Nathan Bellinger – Ceres Solutions Cooperative, Inc.
In the late-19th century, Nathan Bellinger’s family grew mint in Indiana’s Kankakee River Valley. His grandfather sold crops to a third party, which, in turn, sold it to the Wrigley Company, which needed the mint for its iconic spearmint gum.
Times and markets changed, though, forcing many Indiana farmers—including the Bellingers—to embrace new sources of income: corn, soybeans, livestock and the like.
It’s a story of reinvention by necessity—and one that Nathan Bellinger knows plenty about. In 1994, Bellinger left the farm to head to college, to pursue his own greener pastures in business. He started in insurance claims at Liberty Mutual Insurance and ultimately found his way into a career in IT.
After 24 years away from the family homestead, in 2018, Bellinger brought his career full circle, joining Ceres Solutions Cooperative—a sales and service farming cooperative that sells seed, feed, fertilizer, fuels and other agricultural services—as its new director of IT.
Now, he’s supporting the growth of a different kind of commodity: IT for a company that serves area farmers.
“Returning to my roots is exciting; I’m passionate about driving our evolution in technology,” says Bellinger. “Some of my best problem-solving time is spent in the seat of a tractor.”
Ideas take root
According to Bellinger, the opportunity to develop an IT department at Ceres resulted from the merger of two smaller cooperatives in 2017. Neither of the merged co-ops had a formal IT department.
Despite that, business was being done and the company was successful—and growing. But from a technology perspective, leaders of the company knew there were limits they needed to address.
“The biggest challenge is helping people accept technological change,” Bellinger says. “For many employees, this is the first coordinated corporate effort in technology they’ve experienced.”
At the behest of the company’s CEO, Bellinger built the company’s IT to standardize its digital operations, creating a unit capable of supporting more than 700 employees who serve 7,000 area farmers—and helping provide a stable technological foundation for the cooperative.
Initially, Bellinger toured locations and talked to employees to learn the operations. He found branches had different IT setups and experienced problems such as glitches in internet connectivity and phone service. One employee even mentioned “unplugging the machines every day to make them work.”
Creating solutions required a phased five-year master plan: upgrading hardware, software, networks, servers, wireless capabilities and telephonic communication—as well as training employees on the new features. Bellinger says it took two years to build up modern infrastructure to improve connectivity—and significant work has been done from a security perspective. Outsourcing network management and a help desk freed up time for the staff to develop future projects.
“The purpose of my role is to create a modern, mature IT department from scratch where one didn’t exist before,” Bellinger says. “My objective was to do it in a way that our employees could tangibly see and appreciate the value of it.”
With the first wave of upgrades complete, the cooperative created a common technology footing—as best it could—for more than 70 Ceres branches, spanning its agronomy, seed, feed and energy divisions. That freed Bellinger to start his next set of projects—namely installing an enterprise communication platform.
With 12 different phone systems across the organization, the overhaul is still in development and is less about reinventing operations, and more about building future capabilities. Specifically, his staff will create a single, easy-to-use communication platform to improve customer service.
To do that, Ceres established a steering committee of employees and managers in September 2020 to assess and select a new communications system. With recent approval, Bellinger plans to implement it later this year.
The new system will provide integrated features linked across platforms—providing employees with pop-up screens of information from customers—everything from purchase and sales histories to outstanding balances or credits.
“As we become a larger company, cross-functional integrations connecting all of our systems will provide better customer service,” Bellinger says, noting the cooperative’s diversified business sells commodities, crop nutrients and protections and fuels. It pays out dividends to members when there is a profit.
Looking ahead, Ceres is working with Land O’ Lakes and Microsoft to bring broadband internet access to rural areas. One day, farmers in rural areas will be able to access accounts from the cab of a tractor.
“It will take a little discipline,” Bellinger says. “We’re not jumping into any radical changes; we will take the time to carefully prepare.”
Power of perspective
This isn’t the first time Bellinger’s faced change with a measured approach. Growing up on the family farm, Bellinger was aware of the hardships faced by his father, uncle and grandfather. Bellinger believed his future lay elsewhere—specifically in the bourgeoning world of IT.
“It was a hard decision, going into an industry not related to the farm,” he reflects. “But I needed to see how it would work out.”
Bellinger earned a degree in general studies from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis in 2005, adding a certificate in project management in 2007 and a master’s in geographic information science in 2009. An executive certificate in business administration from the University of Notre Dame – Mendoza College of Business came in 2012.
Bellinger had a 17-year career at Liberty Mutual, working in claims and operations before moving into IT and becoming a senior business analyst for the insurer. He joined Baldwin & Lyons Inc. in 2014 as a business relationship manager—developing a center of excellence for the specialty trucking insurance carrier.
Feeling a need for change after a reorganization in early 2018, he took time off to figure out his next career move. He was consulting as a GIS analyst and taking on contract work in IT and process improvement when the opportunity arose at Ceres.
“I wasn’t up to speed on the modern agriculture industry, but farming was close to my heart,” say Bellinger. “I came into IT through the business analysis and project management pipeline. I didn’t have any experience on the infrastructure or hardware side of IT, so I’m a little unusual for an IT director in that respect.”
Bellinger never regretted his career change. In fact, he says he gained perspective adapting to diverse environments.
“Farmers are our nation’s first innovators—and they feed the world,” says Bellinger. “When I coupled my love of farming with my early experience with working at a Fortune 500 company, I saw the big picture. It opened my eyes and prepared me for a role where I can now make contributions to this incredible industry.”
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