When 14-year-old Larry Prager attended sheep shearing school as part of a UW Extension program, he didn’t know that one day he’d become CEO of one of the largest wool warehousing operations in the country. He was just a Wyoming kid learning new skills to help out on the family ranch.
Shearing a few sheep at home quickly grew into a side business that paid for his four-year degree in animal science at the University of Wyoming.
Upon graduating from UW in 1974, Prager went home to the family ranch and soon found himself shearing full time to pay the bills. Economically, times were tough, and when UW’s sheep specialist called to tell him a wool warehouse in South Dakota was hiring, he decided to give it a shot.
Today, Larry Prager is CEO of that warehouse, now known as Center of the Nation Wool.
“For me, it’s pretty mind-boggling to come from the little family ranch in the mountains of Wyoming to wind up here in the desk I’ve been in the last number of years. Who’d have ever guessed?” he comments.
Prager is a recipient of the 2022 UW College of Agriculture, Life Sciences and Natural Resources Outstanding Alumni Award. He and other awardees will be recognized during Ag Appreciation weekend, which begins September 29.
Leading the flock
Throughout his career, Prager has helped U.S. wool compete successfully in a global market. While he might casually evade questions about just how long he’s been at Center of the Nation Wool, he considers it a life’s work. He’s been working with some ranching families for three generations now. The truth is, he says, it’s been a good fit. It’s not about counting the years.
Prager is known not only for his business acumen but also for his leadership skills, integrity, and service-oriented mentality.
For decades, he’s been the trusted middle man between producers looking to get the best price for their wool clip and buyers looking for a consistent, high-quality product suited to their specific needs. “The personal relationships that we’re able to accumulate over the years are really the heart and soul of this business,” he reflects.
In 1978, Prager moved with his wife to Belle Fourche to work for the company that would later become Center of the Nation Wool. His first job was in the warehouse, unloading and core testing wool as it was delivered.
His next position was in the field, traveling to shearing pens and interacting with growers. There, he earned the respect and trust of producers across the tri-state region.
Ever-attuned to changing industry trends and standards, Prager ensured local growers were aware of the latest best practices and how to implement them.
He kept growers up to date on wool classing and the use of square bales instead of traditional wool bags. He helped select, cull, and sort breeding sheep. When new innovations like scourable paint became available, Prager made it his duty to educate producers in the region.
In 1993, Prager assumed the role of general manager at Center of the Nation Wool. In 1997, he was named president of the U.S. Wool Marketing Association.
“Prager combined his technical wool skills with the work of progressive ranchers to increase the marketability and value of wool from Wyoming, Montana, and South Dakota. The code of practice in use across the US today is built on Prager’s contributions,” shares a South Dakota producer.
In 2019 alone, his company handled nearly 5 million pounds of wool: in other words, about 20 percent of all wool shorn in the U.S.
“In an industry as small and tight knit as the American wool industry, businesses of all sizes live and die by the strength of their relationships and reputation. The fact that Larry has been a fixture in the American wool industry as long as he has should speak to his dedication, integrity, and leadership,” shares one wool buyer.
The value of education
Larry Prager’s journey, personally and professionally, has been shaped by his curiosity and drive to learn.
From his days as a student at UW to his “trial by fire” as the manager of a struggling company and self-taught marketing professional, Prager has challenged himself to step outside the known and into the (sometimes uncomfortable) space where learning occurs.
His role as student—and educator—has continued throughout his career, from his days making field visits to ranches across the region to his current position as CEO.
A strong believer in the value of higher education, Prager served in leadership roles in the UW Alumni Association for seven years, including a year as president.
“I think education gives us some tools no matter which degree you have,” he says. “The path of life I thought I started on got changed by financial circumstances and by those little decisions I made. For so many graduates coming out of UW that’s going to be the case.”
Committed to creating opportunities for the next generation of wool producers and entrepreneurs, he has also established shearing schools and volunteered as a judge for wool judging contests and shearing competitions across the western U.S.
His number one recommendation to young people is to seek out good mentors—trusted advisors who are willing to lend a listening ear and share their expertise.
As many will attest, Prager himself is an excellent mentor.
When UW Extension Sheep Specialist Whit Stewart first began working as an extension educator in Wyoming, he drove to Belle Fourche to spend a day with Prager. “I’ll never forget that day over 10 years ago, as it was formative for my career trajectory and love of the sheep industry,” Stewart shares.
A gambler’s spirit & survivor’s business
Success in the business world depends not only on education and mentorship but also on what Prager terms the gambling spirit.
As a businessperson, “You know how things have worked, what tradition has been, as well as the new reality—whether it’s Covid or higher freight rates, higher interest rates,” he explains.
“Every year we get a new deck of cards. To try to make decisions in a changing landscape is, I’ll just call it the gambler’s spirit. Not everybody is interested in living in that environment.”
But Larry Prager is drawn to it. In fact, it’s a bit addictive, he admits. His willingness to embrace change, despite force of habit, is part of what’s enabled him to succeed and transform a struggling business into a thriving operation.
“Change is going to happen, both personally and professionally. What worked last time might not work this time,” he observes. It’s easy to fall into the trap of making choices based on routine, rather than true purpose.
Like many agricultural operations, the wool industry is a survivor’s business, Prager says. It requires tenacity, patience, and a lot of hard work.
Key to Center of the Nation Wool’s survival is Prager’s ability to connect with people—producers, buyers, and young people alike.
“Larry possesses a quality that seems to be diminishing in our society: He listens. He doesn’t listen for a quick reply or to provide a counter-story. He listens to people to understand people,” writes a member of the Belle Fourche community.
Perhaps that’s the true secret to success.