Under Thornton's leadership, the NWTF is poised to achieve new levels of success.
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Meet Our New Chief, George Thornton
The new CEO shares his vision for the future of the NWTF in an interview with the editor of Turkey Call.
By Burt Carey
George Thornton is certainly a man in heavy demand. In just over a month on the job as the new CEO of the National Wild Turkey Federation, he’s shaken the hands of dozens of leaders of conservation and hunting organizations, talked to hundreds of NWTF volunteers, and has met or personally talked with every employee of the Federation. And somehow he’s found the time to reorganize the Federation’s operational field staff and put a plan into effect that has energized staff and volunteers alike.
As letters of support began pouring into NWTF Headquarters from state chapter boards across the nation, NWTF members started to get a glimpse of the man selected to lead the organization through the next phase of its storied history.
An established leader in agribusiness, Thornton was named chief executive officer for the NWTF June 2, and began his duties immediately.
Thornton is well known throughout the agribusiness community, most recently as president and chief executive officer of Agriliance, LLC, a leading agricultural input distributor in North America providing retailers and producers with crop nutrients, crop protection products, seed and equipment. Thornton, who retired from Agriliance in August 2007, also served in various sales, financial, management and volunteer positions throughout his career. In 2006, George was named Agribusiness leader of the year by the National Agricultural Marketing Association.
Turkey Call Editor Burt Carey sat down to interview Thornton on behalf of the Federation’s staff and volunteers. Portions of that interview follow. You can listen to or watch the full interview online at www.nwtf.org.
Turkey Call: George, can you tell us a little about your family?
George Thornton: I married Beth Chalmers 38 years ago. We met at the University of Georgia in Athens, and were married before we graduated. We (have) two lovely children. Our daughter Darcy is 36, and our son Ben is 29.
TC: And you have a dog. You’ve got to mention Lucy...
Thornton: We have a grand dog, a black Lab who is in her fifth year. We bought her from a trainer out of St. Cloud, Minn. She’s trained for ducks and pheasants and loves to hunt.
TC: I understand you’re a man of faith and obviously a man who believes in having a strong family. Can you tell us a little about that?
Thornton: I have a very strong belief that without having a humble appreciation for the blessings that we all have in our lives, and without being able to express a thanks for that, that it’s very difficult to be centered. I also have a belief that faith is very important as we go through the struggles in life and that there are a lot of things that we can’t handle on our own. If we ask for guidance then we’ll be given guidance. I try to think about that every day.
TC: Who introduced you to hunting?
Thornton: It was my dad. I started hunting with my dad when I was big enough to tag along. I got my first shotgun when I was 10. I still have it, a single-barrel .410. The (receiver) on it is a little bit worn out. (laughs) We raised beagles, and did a lot of rabbit hunting. We did a lot of deer hunting. We hunted just about anything you could hunt.
TC: What influence has hunting had on your life?
Thornton: Hunting led to my appreciation for conservation. As a young man it was so easy to hunt. We had plenty of habitat. As I got into my 20s and 30s and began to move around I didn’t have access to hunt. As I got a little bit older, I was fortunate enough to be able to buy some land, and the first thing I wanted to do was to improve habitat. I began to read everything I could read about habitat management.
TC: Given your credentials, what attracted you to the CEO position of the NWTF?
Thornton: It felt like a calling. When I became aware of the search, I discussed it with my wife. We were deciding what to do with the rest of our lives. I thought, “Here’s an opportunity to work in an area that is grounded around conservation, supports hunting heritage, supports Second Amendment rights,” things that are very important to me. I could not have scripted something that better fit the things that are important to me.
TC: How would you describe your leadership style?
Thornton: I would hope that someone else would describe my leadership style as very participative. I think I have good listening skills (and) the ability to synthesize a lot of different viewpoints. (It’s) a very active style. I believe that after you’ve done your homework, it’s important that you take decisions and move with some speed after the right amount of deliberation. It’s important that an organization see a leader as is having the strength of conviction to make strong, appropriate decisions and to put them quickly into place.
TC: Why conservation work? What about conservation work appeals to you so greatly?
Thornton: It is in my blood; I really am an aggie. I love the land. I am passionate about sustainable, production agriculture. There’s a dynamic tension between habitat maintenance and restoration, and production agriculture. We’re all familiar with the debates of Amazonian rainforests and marginal land in production and what’s happened with the positive things around the Conservation Reserve Program in the United States. All of that is about land and how we wisely steward our most important natural resource.
TC: How do you see your background in agriculture fitting in or influencing the NWTF’s conservation model?
Thornton: I think a lot of issues are, if not the same, very, very similar. People (who) are involved in production agriculture, in my experience, are the best stewards of the land. They’re on the land every day; they own it, they depend on it for their livelihood. They’re not going to do anything consciously to damage or deteriorate the quality of the land. By nature, they are outdoors people: They hunt, they fish, they like to be out to watch what’s happening in terms of the natural cycle of things on their land. So we have a common voice and a common interest. The groups we need to influence — the policy groups and decision makers in Washington — (need to) hear from us. We are one in the same groups.
Agriculture and agribusiness have a tremendous amount of resource they are freely willing to commit to the right conservation groups. Fortunately, I have a lot of contacts within that group. I intend to use my Rolodex wisely, frequently and passionately.
TC: Why do you believe in the NWTF?
Thornton: I think the mission is right on target. The mission of conservation in terms of restoring and maintaining habitat for the wild turkey is right over the target. But it’s not just about the wild turkey. Everything we do benefits multiple species. That appeals to me greatly.
TC: Are there other general principles you operate by that you are going to incorporate into the NWTF to help us survive and prosper?
Thornton: There are no passengers in an organization. Everybody gets a paddle, everyone gets to put it in the water, and everybody has a hand in propelling us forward. I want everybody here fully engaged to the fullest of (his or her) ability, to have a hand in driving this organization forward.
The good news is I haven’t met a passenger yet. I told my wife that I’ve had jobs before where I go home tired. (Now,) I go home energized. I find all of you giving me energy.
TC: Let’s talk about that mission. What are your thoughts about the NWTF mission of conserving the wild turkey and preserving our hunting heritage?
Thornton: Several people have asked me what aspect of the mission we’ll be emphasizing. Will it be conservation or hunting heritage? The answer to that is yes. You can’t have one without the other.
I love the way the mission is crafted and the way it’s expressed. Everybody that was involved in creating that over the last 35 years were thoughtful and knowledgeable about what needed to be done in terms of restoring the wild turkey. They also began to realize what was happening in our greater society in terms of a de-emphasis on hunting or negative impressions of hunting.
TC: What has been the most striking issue, the most striking thing you’ve witnessed so far?
Thornton: Without a doubt, the energy of the employees. We’ve had a lot of transition in the Federation over the last 12 months. I can’t see where the Federation has missed even one beat. That is a real tribute to having the right people in the right jobs with the right professional skills.
TC: What is your vision for the NWTF’s future?
Thornton: I see a very, very bright future. I don’t buy into the notion that we have completed the conservation mission. I’m very conscious of how quickly we could go backwards if there’s not a loud voice and a lot of energy directed at keeping that part of our mission at the forefront. I see a continuing challenge there.
I do not believe in resting on our laurels. Our laurels are considerable, but we need to stay steady and continue to pursue the conservation mission as we have in the past.
The hunting heritage side of the mission is equally challenging because we have an urbanizing society, we have very vocal groups who are anti-hunting and anti-gun ownership. We have to tell our story in a way that’s balanced and compelling.
I would like to see us expand our membership (and) our funding. I would like to see us reinvigorate the relationship with our partners in Mexico with the Mexican Federation. The Canadian experience has been positive, but we can do more there.
I would like to see us talk about the benefits that we’re providing for other species — programs and benefits that tie in like hand in glove with the turkey mission.
I’d like to see us reach out to sister organizations. We already have deep, long ties with virtually all the other conservation federations and associations. But they’re facing the same challenges that we face, and I think there’s strength in unity.
TC: What changes do you see taking place with the NWTF over the next year or two? What are some of our short-term goals?
Thornton: Short-term goals are around training. There’s a lot that we can do for our regional directors, giving them tools and training so that we can offer a richer volunteer experience — a richer experience at banquets, a richer experience at Women’s, and Wheelin’, and JAKES events — tools to help them create new types of events to bring in different audiences we want to reach.
We can do a much better job of integrating the Women In The Outdoors program into the core fabric of the Federation so that (it) becomes one in the same program. We’ve got people reaching out to us who want to hear more about the JAKES program.
The opportunities are limitless. We are only constrained by time, resource and our own imagination.
TC: What message are you taking to the chapters? I understand that you have a pretty aggressive idea of going out and visiting as many chapters and as many volunteers as you can. What’s your thinking behind that?
Thornton: It’s pretty simple. We are our volunteers, nothing more and nothing less. All of us, not just me, need to listen to the chapters. We need to understand the challenges that the leadership and the chapters are facing.
There is a lot of discussion going on right now about the Super Fund. The Super Fund has been phenomenally successful. That must continue and I want to hear firsthand how people have achieved what they’ve achieved, what their goals are, and to make sure our activities are aligned with them so that we get maximum efficiency.
TC: What issues do we need to drive as an organization?
Thornton: Awareness of our accomplishments is number one. We’ve got a great story we (need) to tell it to an ever-widening audience more frequently. I think we’ve got to be in Washington talking to policymakers and legislators, and educating them. There’s a large group of people who have not heard the story or appreciated it fully.
TC: You talked about the Super Fund and our volunteers. What message do you have for our members who have supported our organization all of these years?
Thornton: A very simple one: Thank you. Thank you from the bottom of all of our hearts as staff of the Federation. Nothing would be possible without the good works and the commitment of (your) time and money. Help us understand your challenges. Help us understand ways to reach out to ever-widening communities so that we can fund the good work that’s being spearheaded in Dr. Kennamer’s group. That’s who we are. That’s why we’re here. Let’s not lose sight of that.
I’ve met some of our sponsors, not all of them. Sponsors are so important to everything we do. (They) support us for two reasons: One is because of belief in the mission, and that’s fundamental. It is also a business proposition, and we need to add value to them (by) expressing our appreciation for the contributions they are making to us. In exchange, we want to make their support visible to the membership so that it is a value-added experience for them.
TC: What actions do you think we should take here at headquarters to help our chapter system grow and become even stronger than it already is?
Thornton: We need to listen. We need to proactively listen, we need to be on the phone, in our cars and on airplanes, and we need to go out and seek information about their experience and their needs. But it’s not sufficient just to listen. We’ve got to listen, we’ve got to synthesize, and we’ve got to take action on their needs to enrich the experience of the volunteers.
TC: What are your feelings about our outreach programs — Women In The Outdoors, JAKES, Wheelin’ Sportsmen — how do you think they fit into the overall mission of the NWTF?
Thornton: That is something that has been foremost on my mind. This will sound critical, (though) it is more just an observation: I don’t believe our outreach programs are separate programs or silos to be managed independently. I believe they are part of the core fabric of the Federation. The specific activities and goals of those programs need to be incorporated into our major banquet, fundraising and educational activities. Outreach programs are a big part of who we are and an even bigger part of who we will be.
TC: What are the biggest issues that you see facing hunters right now?
Thornton: Access to hunting lands is a big issue. In my lifetime the access issue has gone from not being an issue to being a significant issue. As a child we could walk onto someone’s porch and knock on the door after school and ask permission to hunt, and it was more often than not granted. We were respectful of it. That’s no longer possible in many parts of the country. We’ve got to continue to promote access on public — state and federal — lands for people. Without access it becomes a moot point.
TC: Are there other issues that hunters are facing?
Thornton: I think there are significant issues; I would call them perception issues. There are groups and voices that are absolutely opposed to hunting — on ethical grounds, on safety grounds. Some of that is out of a deeply held conviction and commitment. I think some of it is based on ignorance of who hunters are (and) why people hunt.
That perception issue is very difficult to address. It takes a lot of resource (and) time, and it takes a lot of listening. It’s one thing to go out and project a defensive measure, but sometimes that’s not the most effective way. If we can listen to what people are saying and understand why they object to hunting, then we may be able to help them find ways to understand why hunting is an important part of the whole outdoor experience.
TC: What are some of the ways that hunters can work toward passing those opportunities on to our children, our grandchildren and future generations?
Thornton: The inter-generational experience is something that strikes a chord with me. It is one of the best ways for a grandfather to take a grandchild, or a father or mother, or an aunt or an uncle to take a child and spend the day with them. They can go out, they can hunt, they can understand wildlife behavior, they can understand the interaction with habitat. That process teaches them an awful lot about planning, preparation (and) execution of a plan. Those are experiences we carry through all of our lives. You don’t get that with a video game. I’m a big fan of team sports, but you don’t get that one-on-one learning with a team sport, so there’s a place in the use of our time with our children to have that experience.