Like many restless small-town kids, Steven Zehr set his sights on leaving rural life to explore something new after high school. Staying on the family farm in Fairbury, Illinois, to grow corn and soybeans, and raise beef cattle, was not on Zehr’s agenda.
But there’s no denying that Zehr’s agricultural roots and Midwestern values have served him well, helping him climb the corporate ladder in a nearly 25-year career that’s taken him to India, Paraguay, Switzerland, and farther.
Zehr serves as chief operating officer at Gavilon Group LLC, a commodities brokerage firm headquartered in Omaha with approximately 2,000 employees worldwide. Gavilon deals in grain, food and feed ingredients, and fertilizer, and includes a network of 100 grain locations across the U.S., with dozens of locations near rail lines, rivers, and ports internationally. The company handles a billion bushels of grain annually.
Zehr attended Illinois Wesleyan University and earned an accounting degree; a practical choice because “When you look at it, the root cause of everything is numbers,” he says. After earning an MBA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he landed a job as an auditor at Archer Daniels Midland, a global food processing and commodities trading firm based in Chicago.
“I’d always wanted to work and travel internationally, and ADM provided me that opportunity,” Zehr says. “They asked me to move to Mexico, and I was very excited about it.” Knowing only high-school Spanish, Zehr had to learn the language quickly. “It was sink or swim.”
Zehr later switched hats from the accounting to commercial side of commodities, creating opportunities for him to move to Brazil, Latin America, the U.K., and Germany, all the while being, he says, “mentored by some great people.” (He has become fluent in Spanish and Portuguese along the way.) In all, he spent 18 years with ADM, holding positions in sales and marketing, finance, business development, and general management, becoming chief financial officer in 2008. Zehr’s openness to relocating internationally and to take assignments in multiple divisions of the company allowed him to garner a thorough understanding of the global commodities business, preparing him well for his next step.
When Gavilon’s (now former) CEO Greg Heckman offered him the position as vice president/general manager at the headquarters in Omaha in 2011, the timing was right. Married with two kids, Zehr and his wife decided they wanted a stable, Midwestern upbringing for their children.
“I wanted to allow my kids the same opportunities I had growing up,” says Zehr, who has grown to love Omaha and the Gavilon culture.
Zehr was promoted to COO in December 2017. “Overseeing all the moving parts of a company with the huge international footprint Gavilon has poses some real challenges…transportation issues, HR issues, maximizing the profitability of a company day-to-day. We’re dealing with cents, from a margin perspective,” Zehr says. He’s also charged with charting the long-range plan of the company. “How we grow, how we divest.”
Zehr sits on the national board of directors of the Commodity Markets Council (CMC), which helps execs like himself navigate regulatory changes and resolve issues that often create an uneven
Recent agricultural tariffs put in place on the European Union and China pose challenges as well. “While they’re meant to correct problems in the market that may have been kicked down the road by previous administrations, at the same time, trade wars do no one any good,” Zehr says.
Gavilon’s international presence helps mitigate their financial risk.
“Grain trading is one of the oldest businesses in the world. And it’s also a very small marketplace,” Zehr adds. “You have to have good communication up and down the chain and work with end users so that you remain their everyday supplier.”
Robert Jones, chief administrative officer at Gavilon, has this high praise for Zehr: “Steven is an inspiring leader who has the ability to excite, focus, and bring forth sustained performance and excellence in others. He supports a collaborative culture by promoting mutual goals and building trust across Gavilon.”
With three sports-minded kids under age 18, the Zehrs are big Creighton Bluejay fans, attending soccer, baseball, and basketball games often. He and his wife also enjoy supporting the culinary entreprenuers in Omaha. “We like to try all the smaller, independent restaurants. I’m kind of a foodie.”
Visit gavilon.com for more information about Zehr and the company.
This article was printed in the April/May 2019 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.