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Growing Sweetness: A Conversation With Tom Astrup

Photos By Nolan P. Schmidt

Tom Astrup has worked eight different positions during his time with American Crystal Sugar Company. In 2016, he was given the title President and CEO, putting him at the head of the biggest beet sugar producer in the United States.

American Crystal Sugar Company operates sugar factories in Crookston, East Grand Forks, and Moorhead, Minnesota; Drayton and Hillsboro, North Dakota; and Sidney, Montana, under the name Sidney Sugars Incorporated. Needless to say, Astrup is running quite the operation. We sat down with the CEO to learn more.

Can you take me through your career history?

A. I graduated in 1991 with a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of North Dakota. After graduation, I worked as a Certified Public Accountant for an accounting firm in Minneapolis/ St. Paul. I began working for American Crystal in 1994 and have held eight different positions in my 26 years with the company. Those positions gave me a range of experience not only in accounting and finance, but in nearly every other department within the company.

Did you always want to be a CEO?

A. No. It certainly intrigued me, but it wasn’t a specific goal of mine. Throughout the course of my career at American Crystal, I’ve simply tried to learn as much as I can, add value to whatever position I was in at the time and improve as a manager and a leader. It really wasn’t until a few years prior to becoming CEO, that I decided it was a position I aspired to.

American Crystal Sugar is headquartered in Moorhead but has plants all over. As a President and CEO, how do you manage that?

A. Specifically, we have sugarbeet processing factories in Hillsboro and Drayton, ND; Moorhead, Crookston, and East Grand Forks, MN; and Sidney, Montana. Our sales are managed through two marketing cooperatives in which we are the largest member. United Sugars is the second largest marketer of sugar in the United States with a customer service center in Moorhead, MN and a corporate office in Edina, MN. Midwest Agri-Commodities Company is the largest marketer of sugarbeet pulp and molasses products in the United States with a corporate office in San Rafael, California.

The simple answer to the question is we have good people in charge at each of those locations who I trust American Crystal Sugar employees about 1,800 employees across its network. to get the job done right and to frankly do the job better than I could do it. We also have corporate resources in areas like Agriculture, Operations, Human Resources, Information Technology and Finance, who provide critical technical support and strategic leadership.

I personally meet on location with each of those management teams several times per year to discuss current operations and long-term plans. I also hold company-wide employee communications meetings throughout the year. And then of course there is our approximately 2,600 sugarbeet farmer/shareholders throughout the Red River Valley. We hold communication meetings with them four times per year.

How have you tried to mitigate the effects of COVID at the plants?

A. We’ve done what so many businesses and other manufacturers have done which includes temperature screening of employees, assigning specific personnel to cleaning and disinfecting high touch areas, minimizing group gatherings, wearing face masks or shields, and erecting barriers between workstations. We also gave every full-time employee an additional 80 hours of COVID- related paid sick leave. We did not want COVID to be a financial hardship for our employees and wanted to reward them for staying home when it was necessary for the health and safety of their co-workers.

What is the worst piece of advice you’ve ever received?

A. I don’t have a specific answer to that question. I’ve been fortunate to work for and with a lot of high-quality people over the years. I’ve found those real-world experiences learning from others to be the best “words” of advice.

What are three pieces of advice you have for other C-level executives out there?

A. 1. Surround yourself with good people and trust them to make decisions, even if you don’t always agree with them. I find they are usually right.

2. Ask lots of questions. You never know your business nearly as much as you should or as you think you do.

3. Don’t become obsessed with profit. Obsess about the things that lead
to profit like customers, people, and processes.

Do you have any media/ book recommendations for the other business professionals out there?

A. I am a regular reader of The Economist and The Harvard Business Review. I think both really force me to pull back from the relatively small world I work in every day and think more broadly about what is going on in the world and in business.

What’s one thing you do to foster success in your organization?

A. I think it’s about establishing the goals we want to accomplish and
then consistently communicate them to all employees, along with the unwavering values we are going to live by in pursuing those goals. In our case, the values we’ve identified are safety, quality, teamwork, integrity and accountability. To close the positive cycle, we emphasize recognizing employees for their accomplishments whether that be in the form of a simple “thank you” or catering in lunch or celebrating with employees and their families at a summer picnic.

What’s one thing the business community can do to help American Crystal Sugar continue to succeed?

A. To advocate for agriculture. We have one of the cheapest, safest, most reliable supplies of food in the world. We should never take that for granted.

What do you think?

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