Neil Dierks: Pigs and People Handled with Care

Neil Dierks, CEO of the National Pork Producers Council ( JoAnn Alumbaugh )

Neil Dierks, CEO of the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), is one of the more unassuming leaders you’ll meet. He greets people with a warm handshake and friendly smile, and describes himself as “a brown suit kind of guy.”

Those who know him will laugh at that description for its accuracy as well as its irony. It’s true he’d rather work behind the scenes, letting producers take the spotlight. He gives credit for the organization’s successes to board members, producer leaders, his staff and farmers out in the country—never to himself. But in reality, he’s a shrewd, big-picture thinker whose quiet leadership has made NPPC one of the most respected commodity groups in the country.

Dierks is the epitome of a servant leader. Robert K. Greenleaf, the well-known leadership expert, describes servant leadership as “a philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world.” Its essence is a focus on individuals and a decentralized organizational structure.

“Neil Dierks is the quiet, unsung hero of the National Pork Producers Council,” says Barb Determan, an Iowa pork producer who served as president of NPPC in the early years of Dierks’ tenure, and who now serves as president of the U.S. Animal Health Association. She has nothing but praise for Dierks.

“He is pragmatic, thoughtful and inclusive as a leader. He believes in letting producers make the decisions affecting and leading the organization but works tirelessly to get all the information needed to make the decisions.”

Rural Background Sets the Stage
Dierks grew up on a farm near Monticello, Iowa, and says it “seemed like everyone in the community raised pigs.” He participated in school activities, including sports, speech and drama. Esther Gilbertson, his speech teacher from seventh grade through senior year, influenced his life in a number of ways, he says. She gave him advice that he still passes along to his board members before they give a presentation: “Remember, ‘sparkle’—and have a good time.”

He attended Iowa State University where he majored in speech and telecommunicative arts, and worked for a group of weekly newspapers in his hometown area after graduation. Dierks was hired by the Iowa Pork Producers Association in 1981 and was there until 1987, when he joined the staff of the Iowa Corn Promotion Board. After three years, he was anxious to come back to the pork industry and was hired by Russ Sanders to work for NPPC in March of 1990. In 2002, he took over as CEO.

“Russ saw something in me and made the decision to hire me, and it made all the difference,” Dierks says. He chuckles and adds, “Like Yogi Berra said, ‘When you come to a fork in the road, you take it.’ I’ve been very happy how my career has played out.”

Producers like Don Gingerich have had an impact on his life and career, too. Gingerich, a producer from Parnell, Iowa, was president of the Iowa Pork Producers when Dierks was hired there in 1981 and he also served as NPPC president. But he says there have been “hundreds of producers” who have influenced him over the years and who are like family.

Dierks appreciates the producers and staff members—both state and national—who laid the foundation for the industry in the early years of its existence and provided perspective with their experience. At the same time, he says it’s good to renew the organization with new blood and have people challenge your way of thinking.

“I have found over my career, if producers have the accurate and complete information, they make phenomenal decisions,” Dierks says. “Anything that the organization has achieved, it’s all due to the producer leadership. The staff represents the industry when producers can’t be there, but it truly is a producers’ organization. That’s why I’ve been very blessed to be in this industry.”

Dierks says the highlight of his career is seeing how producers have responded in times of adversity.

“When we started, I was doing weekly cash flows,” he says. “People do not realize how dire it was for NPPC at that time. But producers responded, and I think we’ve delivered on what producers wanted. When you’re voluntarily funded, it brings clarity to focus. We have limited resources so the right things have to be worked on. I’m proud of where we are today compared to where we were in 2002.

“Time and time again, if there’s a challenge, producers have responded,” he adds. “Thank God Barb Determan was president when I came on board—she was functioning as half the staff at that time.”

Conversely, Determan says, “Thank God for Neil Dierks,” as they shouldered the load together.