The road to town from my brother’s farm doesn’t vary too much from trip to trip.
Depending on the season it’s rutted mud, packed snow and ice, or a dusty trail, but the scenery remains the same.
One part of that scenery, just on the outskirts of town, is a small business that just celebrated its 50th year of operation. The place has a formal name of course, but it’s known far and wide simply as “Jimmy’s” in honour of the founder, chief operating officer and jack of all trades.
The business sells farm equipment, services all makes and of course has a good supply of belts, bearings and other crucial parts available to keep equipment running — or limping — along.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that there’s a lot of crop that made it into the ground in the spring and bin in the fall because this business was there, and has a long history of putting a big emphasis on service.
Now in his seventh decade, Jimmy doesn’t show many signs of slowing down. In fact during a recent visit he shared the tale of a phone call with one of his daughters. She’d called to see how her dad was doing and it seemed she also gently ‘gave him the gears’ about maybe considering retirement, like a normal person.
“I told her if I dropped dead in the middle of the shop, that would be one of the happiest days of my life,” he said, with a chuckle. “She said, ‘Probably the only thing that would make you happier is if there was a cheque in one hand.’”
Buried in that amusing exchange is a simple truth though. These businesses have long operated on the herculean dedication of the owners and staff. I can’t count the number of times I’ve passed the place on a Sunday afternoon to see a lone truck out front, waiting, just in case there’s a need during seeding or harvest.
On the face of it, there’s no sound business rationale for keeping the doors open during those times. It’s unlikely there will be enough business to even cover the cost of staff. An MBA would take one look at the numbers and put up the “I’m sorry, we’re closed” sign until Monday morning.
But Jimmy, and others like him, are cut from a different cloth. They grew up on farms themselves, usually in the area where they do business. They understand what a farmer needs and the importance of timely repairs. They exhibit their loyalty to their customers by staying open, in the hope that when it’s time for less urgent business, that loyalty is returned.
His 50 years in the business suggests his strategy has worked. But the times they are a-changing. Lately as I travel through Western Canada, I see less of these small local shops, and more large chains with many outlets.
This isn’t necessarily bad, but it will be different. On the positive side they’ll benefit, like the farms they serve, from economies of scale. They’ll have the chance to offer more specialized services, like precision ag and data management, spread out over a larger customer base, for example.
On the less positive side, they will by definition become just a bit more impersonal. Decisions will be made at a distant head office that influence local operations and it’s not a stretch to think those decisions will keep a close eye on the company’s bottom line rather than intangibles like customer service.
That’s not to say service won’t be available. In a sign of the changing times, I recently saw a glowing review on Facebook from a farmer friend of mine, for an outlet of a regional tire chain. He was giving them top marks for coming out one Sunday afternoon, to put a new tire on his tractor so he could keep going. Companies such as that, that pay attention to the needs of their farm customers, will find those customers know who they can count on, large or small.
But the sentimentalist in me hopes some of these smaller operations survive.
After all, they’ve stuck it out through thick and thin. Just like farmers have.
As the pork sector has struggled with the recent spread of PEDv throughout the province, it’s hard not to wish distant regulators would pay just a bit more attention to folks actually living with the costs of their decisions.
Here we’re talking of the insistence of federal regulators that hog transport trailers be washed prior to their return from the U.S., at U.S. wash stations. A pilot project in 2014 allowed the industry to bypass them in favour of Canadian-based stations.
That appeared to contribute to the industry evading the worst effects of the disease. Until it was, under protest from the sector, curtailed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in 2016.
Since then the disease has been found in more Manitoba operations this year alone than all other years combined. This is a case of fixing something that wasn’t broken.