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Envisioning Tomorrow

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New President Bill Buckner discusses his life, leadership and the Noble Research Institute's role in agricultural
Bill Buckner
Noble Research Institute President Bill Buckner
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Two questions immediately surfaced last fall after the Noble Research Institute Board of Trustees announced the selection of Bill Buckner as its new president.

First, "Is this the same guy who played first base for the Boston Red Sox in 1986 - the one who let the ball dribble through his legs in the World Series?" (No. That's just a coincidence.) And second: "Why did Bill Buckner come to the Noble Research Institute?" That question has a much more interesting answer.

During his first few months as president and chief executive officer, Buckner hosted 30 informal get-togethers so he could interact with each of the Noble Research Institute's 400 employees in small groups. On the last Tuesday in April, Buckner walked into the Noble Research Institute library for his final "Meet the Prez" and began with the same statement. "I wanted to meet so we can get to know each other and discuss the future of the Noble Research Institute. I want to hear what you think about our organization, and I'll answer any questions you may have."

As with the previous 29 meetings, the first question Buckner received was a query about his desire to lead the Noble Research Institute. Buckner smiled, pointed to the sizable oil painting of Lloyd Noble on the opposite wall and said: "He's why I came. I believe in his vision for agriculture. I believe in the mission he gave us and our ability to impact the lives of agricultural producers, to have tangible outcomes. He was the difference maker, and we can be difference makers as well."

Buckner assumes the mantle of leadership from the Noble Research Institute's longest-tenured president, Mike Cawley, who directed the organization for almost two decades before retiring in 2011. "Bill Buckner is a proven leader with great integrity and foresight," said Vivian DuBose, chair of the executive search committee and granddaughter of the organization's founder, Lloyd Noble. "The board is confident that he will continue the Noble Research Institute's tradition of excellence and advance our mission to improve agriculture." Buckner has spent the last 18 years with Bayer, a global enterprise focusing on health care, nutrition, agriculture and high-tech materials. He served in various leadership positions in the animal health and crop science business groups. Buckner, his wife, Kathy, and their four children globetrotted from the United States to Germany and Canada before finally making their home in Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. Last year, the 55-year-old retired as president and chief executive officer of Bayer CropScience LP, a division of the company that oversees the crop protection, biotechnology, manufacturing and environmental science groups.

"My time at Bayer offered me a wealth of experience in international agriculture, outcome-based research and commercialization of products that will pay dividends for the Noble Research Institute," Buckner said. "This knowledge will be combined with the collective wisdom of our leadership team and employees as we continue to fulfill the mission and vision of our founder Lloyd Noble, taking his message of sustainable agriculture from our region to the world."

Before his time at Bayer, Buckner spent 12 years in the agriculture-related finance and animal health industries. However, his link to agriculture extends back long before he joined the work force. Buckner grew up on a beef cattle farm near Mexico, Mo. His mother still lives there and his children represent the fifth generation connected to the farm. "I have been in agriculture my entire life, and I have dedicated my career to the industry," he said. "I'm passionate about agriculture, and the men and women of the world who devote their lives to feeding this country and the world."

Below, the Noble Research Institute's eighth president discusses everything from the crisis in agriculture and defining life moments to his iPod's eclectic playlist and the other Bill Buckner.

When you retired last year, did you expect to be involved in leadership again so soon?
I knew I wanted to find a place where I could have a significant impact on the agricultural industry, but I thought that would take some time. I was content to wait for the right opportunity. That opportunity came along a lot quicker than I expected.

You said Lloyd Noble's vision drew you to the organization. What else was appealing?
After visiting with the Board of Trustees and fully understanding the organization's history and its role in agriculture, I knew this is where I wanted to be. The Noble Research Institute is a unique organization that impacts the entire spectrum of agriculture from conducting discovery science to applied research and directly interacting with farmers and ranchers. It has the potential to impact agriculture on a global scale, and that's exciting.

What immediate challenges do you see as president of the Noble Research Institute?
As with any successful organization, the biggest challenge is not being satisfied with current and past achievements. Additional, more specific challenges include protecting our endowment, navigating ever-evolving government (over-)regulation and agricultural policies that are often set by those who are detached from agriculture and transforming our technologies into usable products for farmers, ranchers and consumers. As an organization, we need to learn from our past activities and be prepared to identify new opportunities that can benefit from our programs and expertise.

What is your leadership philosophy?
I've always subscribed to the philosophy of finding the right people to do the job, have an organizational vision, provide them guidance and then stand back. The Noble Research Institute has the right people, and a significant mission set by the founder, Lloyd Noble. My role is to provide guidance to the Board relative to the dynamics of the global agricultural landscape, implement the direction of the Board, and ensure that our research and programs are benefiting regional, national and international agriculture.

What have you done during the first six months of your tenure?
I've spent my first few months assessing the Noble Research Institute's programs and processes. With mindful regard to the direction established by the Board of Trustees, our leadership team and employee team are working to shape our institutional priorities. We've been working on strategic planning and financial planning - both keys to being good stewards of the resources given to us by Mr. Noble.

What are the biggest challenges to agriculture?
There is an unprecedented need in agriculture for innovation and technologies. In the next 40 years, global agricultural producers must increase food production 70 percent to meet the needs of a growing population. In addition, they must increase production while using less water and land and using chemical inputs more efficiently. The only way to achieve this will be through advanced technologies and innovative new practices. The Noble Research Institute has a rich history of agricultural innovation and improvement, so we will certainly play a role in this agricultural renaissance.

How will you leverage your own international experience at the Noble Research Institute?
My experiences and relationships will certainly play a complementary role; fortunately, the Noble Research Institute has an international reputation and its research already has application across the United States as well as abroad. However, no one organization can understand and single-handedly address the myriad of challenges facing agriculture. Accordingly, we will leverage our existing relationships, and, when appropriate, cultivate new relationships that allow us to undertake targeted challenges, conduct efficient and productive research, and then deliver solutions to producers and others.

What is your favorite part of being a Noble Research Institute president?
I can honestly say I love everything about being president. The totality of the job's experiences is energizing. I get to touch every aspect of the organization. We get to create something every day. There is something special about the process of creating meaningful outcomes that benefit the bedrock of society - our farmers and ranchers.

How was the transition from North Carolina to Oklahoma?
Kathy and I are comfortable with the process of moving. Once you have moved your entire household to and from an international location, a move within the continental U.S. becomes less intimidating. Imagine moving four children under the age of 10 to Germany. However, this will be our first move without the added adventure of children. We're empty nesters, and we're looking forward to another honeymoon in Ardmore.

We've talked about your current occupation, but what was your first job?
I cleaned out dog kennels for a local vet when I was in the fourth or fifth grade. The vet would pick me up on Saturday mornings. He'd have an ice cold Coca-Cola for me. That was my treat for the day.

What was your favorite childhood memory?
I had the perfect childhood. We moved from the family farm to town when I was a child so I could attend "city school." My cousins lived on the same street. We were playmates growing up. We couldn't wait to get out and play every day. We hated to come in. We played whiffle ball in the summers and sledded down our street in the winter. At nights, we sat on the porch and listened to St. Louis Cardinals baseball games. When I was in the sixth grade we moved back out to the farm. Of course we worked hard but we also explored the woods and fished. It was like living in a Norman Rockwell painting.

What major event shaped your life?
There have been several - marrying the love of my life and the birth of our four children - but the first event that changed my life was my father's heart attack. It was the summer after my sophomore year in college. He spent pretty much the entire summer in the hospital. I had to rise to the occasion. I handled his duties on the farm and helped out my mother. I truly felt his burdens for the first time. It was a sobering experience, but I knew after that summer that I had the ability to handle difficult situations.

How did you meet your wife?
It was a blind date. Well, a blind date for her. I saw her on the last day of classes the spring semester of my freshman year. I saw her again the following fall at a fraternity and sorority event. One of my friends was dating one of her friends and they set her up on a blind date. We went to a Missouri football game and then a dance. That was 1977.

What did you think that first moment you saw her?
I fell in love.

What is something that people are surprised to find out about you?
That I was the Central Missouri Regional duck calling champion.

If you had a day to do absolutely anything you wanted, what would you do?
If I'm a duck calling champion, then I'm obviously an avid hunter. So I would either spend it hunting or with my family.

What makes hunting so enjoyable for you?
Hunting for me is a multifaceted experience. It's not just about the hunting. It's the opportunity to unplug and be away from the everyday distractions. Being in nature is a powerful experience. And bagging a few birds is always fun.

So if you could pick your last meal today, what would it be?
My favorite meal is fried chicken, corn on the cob, mashed potatoes with cream gravy and fresh tomatoes. It's the meal my mother made for the hay crew during haying season. It brings back some very good memories.

What song did you last play on your iPod?
I have pretty eclectic music tastes, but the last song to pop up was "Up the Lazy River" by the Mills Brothers. They were one of my dad's favorite groups. I grew up listening to them. I love their harmonies.

What inspires you?
I'm inspired every time I see people doing good things for others. It always causes me to reflect and ask myself what I am doing to help my fellow man.

What is your personal philosophy?
I'm on the relentless pursuit of happiness. Happiness is a result of hard work and keeping life in perspective. Walt Disney once said: "All of our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them."

How would you explain your personality?
I'm direct, open and very social. I love to be with people. I love building teams and helping them succeed; however, I have to have my quiet time.

What does the quiet time do for you?
We have lost the ability to reflect in our society, to unplug from the gadgets and just think about what we're doing. It's important for us to reflect because we gain perspective and generate new ideas.

How does that translate to leadership of an organization?
It is important for those leading an organization to take time to reflect and ask ourselves: Where are we going? What works? What doesn't work? Why? How can we improve? If we're constantly checking email and ticking off items on our to-do list, then we lose perspective.

Seriously, are you tired of people asking if you played first base for the Red Sox?
Not at all. It never has bothered me. It's more of a conversation starter than anything. People will come up and say, "Did you ever play baseball?" I can't tell you how many times that has happened.

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