Seeds of Change

July 29, 2011 09:59 AM
Seeds of Change

Can a new strategy reverse Syngenta’s fortunes?

At the heart of the new Syngenta Seeds regional headquarters is a room with a view of the past. David Morgan often finds himself studying the wall where the company’s lineage is traced back to 1758.

"Syngenta is only a decade old," says Morgan, Syngenta’s region director, North America. "However, our heritage goes back 250 years and our success today is the consequence of hard work by our predecessors. We are excited to be adding new chapters to the history wall."

There are some powerful names written here: AstraZeneca, Ciba-Geigy, Funk Bros. Seed Company, ICI Seeds, Sandoz, Novartis and Zeneca. Syngenta’s current brands—AgriPro Coker (wheat), Garst, Golden Harvest, NK Brand soybeans, NK Seeds and Rogers (vegetables)—have venerable histories.

"People know our chemical products by name, but seed sells by brand loyalty. Since we aren’t the largest company in the market, we don’t want to be as good as the others, we have to be better," Morgan says.

The third largest seed company in the U.S. market, Syngenta took some market share hits from 2002 to 2010, but Morgan says novel new traits and new sales strategies are growing the business in ways that go beyond market share.

A cornerstone of Syngenta’s future is the Agrisure Viptera trait, the industry’s first vegetative insecticidal protein. This new mode of action works on notoriously hard to control aboveground pests, such as earworm, fall armyworm and cutworm, and is being stacked with other modes of action to provide broad spectrum control.

"We take things a little slower than some companies because we firmly believe farmers’ fields are not a testing ground," Morgan says. "Some genetics accept these new traits more readily than others. We like to make sure growers will have a good experience before we go to market."

Hybrids that make the most of each drop of water were commercialized under the Agrisure Artesian brand this year. Enogen, a biotech event to enhance ethanol production, is another recent innovation.

Broadly licensing. In 2010, Syngenta assumed full ownership of GreenLeaf Genetics LLC, an outlicensing joint venture with DuPont business Pioneer Hi-Bred.

"We will now move more quickly in broadening access to our rapidly expanding portfolio of innovative traits and germplasm," Morgan says. Syngenta already licenses Agrisure traits to some 150 independent companies, but full ownership of GreenLeaf opens up its soybean portfolio.

"We believe in and respect the independent seed industry," Morgan says. "Growers want and need choice and we want that sector not just to survive, but to thrive.

"I am completely agnostic about the color of the seed bag our traits go into," he adds. "We spend more than $1 billion each year on research and development. We want a large footprint to deliver our game-changing technology."

Diversity plus. Syngenta has the largest commercial wheat business in North America. It is the largest producer of flower seed in the world. There’s a retail fresh produce arm, and 70% of the world’s Scotch whisky is produced with Syngenta malting barley.

Still, it is corn and soybeans that wag the tail. Overall, Syngenta seed sales in North America were nearly $1.3 billion in 2010, with corn and soybean sales representing 45%.

A hint of Morgan’s U.K. upbringing lingers in his accent. "My mother grew up on a dairy farm, and I found science and agriculture exciting," he says.

Morgan assumed the Syngenta Seeds presidency in 2008 with more than 30 years of experience. This year, the Switzerland-based parent company announced intentions to merge its seed and crop protection businesses.

"Historically, the farmer has been responsible for integrating products and solutions in seed, traits, crop protection and seed care," Morgan says. "We want to work with the entire supply chain to bring complementary products that get the most potential from the crop."

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