15 Minutes With… Amy O’Shea, President and CEO of Certis Biologicals
This article was first published in our sister publication, Women in Agribusiness (WIA) Today
Whether a producer for conventional or organic crops, Certis Biologicals (“Certis”) has the products to encourage growth and resilience in food supply chains around the world. Since 2001, the company, which is led by President and CEO Amy O’Shea, has been pioneering the field of biological solutions through innovation and ingenuity.
With headquarters in Columbia, Maryland, this company of Mitsui & Co. of Japan is a manufacturer, developer, and marketer of biological solutions for commercial agriculture and the garden and greenhouse markets. Its list of more than 30 products comprise the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programs of pest control advisors, crop consultants, and agronomists around the globe. Certis’ broad-spectrum pest and disease control alternatives are not harmful to non-targeted organisms and are adaptable for use in conventional and organic crop production, offering performance comparable to or better than conventional chemistries, resulting in healthier crops and better yields.
More than 130 industry leaders in the U.S., Mexico, and Europe are behind the disruptive technologies developed at Certis. Most recently they are perfecting a bacteriophage technology to combat pervasive plant diseases, such as fire blight, citrus canker, and tomato speck and spot.
The company is moving forward quickly under the direction of O’Shea, who is a multifaceted global executive with more than 20 years of experience in sales, marketing, strategy, innovation, and general management, leading more than $1 billion P&Ls across a variety of markets. She is a veteran of the agriculture, food, and pharmaceutical industries, having served multiple consecutive executive roles with agricultural science company FMC Corp. prior to being named president for Certis in February 2020.
WIA Today sat down with O’Shea to get more details.
1). Certis has introduced over 10 new products in the past five years. Please tell us more about these and the goals and innovation behind them.
Our goal is always to provide sustainable, effective crop solutions to meet increasing demand for Integrated Pest Management (IPM) solutions. Much of our innovation involves formulation improvements to increase grower convenience and to meet channel supply chain requirements. This includes advancements in increased shelf life, optimized use rates, and better tank mix compatibility.
For more than three decades, Certis has been a pioneer in the field of biological pesticides for commercial agricultural use. We’re proud of the robust pipeline we’ve developed and the innovations that are coming to market as a result.
A great example of this is the award-winning LifeGard WG, a first-of-its-kind biological plant activator that features a novel active ingredient to better manage foliar diseases in fruit and vegetable cropping systems. At the time of its launch, LifeGard WG was awarded runner-up for the Bernard Blum Award for Biocontrol Product of the Year, while also winning the Agrow Award for Best New Biological Product.
Recently, we launched Melocon LC, which protects organic and conventional specialty crops against nematodes. Its advancements include optimized application rates, a convenient liquid formulation, and two years stability at room temperature.
2). There’s an ever-stronger spotlight on using biopesticides in ag. What do you see as the latest game changer in the sector?
Historically, biopesticides have had a reputation for not being efficacious enough, difficult to handle, and expensive, among other things. We’re seeing a shift in perception because of the great strides that have been made the last few years in improving the performance and reliability of biopesticides.
More sophisticated formulations keep the biologicals alive longer, enabling them to be active and efficacious upon delivery. Improvements in manufacturing processes are driving higher and more consistent yields, while producing biologicals with increased stable stability. Finally, the use of precision agriculture for more targeted applications of biopesticides has improved application accuracy, delivering better results and lower, more affordable application rates.
When you combine these changes with a better overall understanding of how biopesticides work, and how they can enhance a grower’s IPM program, it’s placed a positive spotlight on this sector and the value it can bring to global agriculture.
3). How has Certis seen farmer interest in, and adoption of, biological options? What are the challenges and opportunities?
We’ve seen grower interest, awareness, and adoption for biological products all continue to grow. But there is still a gap in grower education. While the gap is shrinking, some growers don’t understand the differences between biocontrol, biostimulant, and biofertilizer products. Without that knowledge, it’s difficult to successfully implement biologicals into a crop management plan.
Another rising challenge comes as the market becomes more crowded with new entrants. Many tend to over promise on what biologicals can deliver. At Certis, we feel it’s more important than ever to clearly articulate the value proposition of biologicals. That being said, when used correctly, biologicals add performance to an established crop system. But they are not replacements for conventional inputs. They support and enhance them.
We believe there continues to be opportunities to increase rotation in the specialty crop segments where biologicals have seen greater adoption. Fresh produce export-oriented countries like New Zealand, Chile, Morocco, and Thailand are relying more and more on biologicals, and Certis is well-positioned to serve these countries as our products are registered in the EU and other regions. At the same time, there remains opportunity and interest in growing biological applications within traditional row crops.
4). What are the future goals for funding products at Certis? What will the capital influx be used for?
As a wholly owned subsidiary of Mitsui & Co. Ltd, we can focus solely on our goal of positioning Certis as a leading supplier of biological crop input products. This has served our business, partners, and customers well, as we grow our presence in both conventional and organic crop markets.
5). Your products have been used across South America, Central America, Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and beyond. Can you provide a few examples of successful outcomes?
We have the largest number of global registrations of biological products and the relationships needed to deliver those products across a multitude of market segments and geographies. Currently, our products are sold in the U.S. and exported to more than 55 countries.
One particularly successful area has been our expanding Delfin WG business in India. Delfin WG is a biological insecticide for cabbage and cauliflower, and its growth has tripled in the past two years.
Overall, we’ve seen a higher demand for American-made Certis biologicals in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa as many customers are looking for credible sources for their microbial products.
6). In your executive roles, you are known for consistently generating revenue growth, exceeding targets, and reversing profit margin decline. At Women in Agribusiness, we always speak to the importance of mastering these hard skills of business. Can you provide any feedback as to how these achievements are instrumental in career growth, especially for women?
From the boardroom to the kitchen table, women have played a major role in shaping the agriculture industry from day one. While hard skills are critical, I believe the natural soft skills women possess have tremendous application in our industry.
Based on my experience, achieving career growth in a male-dominated industry starts with building a network of strong relationships with industry professionals. In doing so, you open doors to market your talents and position yourself to be noticed, recruited, or promoted. Through your career journey, a little effort in these relationships will help you go a long way.
Along with building a solid network, leveraging mentors has significantly contributed to my success. Seeking out mentorship can be even more uncomfortable than networking for women, but the efforts I have made in this area have proven invaluable. Mentors don’t necessarily need to be women. Given the high number of male leaders in this space, there is certainly a lot to learn from them.
Relationships alone will not be enough to springboard a women’s career in agribusiness. One key attribute to success is being comfortable taking on roles that are outside your comfort zone. It is when you are uncomfortable that you learn and grow the most. In my case, I started my career in customer service, then sales, followed by marketing, and eventually P&L management. Each step along the way I grew my knowledge base and skillset, allowing me to develop into a more well-rounded professional.
I want women to know it’s OK to learn on the job. Don’t be afraid to try something new or take on projects that stretch your knowledge limits. In my current role as president and CEO, I am surrounded by a team that provides a collective skillset which helps our organization thrive. We must realize no one knows it all or does it all on their own, and being comfortable in a variety of functional areas is a sign of a strong leader.
To gain more knowledge about Mitsui and its divisions and executives, look to the 2nd annual Women in Agribusiness Japan conference, where Miyuki Uemura and Sayaka Marie Masuda will present: Sustainable Agriculture: The Future of Farming. The conference will take place in Tokyo on June 13, 2023. Learn more here.
ABOUT AMY O’SHEA
Amy O’Shea has been president and CEO of Certis Biologicals, a Mitsui company, since February 2020. She brings an exceptional record of accelerating growth, enhancing profitability, and reinvigorating diverse businesses. Previously she was vice president and business director, North America, of FMC’s Agricultural Solutions Division, where, among other substantial projects, she seamlessly integrated the North American portion of a multibillion-dollar global acquisition. Prior to that, O’Shea served as global director of marketing, strategy & innovation for FMC’s Health & Nutrition Division where she led the cultural and organizational transformation of a $900 million portfolio, integrating the siloed marketing, strategy, and innovation functions.
O’Shea graduated summa cum laude with an MBA from Drexel University and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Classical Civilizations from Boston University. Previously, she was a board member of numerous industry associations, including Crop Life America, FFA, and IFAC (International Food Additives Council). She is fluent in Spanish.