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Gowan grows from one to global
When Jon Jessen founded Grower Scientific Services (GSS) in 1962, he was the only employee of a company that had a projected gross revenue of just $35,000 a year.
But from that seed would grow the Gowan Group, an international corporation employing 750 people and generating an annual revenue of $500 million. The agriculture chemical company, headquartered in Yuma, sells products in 65 countries around the globe.
“I am surprised,” Jessen said after the recent 50th year celebration of his company. “I didn't think it was going to grow to this size.”
He credits his employees for the success.
“I am really proud of what happened. Obviously when something is that size, I don't take credit for it, I can't take credit for it and I shouldn't take credit for it because somebody else did it. I am very grateful for what they did.”
Without Jessen, however, the company wouldn't exist. In 1958, he left his parents' home in central California to find a job. The graduate of University of California-Davis had recently finished serving as a U.S. Army medic in Korea.
He continued driving his green 1950 Plymouth until he arrived in Yuma and went to work for Farmers Marketing.
“Upon my return from Korea in 1958, I got a job as a fieldman for an agchem dealer here in Yuma,” he said in the book “Look What We Did!” which chronicles the history of the Gowan Company.
Fieldmen inspect crops then make recommendations to farmers about how to solve existing problems using pesticides, fungicides or herbicides.
“I had my B.S. in entomology, but little else that prepared me for this job,” Jessen said. “I was 25 years old, didn't know anything about agriculture and didn't know a soul in Yuma, but I found pest control technology and the people here extremely interesting.”
He was paid $500 a month along with 5 percent of any sales he made — “which weren't much.”
For his first several days in Yuma, Jessen lived out of his car and slept in the desert. Before work in the morning, he would brush his teeth and shave at a gas station. At night he would bathe in a canal.
After living and working in Yuma for about a year, Jessen met Caroline “Liney” Lott, an elementary school teacher in Gadsden. They eventually married and would go on to have four children together: two sons and two daughters.
“She gave me the space I needed to lead the business while she raised our children and attended the human side of the enterprise,” he said. “Her dedication and warmth set the bar for our customer relations.”
In 1960, Jessen took a job as fieldman in Imperial Valley. Wanting to start his own business, he founded GSS in 1962. His brother, Eric, came to work with him that summer.
In 1964, Jessen moved his family back to Yuma.
“I liked Yuma from the beginning and still enjoy living here. This is why Yuma is the global headquarters of the Gowan Group.”
In 1965, Jessen and Eric founded Dune Co. of Yuma and Dune Co. of Imperial. The companies provided field checking services, agrochemical sales, and formulated agricultural pesticides.
“When we started in the early 1960s in Yuma and Imperial Valley, we had no assets but our own resourcefulness,” Jessen said, noting it was difficult being an upstart company.
“We tried to get all the chemicals the farmers needed, but part of our struggles was getting the manufacturers of those chemicals to sell to us, because we were very small and they were worried about our credit. We didn't have much money, and all the competitors around us didn't want them selling to us.”
The brothers survived “by working harder than others, and hard work continues to be the vitality that drives us today,” Jessen added.
In the early 1970s, John and Eric began selling insecticides in the Mexicali Valley of Mexico through Jessen & Company.
In the U.S., the business grew slowly but steadily, and in 1974, The Gowan Company was founded to provide “back office” services for the Dune Companies such as accounting, banking, payroll, insurance, purchasing and agrochemical formulation.
“We were a small company during Gowan's first decade, fewer than 20 people,” Jessen said. “Everyone knew everything that went on. Rules were informal, work was fun, no one went home at 5 p.m. and 80 percent of us could be found working on many Saturdays. Our work was never done, but we didn't mind.”
From 1978 until 1991, the Gowan Group was a wholesaler of generic agrochemicals. The company was influenced to change to proprietary agrochemicals by Jim Reynolds, who after retiring from the DuPont Company in 1989 became Gowan's promoter, investment counselor and international business director.
“Jim masterminded much of Gowan's growth,” Jessen said. “He replaced our dealer mentality and generic strategy with a new business model of acquiring and marketing proprietary products.”
In 1990, Tres Valles, now Gowan Mexicana, was founded to further business opportunities south of the border beyond the Mexicali Valley. It was overseen by Harry Balley, who had been working to promote Gowan's interests in Mexico since the mid-1970s.
Then in 1994, Gowan Milling was founded. Currently, “it is one of the most modern formulating plants in the United States,” said Mark Arnold, author of “Look What We Did!”
“Internationally it is recognized for its agrochemical water-soluble bag packaging and dry-formulation expertise.”
In 1995, Gowan began selling Japanese products, and in 1997 expanded further onto the global business stage.
“Going global enabled us to more fully exploit our assets, spread marketing and regulatory costs, gain economy of scale and crowd out competitors so they couldn't grow stronger in places we left open,” Jessen said.
In 2004, Jessen resigned as CEO to become chairman of the board of directors. His daughter, Juli Jessen, became CEO of the company.
As of 2012, the company operates in Asia, Europe, North America and South America. In addition to traditional agrochemicals, Gowan provides organic agrochemicals for use in organic farming.
Jessen is confident the company he helped create will continue to be a powerhouse well into the future, and would greatly enjoy seeing how the company has progressed in another 50 years.
“Oh, how I would like to attend our 100-year celebration and look back at this point!”
Chris McDaniel can be reached at email@example.com or 539-6849.