Movers & Shakers: BJ Brugman of Distynct
BJ Brugman dreamed of being a manager of a professional baseball team. While most kids would seek the limelight as a player, BJ knew his skills on the field weren’t up to par, so he imagined the business route instead.
But when you come from a family of farmers and agribusiness folks, you can’t help but be drawn back to your roots. And that is the origin story of BJ’s professional ag journey.
After graduating from Iowa State with a degree in Agricultural Business, BJ spent nearly 8 years moving up the ranks at Elanco Animal Health, where he was able to work with global customers and understand the unique challenges facing commercial livestock producers.
When he kept discovering the same problems creeping up among his customers, he decided to do something about it.
Enter Distynct: the precision livestock platform that BJ and his co-founder launched in March 2020. The goal? To enable remote management of livestock facilities and unleash the power of connectivity at the barn level.
When he’s not busy scaling his new venture, you might find BJ hanging out with hostage negotiators, cycling in Iowa’s famous RAGBRAI, or riding out Covid-19 in lockdown in France. Let’s just say he’s one for an adventure.
Magnetic caught BJ for a Q&A to hear all about his professional ag career path so far, and what the future holds:
Magnetic: Tell us a little about your upbringing. Could you ever have foreshadowed a career in the pork industry?
I grew up on a row-crop farm near Royal in Northwest Iowa. My mom is a healthcare provider and my dad farms. Everyone around me was tied to agriculture in some way. If you didn’t farm, you provided an agriculture-related input or service. All my immediate relatives in the area have careers in agriculture or food production. I would not have predicted joining the pork industry specifically, that passion came from the time I spent working with producers in Iowa, Minnesota, and North Carolina in my roles with Elanco.
Give our readers a sense of Distynct’s mission and how it can shape the future of pork production.
Distynct is on a mission to enable precision livestock farming for all livestock producers. We know that producer’s appetites for precision technology are growing, and we help them begin that journey. It starts with foundational connectivity at rural sites, something that was a huge challenge prior to Distynct. After that, we work directly with the enterprise to deploy off-the-shelf sensors to start addressing the barn’s most critical questions. Once barns get connected to the Distynct system, we work to deploy the most advanced, yet acceptable solutions for these producers to optimize inputs and team resources.
Your entire career was with Elanco prior to jumpstarting Distynct. What has been your biggest ‘ah-ha’ pivoting from a large, public animal health company to a scrappy startup?
It is easy to make the comparison of big companies and startups in terms of efficiency, the speed of decision making, and the nimbleness to meet customer needs. Things just move faster at a startup.
However, I would say that it is also possible to operate efficiently, but in the wrong direction. It’s possible to make bad decisions fast. It’s possible that nimbleness leads to no clear focus. I was trained by some of the best in the industry and appreciate how the processes of a large publicly traded company can be implemented at a startup. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but I am thankful for that training every day. Having a team of 7 is very different than a team of 2,000, so we can call plays fast and execute on our strategy with efficiency. We are mindful of that advantage.
While at Elanco, you completed the MS-MBA in Food & Agribusiness between Purdue University and Indiana University. Why did you want to do that program and how did it help you the most professionally?
It’s incredible how many of the relationships created from that program have led to strong personal friendships. Those ties have helped professionally as well. In a world where introductions are key to making connections, it’s been valuable to have a diverse network across the agricultural community.
An MBA isn’t going to improve one’s IQ, but the background and the knowledge created by that coursework helped me be more curious. I think I ask questions through an additional lens today that I would not have previously considered.
You rode out the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic over in France. Why were you over there and what was that like?
My wife, Kayla, works for Bayer Environmental Science and her team was based in Lyon, France. We moved there in January of 2020 and the world shut down shortly after. From a business standpoint, Zoom became the norm, so I was able to connect with our team and clients very regularly. Only a couple times did someone notice that it was dark in the background when it should have been mid-afternoon.
On the personal side, my diet in France pretty much consisted of baguettes, sausage, and cheese. Somehow, I lost weight. So, be looking for my diet fad book to be hitting the shelves at any moment.
Tell us a favorite business book and key takeaway from it.
The book, “Never Split the Difference” by Chris Voss completely changed my mindset about how I work with people. Customers, colleagues, family, and friends – every single conversation is a negotiation. Voss, who is a former FBI hostage negotiator and Iowa State alum, helped me think about conversation less like a script and instead encouraged me to simply “listen.” It sure isn’t complex, but it’s hard for us to do.
When we listen and can repeat back to a person what we heard from their point of view, we show empathy and empathy builds trust. I have so many examples of this being successful. I’ve met Chris in person, and I thought perhaps he would buy me a beer for all the books I’ve sold for him. Still waiting.
In another life, if you weren’t in agriculture, what do you think you’d be doing as a career?
I always wanted to be the manager of a professional baseball team. Of course, I would have preferred to be a player, but it turns out I need to be better at throwing, hitting, and being tall and fast. So, I probably won’t get the call to play anytime soon, but I’d love to be involved in a professional sports organization, particularly baseball. The game of baseball isn’t complex, but the strategy can be. It’s a long season. Do you win today and sacrifice the next 4-5 games? Lots of similarities to business and real life.
What does BJ like to do in his free time?
I like to exercise. My time at the gym is my reset time and I need it every day. I prioritize it even on a busy day because it’s important to me. I like to push myself and try different physical activities. I’ve run a marathon, mountain biked, and rode a few days of RAGBRAI. Not everyone is physically able to do things like that, so I appreciate that I can do those things today. Someday, I may not be able to. If Covid taught us anything, it’s that our bodies need to be in the best possible position to battle at all times.