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Like father, like daughter

Christi Offutt is a risk taker. She took a risk when she went sky-diving in Arizona. She took a risk when she went scuba diving off the coast of Australia. She took a risk when she backpacked nine months across Europe. She took a real risk when s...

Christi Offutt is a risk taker.

She took a risk when she went sky-diving in Arizona. She took a risk when she went scuba diving off the coast of Australia.

She took a risk when she backpacked nine months across Europe.

She took a real risk when she went to work for her father's business.

Offutt is chief operating officer for Fargo-based RDO Equipment Inc., a national, publicly traded agricultural and construction equipment and truck business. RDO stands for Ronald D. Offutt, who founded the company in 1968 and took it public in 1997 on the New York Stock Exchange.

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As COO, she plots strategy for a company with a 1,325 employees. The company has 54 construction equipment stores, 30 agricultural equipment stores and 15 truck stores nationwide.

RDO Inc. in fiscal 2001 had a record $680 million in revenue. RDO Inc. is the world's largest dealer of John Deere & Co. lines of ag equipment.

"She is succeeding as a female in a dominant male industry," said her father.

While her father was growing his young business, Christi was growing up with her sisters and their mother in the Twin Cities. They later moved to Kansas, where Christi was a standout volleyball and soccer player for Blue Valley in Overland Park.

She attended the University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, Wash., on a soccer scholarship.

"I'm definitely a Midwestern girl, but my parents gave me enough exposure to the world that I wasn't shell-shocked when I went to college," she said.

Offutt played sweeper for her collegiate soccer team. It's a position reserved for the most intelligent of soccer players: The sweeper is the last line of defense in soccer in front of the goalkeeper. The sweeper is responsible not only for setting the backfield in defensive situations but directing the offensive breakouts as the team transitions to mount an attack.

After graduating, Offutt spent nine months backpacking around Europe, contemplating her future.

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"I knew as an undergraduate that I wanted some sort of graduate education, whether it be a MBA or law degree. I spent a lot of time deliberating between the two. A year out of college, I chose law," she said.

She chose Boston University's School of Law for her graduate education.

"Public-interest law was intriguing to me. Volunteer work. As an undergraduate, I had some altruistic motives," Offutt said.

She interned one summer at a Minneapolis law firm and her second summer -- much to her father's chagrin -- at the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, D.C.

"My father was mortified that I'd worked for the ACLU," she said.

Law, she said, gave her tools that have helped her succeed in business.

"To this day, I'd still pursue a law school education," Offutt said. "A MBA would be very practical, but law school taught me some discipline -- and the value of analytical thinking."

In 1996, when Ron Offutt was taking his company public, she joined him and his business entourage on the public-offering "road show," where corporate officers fly from city to city, pitching stock in their company to mutual fund managers and large investors.

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"I just started hanging around with them. I was kind of along for the ride," Offutt said.

Once the company went public, she signed on as its legal counsel.

"I did a lot of legal work the first year. But I found myself more interested in strategy and operation issues with the rapid growth of the company," Offutt said.

In December of 1998, she was named vice president of strategic planning. In June of 1999 she was promoted to senior vice president for Midwest agricultural operations, directing nine John Deere dealerships in Minnesota and the Dakotas. A $100 million region.

"The division I ran was a very successful division. What made it successful is that the field managers gave me the benefit of the doubt, and we all made each other successful," Offutt said.

In her senior vice president role, she worked closely with representatives of John Deere & Co.

"We were impressed with the management style Christi Offutt has brought to RDO Ag," said Greg Frazier, division marketing manager for John Deere & Co. in Minneapolis. "She has done an excellent job with the front-line managers of dealerships."

In February 2001 she was named chief operating officer -- the No. 2 post in the company behind the chairman, president and CEO post held by her father.

"I had a few things going against me. I was a woman -- in a very much male dominated industry. I was the daughter of the founder. I lacked store experience," Offutt said.

"But I recognized all of those hurdles, and I told myself I would work harder than anyone else -- that I would listen to people and do what I could do to earn the respect of the people in the organization."

She has earned respect.

And as for the fact she's a woman?

"Not even an issue," Frazier said. "Christi is viewed on the basis of the performance and professionalism she brings to the organization.

"Integrity and personal character means a lot more than gender."

In the last year, she spent about half her time traveling to dealerships -- getting to know the store managers, getting to know RDO's customers.

"I love spending time in the field," Offutt said. "The best insight, I find, comes from the people closest to the customer."

Steve DeWald, chief financial officer for RDO, said Offutt has exceptional people skills.

"She can get people to move in the direction she wants to go by creating a team atmosphere," he said.

She even helped create a company soccer team, "The Green Machine," at work. "Our team is awful," Offutt said. Their system? "We call it, 'run around and chase the ball,'" she said.

When it comes to work, DeWald said, Offutt keeps the game plan simple. "She certainly has been getting us to focus on the basics of this business," he said. "She keeps us focused on goals, gets us to watch the financial side of things and helps us make a few dollars.

"It's all pretty basic blocking and tackling."

Readers can reach Forum Business Editor

Gerry Gilmour at (701) 241-5560

Christi Offutt

Age: 31

Born: St. Ansgar Hospital, Moorhead

High School: Overland Park, Kan.

Undergraduate degree: politics and government, University of Puget Sound

Graduate degree: law, Boston University

Favorite sport: Soccer

Currently reading: "Germs, Guns and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies," by Jared Diamond.

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