National Sorghum Checkoff Program are both headquartered in Lubbock, TX. Photo courtesy of National Sorghum Producers.

“I certainly had the opportunity to move into a leadership role at a young age,” Lust said. “That’s very humbling and allows you to be young and make a lot of mistakes and get away with it and be older and wiser by the time you get to where I am today.”

Lea Ann had great confidence in his ability when he became CEO of NSP. “Tim has always been a natural leader,” she said. “I knew he was going to be there for the long haul because he had a vision of what it could become. Tim is very focused. Once he took over I knew there was going to be some major changes.”

She said the previous CEO was a close friend of the couple and it was exciting to see Lust build on that position.

NSP Senior Policy Advisor, Chris Cogburn, has known Lust since childhood and has seen first-hand Lust’s leadership and the changes at the organization. Cogburn is also the manager of Sustainable Crop Insurance Services and was an NSP board member from 1998-2004.

“He [Lust] is very good with working with people, from a CEO standpoint, and understanding how different people need to interact. That is his key strength I believe,” Cogburn said.

Cogburn also said that a second of Lust’s key strengths was balancing his own job with the needs of the board of directors and employees.

“Cohesion doesn’t just happen…Tim works for that. Tim’s working to stick everyone together to make it better,” said Cogburn.

Facing Changes

Lust recalls just how much NSP has changed since he took over as CEO. The organization has changed in both structure and personnel, especially after the formation of the United Sorghum Checkoff Program (USCP), which celebrated its 10-year anniversary in 2018.

“When I first came here there were seven people doing all the functions,” Lust said.

Today at NSP and the USCP there are 25 people between the two different organizations. The new checkoff organization facilitated the centralization of state funds into one location in order to better execute sorghum research and market development.

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The National Sorghum Producers/United Sorghum Checkoff Program staff in 2011 working on the following year’s Farm Bill. Photo courtesy of National Sorghum Producers.

“Organizations, just like farms, have to continue to evolve over time to make sense,” Lust said. “This consolidated the programs and moved the majority of the dollars into a centralized pool with a board of directors that could really focus on bigger projects. If we wanted to do a million-dollar project prior to 2008, it was impossible. We had a couple of great opportunities, and we couldn’t get the resources together to do a project.”

Before any major projects could be started, the team working on the checkoff program evaluated sorghum and its reputation with producers and manufacturers. Since the introduction of the USCP, the attitudes and uses of sorghum have changed.

Focused on Sorghum

“Twenty-five years ago, [sorghum] was a cheap substitute, starch source,” Lust said. “No respect on many fronts. We’ve done a lot to change our customer base. Frankly, at the time, it was going to the lowest value uses that sorghum could go to.”

Since 2007, the crop’s value has increased.

After investigating the perception toward sorghum, Lust said USCP found the relatively non-existent image of sorghum could be shaped and molded into something completely new.

“Our thought process going in is that [sorghum] would probably have a bad image,” Lust said.

However, it was discovered that on the East and West coast there was no image of sorghum. With that lack of image, there was an ability to define and establish one in the food sector.

Part of sorghum’s appeal is its cold resistant quality and diverse food/beverage applications. In other parts of the world, sorghum is more widely grown and used for items like food.

Lust credits the early momentum to his staff which has evolved from seven to 25 people running two different entities. His leadership during 2008 was critical to the new organization’s success in campaign development. Lust was clearly proud of his staff both then and now.

Lead by example.

“It doesn’t really matter if you’re leading two people or 2,000 people, those basic [leadership] principles are the same,” Lust said. “Lead by example, do what you say you’re going to do, hold people accountable, and recognize and reward staff that do an amazing job.”

With the monetary resources in one place, the checkoff is now able to expand and tackle more issues in markets, trade, and policy.

“You had to pick your battles 25 years ago. Whereas today, we try to cover the waterfront. If it’s an issue related to sorghum, we try to be involved in it and try to improve the situation.”

Change has certainly been a staple of sorghum. It used to be the “red-headed stepchild of commodities” but now it’s a meaningful alternative to corn and wheat.

“When you have a focus and put a campaign behind it, you can certainly make a difference,” Lust said.

It’s clear Lust has to have a lot of patience to navigate the legislative and trade side of the commodity. He has some big things on his mind between the United States/Chinese trade conflict and his fourth farm bill coming up later this year.

“In the commodity organization business, it takes time to make change,” Lust said. “Being able to be here as long as I have, I’ve been able to see changes take place in our commodity, and changes take place in our organization. It’s very rewarding, in terms of knowing I’ve had a small part in helping make those things happen.”