David Krejci is the first to admit that his career path falls under the category of “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

The Grain Elevator and Processing Society (GEAPS) executive vice-president, who will soon retire after 37 years in that position, grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, U.S., studied architecture and engineering in college and yet somehow ended up in the grain industry.

“My agricultural career began in hindsight with a chance encounter with Dr. Henry Kaufmann, who had in the late 1960s established and led the Cargill Grain Research Laboratory in Minneapolis, Minnesota,” Krejci told World Grain during a May 8 interview at GEAPS headquarters in Golden Valley, Minnesota, U.S. “I was beginning my pursuit of an electrical engineering degree from the University of Minnesota. I met Dr. Kaufmann only because the father of the girl I was dating then worked at the Grain Research Laboratory.”

He took Kaufmann’s job offer as an intern and in that position was first exposed to GEAPS, attending his first GEAPS Exchange in 1973. When he left Cargill in 1978 to pursue a career in architecture, Krejci’s first architectural client was Cargill, who retained him for continuing work on its new port facility in Toledo, Ohio, U.S.

“My Cargill connection followed me through several employers to include becoming a consultant for GEAPS in 1980 to support the newly formed Grain Industry Safety and Health Center in developing and producing education materials for hazard recognition and control,” he said. “My work as a consultant to GEAPS led to an employment offer in 1982 as director of technical services.”

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Five years later, Krejci was named executive vice-president of GEAPS and helped lead the international organization to unprecedented growth over the next three-plus decades. He will retire as soon as GEAPS names his successor, which is expected to be this summer.

The following are excerpts of our conversation with Krejci.

WG: Robert Taylor of Cargill mentioned that under your leadership GEAPS has significantly expanded its role as the industry’s “knowledge resource.” Does that accurately describe GEAPS’ primary mission and can you give me some examples of what Mr. Taylor is talking about?

KREJCI: GEAPS “vision” is “to be THE knowledge resource for the world of grain handling and processing industry operations.” While that vision statement is relatively recent, it accurately describes the essence of GEAPS’ primary mission. While it’s an honor and privilege to have worked for and with so many industry leaders and as a member of GEAPS’ leadership team to evolve and grow GEAPS as a knowledge resource, success has not been the result of any individual effort and certainly not mine. My and my staff colleagues’ roles are to collectively support development and implementation of the strategic plan. GEAPS is and has always been member driven and member led. There was no “staff” for the first 43 years of its 90-year history and in 1973, GEAPS staff of four employees also managed four other grain industry associations.

During my tenure, GEAPS has remained focused on our core purpose to provide the grain handling and processing industry with forums for the exchange of ideas and information to help drive operations excellence and innovation with particular emphasis on workplace safety and supply-chain operation efficiency. GEAPS continuing education and credentialing programs are work products that capture and make accessible the ideas and information shared by members and other subject matter experts as a knowledge resource. The overarching goal is to train this and the next generation of industry operations professionals to safely and sustainably feed the world. It is tremendously gratifying to have worked with so many industry leaders to have evolved and advanced success in that pursuit.

WG: One area that GEAPS has always emphasized is safety. I thought it was interesting to learn that while the number of grain entrapments on the farm level is increasing, these incidents at commercial facilities are declining. In what ways has GEAPS worked to educate the industry on this issue and are you confident that your message is getting through to your members?

KREJCI: What I have seen is and has been viewed through the GEAPS lens focused on continual improvement in workplace safety and operations efficiency. GEAPS members have always been innovators and leaders in that regard.

Along with fire and explosion hazard recognition and control, stored grain entrapment prevention have been top priorities for GEAPS’ continuing education programs as far back as can be traced in whatever records exist. Those two areas of focus were at the top of the list that inspired GEAPS’ creation of the Grain Industry Safety and Health Center for training and education in 1979.

While reliable data on grain entrapment incidents does not trace back that far, the trend line for significantly reduced incidents in commercial operations is clear and compelling evidence that the sustained focus and collective effort by industry leaders has had a positive impact. But because many incidents are attributable to human failure to recognize and control potential hazards, continual improvement requires continuing education.

WG: GEAPS’ membership has grown by leaps and bounds and its annual Exchange is bigger than ever. What has been the key to this growth?

KREJCI: The key to GEAPS’ growth and success is the persistent and unwavering pursuit by leaders and members of GEAPS’ vision to being and remaining indispensably relevant and trusted as THE knowledge resource for continual improvement in grain operations safety and efficiency.

As far as the GEAPS Exchange goes, it’s our big deal. Everybody on the staff here focuses a lot of attention to the details of the Exchange. We are very sensitive to the quality of the programs, attendee and exhibitor experience. People who attend the Exchange tell us it’s a really nice show. For our industry, it has a “wow” factor. It isn’t the biggest show, but it’s the biggest show that only does what GEAPS does. Some international shows are larger, but they cover a broader scope. But if you’re looking for the operations solutions that GEAPS people are looking for, it’s all there.

WG: How effective has your continuing education program partnership with Kansas State University been? In what ways has it mutually benefited the two organizations? Do you see room for even further growth in the area of distance education?

KREJCI: The GEAPS+KSU professional development programs partnership has been successful because it aligns with the missions of both organizations and we are collectively committed to success. The distance learning component has been recognized for excellence and innovation on three separate occasions by the University Professional and Continuing Education Association. Individuals from more than 30 countries have taken at least one course and we have experienced increasing use of our courses and operations management credential program by employers as an HR development resource. With 26 courses currently available covering a broad spectrum of operations management competencies, the potential for growth in utilization on a global scale is tremendous.

WG: Is there potential for partnerships from similar organizations from other countries going forward?

KREJCI: There are ongoing considerations and conversations about the potential and prospects for collaboration with other organizations where there is a reciprocal understanding and agreement that collaboration would be mutually beneficial.

During my tenure at GEAPS, the potential and prospects for collaboration has always been a strategic priority. By definition, collaboration is the heart and soul of any successful association. The key to successful collaboration is alignment of mission and equity in the relationship. Partnerships take collaboration to a higher level. As is the case with GEAPS and Kansas State University, the work product of our collaboration is an asset in which we have shared investment as well as ownership. It’s more than collaboration, a relationship of individuals, it’s an institutional commitment with shared obligations and risks as well as benefits.

But any partnership must begin with a sustained interest in collaboration as well as capacity to pursue that interest, including allocation of appropriate and sufficient resources.

WG: The industry is going through a difficult period with grain prices remaining stagnant, more grain storage going to on-farm bins, farmers trying to bypass the middleman and sell their grain directly to the end user. Do you think these trends are just cyclical or do you think they are more permanent in nature?

KREJCI: Depressed grain prices and margins, increased on-farm storage, shifting end-use demand and resulting distribution patterns are persistently recurring dynamics in the supply chain. My only insight is that that experience, while seeming acute, is also chronic and ultimately favors the most efficient and innovative adapters to change; enterprises that are most adept to thriving in a market where change is a constant.

WG: What are you most proud of regarding your tenure with GEAPS?

KREJCI: That GEAPS members and particularly leaders and stakeholders recognize that GEAPS brand is well and positively respected as an industry resource and its evolution is viewed as continual improvement. I have worked with and for some 75 GEAPS presidents and never encountered one that is not proud of GEAPS and optimistic about its future.

WG: What will be the biggest challenge for the person who follows you in this position?

KREJCI: The biggest challenge is and has always been the successful pursuit of the greatest opportunity: to ensure that GEAPS achieves its full potential in pursuit of its vision by attracting and engaging individuals and industry stakeholders with a passion for that pursuit.

WG: What are your plans after you leave GEAPS? Will you be fully retired, or will you still maintain a connection to the industry?

KREJCI: My immediate plan, perhaps more of a concept, is to take full advantage of the newly available free time with my wife Jeananne and our growing family of in-laws and grandchildren. I haven’t developed that concept into a plan.

My focus and attention have been on working with GEAPS leaders and my staff colleagues to help ensure a success in the leadership team transition … success being the critical operative term in succession. I also hope to stay connected with the industry in some way by discovering and pursuing opportunities if and whenever I might be of further service.

Growth means fewer sites meet criteria for GEAPS Exchange

Some eyebrows were raised when GEAPS unveiled its list of future Exchanges and Kansas City, Missouri, U.S., was selected to host the event for three straight years beginning in 2022.

Is this a trial run to see if Kansas City should be a permanent site for the annual event, which routinely draws nearly 3,000 attendees and more than 400 exhibitors from 20 or more countries?

Yes and no, said David Krejci, executive vice-president of GEAPS, noting that “it turns out it could be a trial run, but the decision wasn’t initially made to make it a trial run.”

The organization traditionally has moved its annual Exchange, which includes a trade show, networking opportunities and educational programing, to various sites around North America. Finding the right-sized venue at the time of the year when the Exchange is traditionally held (late winter/early spring) has become increasingly difficult as the event has grown.

“Where we can go and afford to go is really limited,” Krejci explained. “Everybody likes one big, giant hall with no columns, and suddenly you have a pretty short list of where you can go. Right now, we’re renting 400,000 square feet of space for the exhibition, and that prevents us from going to some places that we’ve been in the past.”

He said after some debate, GEAPS decided that it wanted to go to sites with enough space that they could accommodate the event’s growing number of participants and not turn people away, which had to be done at this year’s event in New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.

“Of all the sites that fit, Kansas City fits the best,” Krejci said. “The exposition hall is larger than we need but it’s all one space. When the International Board chose Kansas City for the 2022 location and began looking at 2023, there was no place that met the site selection criteria that year except Kansas City. We then asked Kansas City for a three-year proposal. We were able, in a competitive market, to guarantee space at today’s rates. They told is if we buy all three years, they would lock in the prices.”

While holding Exchange at the same site for three consecutive years will test the merits of a fixed location, we won’t know the results before we need to select the sites 2025, 2026, 2027 and 2028.

“The big challenge is what are we going to do?” Krejci said. “Some people think this is what we should have been doing all along, while others disagree with that.”

GEAPS Exchange will be held in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S., in 2020 and Columbus, Ohio, U.S., in 2021.