“Let’s give her a try.” Five simple words that were a common response from her grandfather have been pivotal in launching Leann Saunders from the cow trails of southwestern Colorado to an international agricultural business leader.
Like most success-driven people, her beginnings were humble — the daughter of a civil engineer with a life goal of building up a respectable cattle operation.
“Dad worked his tail off growing the commercial cow-calf operation little by little, and finally was able to ranch full time in his early 40s,” she recalls. “It may have been different if he had sons, but it was my mom, sister and I who worked alongside him — a lot of long days riding in some pretty mountainous country.”
The same work ethic that drove her father to chase his cattle-ranching dreams rubbed off on Saunders during long days of pushing cows in the Centennial State’s back country. It stuck with her as she went on to attend Colorado State University, where she received her undergrad in agriculture business and a master’s in beef industry leadership. It was in those days when Saunders had her eyes opened to a new-found love during an internship with Keystone Foods in Philadelphia.
“That internship really made me realize I had a passion for understanding how to help different sectors of the beef industry work together more fluidly,” she says.
After receiving her master’s, Saunders took a purchasing specialist position with McDonald’s Corp., connecting suppliers to the world’s second largest fast-food chain. From there she went to PM Beef Holdings, where she was on the forefront of arguably one of the most progressive marketing moves in the agriculture industry.
“At the time, the company was trying to develop relationships with feedlots and cow-calf producers to deliver products with specific product specifications,” Saunders recalls. “Working together with Premium Standard Farms on a pork product and the USDA, we put together the very first verified programs that were marketed at retail.”
She was instantly hooked on the process of developing specifications and matching producers to marketing channels. And as fate would have it, she met her husband, John, while he was consulting.
“He was what I’d call the consummate entrepreneur. But when we met, he wasn’t sure what kind of company he wanted to start,” she said. “I always say that I have a sickness because I was raised by an entrepreneur and then I married one.”
Eventually, in 1995, John founded IMI Global, Inc., working in a parallel industry to his wife and creating verification programs for agricultural producers.
“It all started with him and a computer out of the basement of our house in Platte City, Mo.,” she laughs. “After we had our second child, he convinced me to come to work with him.”
Today, the company has been renamed Where Food Comes From, Inc., and is located in Castle Rock, Colo. With John leading as CEO and chairman and Saunders as president and COO, the once one-man band has expanded to a publicly traded, independent, third-party verification company with over 50 programs that specialize in beef, pork, poultry, dairy and grain sectors of agriculture on a local to international basis. Or as Saunders describes it, “The ultimate food nerds trying to add value to resources in the food chain and connect it to consumers.”
“I think the journey of development is mostly about the people that you meet along the way, a lot of hard work, perseverance even when people tell you something can’t be done, and a little bit of luck, which is when preparation meets opportunity,” Saunders says.
In the beginning stages of her career, Saunders says she realized the importance of making connections with people throughout the industry. The same realization led Where Food Comes From to become an agribusiness member of the United States Meat Export Federation (USMEF), with Saunders as the representative for the company.
“We had several clients as members of USMEF and saw a lot of benefit in tapping into their boots-on-the-ground involvement on a global basis and who they touch in the world,” she says. “And it provides a unique look at how competitors around the world are approaching consumers and how we can learn and grow from that to meet the demand of our own and the world’s consumers.”
Taking a leadership position in the organization in 2008, Saunders became a member of the executive committee, eventually taking the role of chairwoman for the 2014-2015 term, which will end in November of 2015. Through her tenure, Saunders says the biggest lesson she has learned is the importance of stepping back with an open mind to look at issues from the standpoint of multiple players in the nine-sector organization.
“Right now, we are dealing with increasingly difficult market-access issues, stiff global competition and an even more complex global consumer. It’s natural to want to be resistant to change, but we have to be solutions oriented and work together,” she says. “Instead, we must embrace it and have a willingness to work across all industry segments together to achieve our common goal.”
Along with USMEF, Saunders is active in leadership positions with the International Stockmen’s Education Foundation, an organization forging relationships with agricultural leadership on a global level, including youth. Where Food Comes From is also a supporter of many local youth programs in Castle Rock like 4H and the Colorado Agricultural Leadership Foundation.
With multiple irons in the fire, Saunders says she and John made an agreement to always place their family first. Together, they have three children: Kenneth, 15; Hannah, 12; and Kathryn, 10.
“What we do is a huge part of our life, so at times the kids end up at the office with us,” she says. “We think it’s very important for them to learn responsibility and the importance of work.”
Her family involvement is something that gives her an added edge, she says, allowing her to have a perspective that never would have happened without kids.
“Being a mother gives me a perspective I don’t think I would have otherwise had,” Saunders explains. “And when you take a step back and look at the big picture on a global scale, we all aren’t dissimilar. A mom in the United States wants the best for her children, just like a mom in Japan.”
She also still holds stake in her family’s ranch, Mayfield Heritage Cattle Company, which sold the Colorado location and relocated to Animas, N.M.
“We’re 11 hours away from the ranch, but I try to make it back as often as I can,” she says. “I still very much enjoy working alongside my dad. We also typically have weekly business conversations. He isn’t one for idle chit chat, so our calls are always business driven, but that’s what we both enjoy. He’s been able to grow the commercial operation to 1,800 mother cows and is involved in many of the programs we verify. He was involved in value-based marketing programs long before there was even a term attached to them.”
Don’t be afraid
“Life isn’t a destination; it is always a journey — and very seldom does that path end up the way you think it is going to end up,” Saunders shares. “There are always going to be twists and turns along the way, building you into who you are.”
When asked where she expects her future leadership roles to direct her, along with Where Food Comes From, she takes a page out of her grandfather’s book.
“I want to enjoy each day to the fullest, not be afraid to make mistakes and be ready to ‘give her a try’ if something worthwhile presents itself,” she concludes. “I don’t know where my future is headed, but I want to continue to grow this great company, enjoy time with my family, spend time at the ranch and then just let the good Lord take it from there.”