Already a subscriber? Log in
- Unparalleled business coverage of the Iowa City / Cedar Rapids corridor.
- Immediate access to subscriber-only content on our website.
- 52 issues per year delivered digitally, in print or both.
- Support locally owned and operated journalism.
In her latest leadership role at Deere & Co., Mara Downing shepherds the messaging and branding of the John Deere story – a story that has intertwined with her life through her Midwest upbringing to her career path. The vice president of John Deere Global Brand and Communications since November 2019, Ms. Downing is a third-generation Deere employee. She followed her father Ron Sovey, a retired senior manager-labor relations, and grandfather Glenn Sovey, who was an East Moline Harvester Works production worker, into her career with the agricultural giant. She has lived in Deere towns from Horicon, Wisconsin, where she was born, to Dubuque, Iowa, and finally the Quad Cities, where she attended middle school and high school and graduated from St. Ambrose University. “So the Quad Cities is home for me,” said Ms. Downing, who joined Deere on Sept. 11, 2000. She also holds an MBA from the Kellogg School of Business at Northwestern University. Before her latest position, she was director of Deere’s global brand management and corporate citizenship and the John Deere Foundation president. Of the latter role, Ms. Downey said, “When you think of Deere doing business in 30 different countries and us providing support in about every place where we do business and you think about our presence even here in the Midwest, that translates to millions of dollars (in giving) just in the Quad Cities.” It’s that concern for her hometown and for others that drives her to share Deere’s corporate citizenship story. “It is personal for me,” Ms. Downing said. “You want people to be proud to live in the Quad Cities and tell their friends to come live here and start a career and continue to see the community thrive.” Today, Ms. Downing, 46, oversees Deere’s enterprise communication activities, such as public relations, social media, and internal and external communications. Her team is responsible for the iconic brand, corporate citizenship, the John Deere Foundation and Deere’s licensed product business. “It might seem like a number of disparate pieces but with all of them, if you take a step back and say ‘what are we trying to achieve?’ We’re focused on connecting our key constituents with Deere’s higher purpose,” Ms. Downing said. “We want all those constituents to know how John Deere is revolutionizing the industries we serve, whether that is agricultural or construction customers.” Ms. Downing has spearheaded strategic initiatives focused on improving operations, enriching the workplace culture and positioning John Deere and its executives as thought leaders. By her leadership and example, she also is helping advance the role of women at Deere, who now represent 19% of its worldwide leaders. She was the second female foundation president, behind Amy Nimmer, and the first woman to have led Deere’s International Affairs team in Washington, D.C. She is married to Mike Downing, a golf professional with the Iowa PGA, and has a 13-year-old stepson Tyler, who loves to spend summers in the Quad Cities and Iowa. Their family is rounded out by Gus, a golden retriever. Ms. Downey’s efforts have helped to shape how Deere supports the communities where its employees work and live. “You think about the impact you can have on one person’s life,” said Ms. Downing, who chairs United Way of the Quad Cities and serves on the boards of Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce, Southeast National Bank (SENB) and the John Deere Classic. “It’s easy to get caught up in our own little world, and not see some of the challenges others in our community face,” she said. “It really is eye opening when you visit a local elementary school and see some of the challenges they face. Or meeting with superintendents and hearing about multiple languages being spoken in schools.” To that end, John Deere and the John Deere Foundation invested more than $7 million – 23% of its global direct grants – in the past two years to various causes and initiatives in the Quad Cities to improve families’ lives. Some of its key investments include new programs with United Way and Riverbend Food Bank. “When I think about ‘how did I get to where I am today,’ I just had an incredible network of advisors,” she said. “It was almost like an informal board of directors both inside and outside the company who have just been incredible mentors to me and an incredible support system.” How did your career with Deere & Co. begin? My background is accounting, and my first role was as an analyst in the Tax Department. I joined Deere from Arthur Andersen where I gained experience working with municipalities on establishing redevelopment areas like Tax Increment Finance (TIF) Districts, Enterprise Zones, etc. When I joined Deere we were revisiting our manufacturing footprint – investing in some facilities and closing others. Through that project, I had the opportunity to work closely with our Public Affairs group. I was intrigued by the work of that team and a few years later an opportunity became available to serve as a state lobbyist. I interviewed for the role and was selected for the role. I moved to Des Moines from the Quad Cities and spent the next four years there. From Des Moines, I moved to Washington, D.C., where I had the opportunity to lead our International Affairs team. It was an exciting time to be in that role as the company was focused on growing globally so I had the opportunity to work on a number of projects in a number of countries I would have never imagined possible. Describe your climb up the corporate ladder. All of my roles have built on experiences from a previous role. I have truly loved every position I have had with John Deere. It was almost as if I needed to pinch myself with every new opportunity. Following is a summary of roles that I have had: tax analyst; state public affairs manager; director, international affairs; president, John Deere Foundation; director, Corporate Citizenship and Brand Management and president, John Deere Foundation; two years later Brand Licensing was added to my portfolio; and two years after adding Brand Licensing, communications was added to my role. How do you cope with work/life balance with your busy schedule? First, I love my job. So, while I may put in long hours, it doesn’t feel like work. I am constantly learning and thinking of ways to elevate the John Deere brand. I am fortunate in that I truly enjoy my work. John Deere is an amazing company, and our leaders are incredible – great people to work with and for. Finally, I am a third generation John Deere employee therefore working for the company means a lot to my family and the broader community. Next, I set some boundaries by blocking time on my calendar. I can use the time to read, reflect and work on strategic priorities, or focus on my own development. If I “give up” that time or accept another meeting over the top of those calendar holds, that is on me, and I can live with that. I am fortunate. I have a great support system both at home and the office. I am not afraid to ask them for help. And I am not sure what I would do without them. I prioritize time for myself – whether it is for my health or for my family – I make sure we have a family dinner most nights. No phones, just my family and spending time catching up with what is happening in their world. This break, even if it is just a few hours in the evening, pays big dividends and provides fresh perspective. What career advice would you give your younger self? I would give myself several pieces of advice however there is one thing that rises to the top: Enjoy every minute of every role and get the most out of it. Reflect on what you learn from various experiences and share what you learn along the way.