It’s only been a few months since Aquatrols Corp. of America promoted Matt Foster from COO to president and CEO. That would qualify as a major accomplishment in just about anyone’s career, given that the Paulson, New Jersey-based company is the world’s largest manufacturer of soil surfactants and related technologies.
But while Foster is honored and grateful for the opportunity to lead such a pioneering company — after all, Aquatrols introduced the world’s first soil surfactant more than 60 years ago — this is an opportunity he’s been chasing for decades. “I don’t know if, at [age] 25, I knew I wanted to be a CEO someday, but I did know that I wanted to run something,” he says. “I wanted the proverbial ball in my hands. I wanted to be challenged.”
Foster, a one-time superintendent and self-described dreamer, sat down with Superintendent to outline his journey from a college student studying aviation to the chief executive at one of the world’s foremost agricultural chemical companies.
Let’s start with where you are today. Tell me a little about Aquatrols, what the company does, and how it came into being.
Aquatrols was founded in1954 with the introduction of the world’s first commercially sold soil surfactant. For 60 years, Aquatrols has remained the industry leader in surfactant technology. That doesn’t happen by accident. There is a wealth of talent in the organization that cannot be overstated. Under my leadership, we’ve renewed our commitment to research and development, adding team members and resources that will keep us on the cutting edge of the industry. I think Aquatrols’ brightest days are still ahead of us. I really mean that. For a company with 60 years of history, that’s saying something.
Let’s take a step back. Give us a little background about yourself: where you grew up, your education and how you got into golf.
I was born in Kansas, but spent most of my childhood in Nebraska. I ended up graduating high school outside of New Orleans and studied aviation at Louisiana Tech University before getting my MBA at Tulane.
A year before I graduated, I realized that I wasn’t going to pursue a career in aviation. Knowing my interests, a good friend of mine suggested that I look into the turf management program at Mississippi State University. I got a job on MSU’s golf course, and I was hooked. I got to know a lot of the students and professors in the turf program while I was working. I remember asking Dr. Mike Goatley (now at Virginia Tech) if I needed to get a second undergraduate degree to be a superintendent. He said, “Nope.” So I just kept working and started down a path that brought me to where I am today.
Can you outline some of the major developments in your career, beginning with your time as a superintendent?
A professor once told me, “To truly love something, you have to know it intimately.” As a superintendent, I developed a love for a game I’d been playing for 15 years. That time allowed me to truly appreciate the incredible work that goes into managing a golf course.
After my career as a superintendent, I spent time as a distributor sales rep, one of the most important positions I’ve ever held. That role is the linchpin for our industry. These men and women connect end users with suppliers, moving the industry forward by introducing them to new products and ways of doing things.
I’ve held sales management roles in varying degrees, from junior to executive levels. The behaviors do not change — only the stakes. Decisions in sales management positions can be difficult and personal, but necessary.
I had an incredibly robust run at FMC Corp., where most of my time was spent in strategic marketing. I had the luxury of working for a man named John Kasper, who was easily my biggest mentor in business (outside of my father). This is where the tide really started turning for me. Once you have a grasp of strategic marketing, you can move mountains.
When you were a superintendent, what steps did you take to prepare yourself for the next career challenge? What kinds of opportunities should supers be on the lookout for, if they want to advance the way you did?
I’ve always been a dreamer — not in the sense of daydreaming, but in the “20 years down the road” sense. That’s just how I’m wired. I don’t know if, at [age] 25, I knew I wanted to be a CEO someday, but I did know that I wanted to run something. I wanted the proverbial ball in my hands. I wanted to be challenged. I’ve always kept a bit of a chip on my shoulder in this industry because I’m not a turf grad like most others. It’s a major motivator for me. That — and I’m a persistent S.O.B.
Having said that, it’s difficult for me to give advice to supers in general. I think everyone has something that makes him or her tick. I think our biggest challenge is being truly honest with ourselves and discovering what it is that makes us get out of bed every morning. It’s harder than you might think, because everyone has people telling them what they should want or what they should be doing. But deep down, you know what you want. Listen to that. Follow it. If you want to be the best superintendent you can be, I believe you will drive yourself toward that success instinctively. If you want to run a company, you will do whatever it takes to drive toward that goal. It’s when we don’t know what we want that things don’t move forward.
Now, let’s talk a bit about joining Aquatrols. What made you want to join the company in the first place and what was the most valuable experience you brought to Aquatrols, from a personal and professional standpoint?
When the Rural American Fund acquired Aquatrols and approached me with this opportunity, I realized that it was a chance to do what I’ve always wanted. The timing was right. The groundwork was laid. The ball was there. I said earlier that I want the ball in my hands. Well, here was a perfect opportunity to grab it.
This is such a unique position for any company in any industry to be in: an organization with 60 years of success, suddenly injected with new life and resources for the future. That doesn’t happen a whole lot. The potential excited me, and it still does. As I transitioned into the CEO role earlier this year, I could see clearly what I wanted for the company, our employees, our customers and myself. I’m excited for the rest of the world to see that vision come to life.
Looking back, what would you do differently? Did you learn some things the hard way?
Reflecting back on my journey, there’s nothing I would change — but that doesn’t mean I didn’t make mistakes along the way. Of course, making mistakes is the most effective way humans learn. So, try not to have regrets, but remember the times you felt like an idiot — it’s one hell of a motivator. Trust me.
It’s also important to have patience. About 20 years ago, when I was giving myself ulcers about not having taken over the world yet, I read a compilation of advice from Fortune 500 CEOs (maybe 100 or so). One anecdote came from a CEO whose name I can’t remember, but the message I certainly do. I’m paraphrasing, but the message was: “Find yourself in your 20s. Your career is just getting started in your 30s. Your 40s are when you are really blazing a trail, and your 50s are spent preparing to wind down.” It really helped me put things in perspective and it obviously stuck with me.
Looking at yourself and your career, what are the three most important attributes that made you successful?
I tell all of our employees, “If you want to be on my team, you need a strong work ethic, integrity and intellectual curiosity.” If you have these, it’s possible to overcome just about anything. I’d like to think those are the values that have helped me the most and are mirrored in Aquatrols’ core values today: to innovate, improve and inspire. Oh, and have I mentioned persistence?