Example Of “true Human Dignity” Inspires The Rise Of A Global Leader

Esmail Zirakparvar got off the plane in Des Moines from Iran in 1975 as a brutal blizzard gripped the Midwest. With him he had only one suitcase. It did not include a winter coat. Iowa State University drew him across the world to a country where he was unfamiliar with the language, and climate, because it was known as one of the top agricultural universities in the world and for welcoming and embracing those not fluent in English.

Zirakparvar (MS ’77 plant pathology,PhD ’79) was pleased to discover Iowa State’s reputation was true. In Don Norton, professor of plant pathology, he found a mentor and friend. He found a warm welcome.

Zirakparvar says Norton’s teaching provided the basis for a career that would come to include steering one of the world’s leading companies in crop protection, pest control and biotechnology—Bayer CropScience.

In Norton’s nematology lab Zirakparvar also found a partner for his journey. He met his wife, Mary, working alongside him in Norton’s lab. Mary earned a plant pathology master’s degree in 1980.

Zirakparvar’s research is credited for discovering the first known presence of soybean cyst nematode in Iowa. Cyst nematodes are damaging pathogens of plants worldwide. Soybean cyst nematodes cause an estimated loss of $1 billion dollars annually to U.S. soybean producers.

Upon leaving Iowa State Mary worked in nematology at Clemson University and North Carolina State University for several years. Esmail went on to lead and manage businesses for Union Carbide, Rhone-Poulenc Agro, Aventis CropScience and Bayer CropScience in North America, South America, Europe and the Asia Pacific countries.

During his time with Bayer Rhone Poulenc Agro in France, Zirakparvar oversaw technology transfer and management of a new compound now known commercially for one of its uses as Frontline, a flea and tick treatment for pets.

He says he enjoyed moving within the company to see how he could address different challenges. “I realized I could have more impact in management and leadership than in the lab,” Zirakparvar says.

As board member and chief operating officer of Bayer CropScience AG in Germany, Zirakparvar played a key role in the merger integration of the agricultural businesses of Aventis and Bayer in 2004.

“Dr. Zirakparvar was instrumental in growing Bayer CropScience to its current leading global position in agriculture,” says Thomas Baum, professor and chair of the plant pathology department at Iowa State. “He also ensured Bayer CropScience was a global player dedicated to solving food shortages through safe, improved crops and crop products that offer higher yields, more nutrition and fewer inputs.” Zirakparvar says it was the “no nonsense” attitude he learned at Iowa State that made his success possible.

“The foundation I learned at Iowa State was not to worry about politics and just get the job done. That is a huge, huge factor in successfully managing people. Don Norton not only guided my scientific development, he demonstrated a wonderful way to deal with people,” Esmail says. “I am fortunateto have trained under this legend in the field of nematology and this great example of true human dignity.”

Mary adds simply, “Esmail listens to people. If you don’t listen how will you ever know how to motivate them?” Zirakparvar retired as President and COO Chief Executive Officer of Bayer CropScience LP in 2006.

He smiles as he calls his career a “fantastic ride, not possible without the lady who was always next to me and followed me around the world twice.”

Since retiring, among other activities, Zirakparvar has stayed connected to agricultural fields. He has been part of Precision BioScience’s advisory board and in 2010 he joined American Vanguard Corporation, an agricultural products company, as a member of its Board of Directors.

Eric Wintemute, chairman and chief executive officer of American Vanguard says “Esmail’s tremendous international experience allows him to contribute significantly to our analysis of global agribusiness opportunities. His insights into the technological aspects of agriculture and pest control have aided us in strategic and acquisition decision-making.”

The Zirakparvars remain connected with Iowa State. They are members of the Order of Knoll President’s Circle and Campanile Society and members of the Iowa State Unviersiy Alumni Association.

In 2013, Esmail received the Distinguished Alumni Award, the highest honor given to alumni by the ISU Alumni Association. The award honors individuals nationally or internationally recognized for preeminent contributions to their professions or life’s work.
Esmail delivered a presentation at the Don C. Norton Lecture at Iowa State to honor his former professor in 2008. And they funded a research endowment in plant pathology and microbiology to honor Norton. The Zirakparvar Research Endowment in Plant Pathology is intended “to advance the excellence of research within the department to continue its world class reputation.”

“Earnings from this endowment could be used to recruit graduate students or for fellowship support to help attract excellent students,” Baum says. “That’s the challenge we all have—to get the best students. This will be a great tool to do that.”
Esmail says it’s important to help society advance and have a lasting impact in education.
“The discovery of something better— that’s the reason why we established the endowment,” he says. “And as a thank you for all Iowa State University has given us.”

Esmail Zirakparvar, retired chief operating officer, president and chief executive officer of Bayer CropScience, says it was the example of the late plant pathology professor Don Norton (at left) that taught him how to lead. We pressed him to share a few of Norton’s lessons and he offers these insights for successfully managing people:

  • Be genuine in what you say even if what you say isn’t to someone’s liking. They will respect you for it.
  • Respect people as equal to yourself. We are all human beings.
  • You owe it to those you work with to offer straight feedback.
  • Never ask people to do things you wouldn’t do yourself.
  • As a leader you have to ask what can I do for them not what can they do for me.
  • Honesty isn’t replaceable. Trust can move mountains.
  • You can’t spend time worrying about failing; you need to spend more time doing your best. Sometimes failure is an important component of the job—then admit when things don’t work and move on.
  • When not all team members agree on a task, there are two choices—you can be an obstacle, or you can see others’ point of view and move forward. If the others are proven wrong you will still be rewarded for your contribution.