Jeff Conner milked some dairy cows growing up. His dad thought it would teach him to wake up early and keep out of trouble. It worked. Today, he starts his days around 5 a.m. with a run. While he’s out on the pavement, he starts thinking about what he has to do that day. Around 6 or 7 a.m., he hits the pavement again. But this time in his truck, with miles and miles of road ahead.
Although Jeff currently calls Waco, Texas, home, he’s moved eight times in the past 18 years. Adapting to change comes with the territory. Speaking of, Jeff’s territory spans from Hillsboro to Austin. The landscape changes from hills and mesquite trees to coastal grasses and grazing pastures. Different terrains mean different customer needs. Jeff likes the variety. His 28 accounts, dealers (the businesses that sell feed to animal owners) and direct accounts (the animal owners themselves) rely on him. So, every day, he’s out there on the road.
Welcome to the life of a feed salesman for Purina Animal Nutrition. It’s a job Jeff started 30 years ago when, directly out of college, he signed on as a feed sales specialist with his local mill. It’s become a career—and a passion for helping his customers get great results.
Natural born salesman
Jeff was born in Oklahoma, but didn’t stay long. His dad was in the oil business, which meant his family moved across most of the southern United States. When he was in Jr. High, they went abroad to Singapore and Indonesia, before returning stateside and settling in Texas for Jeff’s high school years.
“I learned how to make friends pretty easy, and learned how to adapt to changes,” he says.
Even with all the moving, one constant was a love of animals.
“My dad’s father was a dairyman. He also raised wheat and bought cattle for the local feed yard in northwest Oklahoma. As a kid, I liked to help out my grandpa,” Jeff says. “In high school, I thought, ‘you know what, I want to do what my grandpa did.’ I joined FFA, and I eventually got a scholarship to Texas A&M.”
He took feed classes and ended up getting a job with Producers Cooperative Association in nearby Bryan, Texas.
“I convinced the general manager to give me a job. I worked there for three years while I was in college, doing everything from mixing feed and working on the dock, to delivering feed and actually working in the store,” Jeff says.
By the time he’d graduated, Jeff knew how the co-op operated and knew that he enjoyed the work. And as luck would have it, there was an open position at a neighboring plant. On Sept. 22, 1986, Jeff officially started his career in feed in McGregor, Texas.
“At the time the plant was with Farmland Industries, and eventually was bought by Land O’Lakes, Inc. We made everything we sold within the system,” Jeff says. “And then when Land O’Lakes purchased Purina, I slid into the Purina side.”
A southern safari
Over the years, Jeff changed locations and roles. He spent some time as a director of sales, held marketing roles, but eventually he returned to Texas—and to his roots as a feed salesman.
“I enjoyed being around people all the time. And some people thought I was crazy for going back to this role, but I did and I’ve never regretted it one bit,” Jeff says. “I worked in the large corporation setting, and I learned a lot, but I just like seeing people, interacting with them every day—talking about feed, talking about their operations, helping them with their animals.”
Some of the animals might surprise you. Sure there are the cattle operations, but there are also the farms with giraffe, kudo, impala and red stag.
“It’s like Africa out there! The types of animals I work with surprise people,” Jeff says. “Last summer, I had just picked up a guinea pig farm. And some days you have to sell someone some giraffe food!”
One of Jeff’s favorite type of accounts are the deer breeding operations. For Purina, Texas is one of the biggest areas for the deer business.
“These accounts are fun because they love talking about specific deer. And I get to watch the animals while working directly with the producer,” Jeff says. “They generally have between 50-150 does. We make a couple of products today to help those does get a little bit more cover on 'em, a little bit more energy to produce more milk, so their fawns have a better start.”
Dealing with dealers
Rarely does Jeff spend a day in his office. You’re more likely to find him in his truck. He puts on about 50,000 miles in a year. He meets with dealers, makes farm calls, checks to see if his accounts are on pace. Jeff says he’s always trying to figure out which products will help customers expand their businesses and meet their goals.
“The thing about working for Purina is we've got a full animal nutrition research farm in Missouri. And we've got Ph.D. nutritionists, not only at the farm, but in the field helping us work with customers,” he says. “So when I’m talking to a customer, we start talking about how we've already researched a product at the farm, and we're comfortable with how it worked.”
Sales isn’t all business, though. It’s a lot of relationship building.
“You go out there, sometimes just checking in. You’re not out there trying to sell. It’s about having a little fellowship, seeing how the family is doing, seeing if they need anything, creating a full customer experience. I think that’s the part I like. We’re all proud, and we all like having someone come by and say, ‘You’re doing a good job,’” Jeff says.
In pursuit of a passion
Back in Waco, Jeff’s kids are all grown up, so Buckley the dog is the kid of the house.
“He’s 13 now. Him and our cat get along and sleep together,” Jeff says. “We got Buckley when we were living in St. Louis. As much as we moved, didn’t want to get any land or any animals that couldn’t move with us.”
Jeff and the pets might be a little more settled nowadays, but he hasn’t lost his competitive streak when it comes to the sales side. Or his love of helping people out. Jeff is just that kind of guy. One filled with tenacity, good humor and a drive to help his customers feed greatness.
“People think I am crazy, but the people I work with, they realize I like what I do,” says Jeff. “If I work 12 hours in a day, it’s not a big deal to me. People say, ‘You did what yesterday? Late nights, early morning. Why would you do that?’ I just had fun! It is fun, being out there working with people—making an impact in their lives. It’s the most rewarding part of this whole deal. If your heart’s not in it, find something your heart is into—you’ll strive to do the best job you can do.”