The new chief information officer of Farmers Business Network Inc.—a company that runs an
-like platform for farmers to buy supplies from seed to pesticides—plans to use data to sharpen the insights it offers farmers, as well as bring more of them to the site and keep them coming back.
a former vice president of e-commerce firm
Stitch Fix Inc.,
joined the seven-year-old San Carlos, Calif.-based network and platform in October in the newly created role.
“We want to make sure that the data that you get back, the insights that you’re generating are very much applicable to you,” Mr. Kokal said, “so that means localization, giving you information that is very relevant in your ZIP Code, on your farm.”
FBN says it has 33,500 members across the U.S., Canada and Australia and operates more than 25 warehouses. Its members agree to share data on seed performance, pricing, weather and other facets of the business. In return, they gain access to a repository of industry and product pricing information. The company’s cloud-based data software also tracks spatial data from farm machinery, as well as other metrics provided by farmers to help them score the carbon footprint of crops.
Mr. Kokal, however, also plans to modernize the company’s IT systems, improve its supply-chain tech and grow FBN Finance, the company’s credit and insurance arm.
Also on his agenda is a new approach to training and onboarding, ensuring employees “have access to our internal data, to our technology,” so they can build products for customers. FBN will invest in technology that supports human resources, finance, legal and marketing and upgrade enterprise resource planning and customer relationship management systems as well, he added. The company has some 850 employees.
FBN co-founder and CEO Amol Deshpande said he sees the CIO as a front-and-center leader, acting as a bridge between engineering and commercial teams.
“It’s about very important topics in the company, like security, customer experience, things that are essential drivers of the business,” he said.
Valued at $3.9 billion, FBN has thus far raised $878 million, including a $300 million Series G round in November led by FMR LLC, parent of Fidelity Investments. FBN plans to hire more than 300 employees in the coming months, Mr. Kokal said.
Since its inception, the platform has been looking to undercut traditional bricks-and-mortar retailers in farm supplies on price and delivery, getting supplies directly to farmers. In response, many of those retailers have refused to sell their brand-name seeds and crop sprays to FBN, also leery of its data-pooling efforts.
In 2018, after FBN acquired the Canadian agricultural supplier Yorkton Distributors, antitrust authorities there began investigating FBN’s complaints that large suppliers were shutting it out. The probe is ongoing.
In the company’s most recent funding round, the venture-capital arm of farm products giant
Archer Daniels Midland Co.
made an equity investment and entered a partnership that gave ADM access to FBN’s carbon-footprint-tracking technology.
John-David Lovelock, chief forecaster at IT research firm
said the new CIO has his work cut out for him.
“The opportunity for him is to turn this into a large, scalable IT operation that relies on best-of-breed processes,” Mr. Lovelock said, “and that can mean cleaning up and getting rid of some of the processes and technology decisions that they’ve made in the past.”
One risk, he added, could be that of getting bogged down in fixing the technology instead of building relationships and understanding how an organization copes with change, he noted.
Prior to his three years at Stitch Fix, Mr. Kokal was head of business systems at
He has also held senior roles at Informatica Inc. and
Mr. Kokal acknowledged that FBN—like all digital commerce platforms—has faced obstacles, but says they haven’t stood in the way of its plans.
“Many times along the way, some of the major players have sought to stop FBN, but we persevered and powered through,” he said.
Write to Suman Bhattacharyya at [email protected]
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