Independent retailers unite to enhance their competitive edge and strengthen their ability to serve customer needs.

In September, a group of 14 independent retailers from across Western Canada formed AgLink Canada, a marketing and networking group that will allow its retail members to more easily communicate with suppliers and manufacturers, as well as each other, for mutual benefit.

“As an independent, you can almost be on an island,” says Dennis Bulani, CEO of Rack Petroleum Ltd. and newly-appointed chair of AgLink Canada. “By gathering a group of like-minded retailers, we can solve problems and capitalize on opportunities together.”

More communication can only be healthier. AgLink will help shape and strengthen the independent sector by allowing for two-way feedback between retailers and our suppliers. Dennis Bulani

It can be difficult for manufacturers and suppliers to connect with the over 200 independents across Western Canada. Bulani says AgLink will help independents have  stronger, more consistent conversations with suppliers and manufacturers. AgLink will accomplish these goals by creating a single location for productive discussions between the groups.

“Through AgLink, manufacturers can ask independents their opinion about what’s going on in the real world, what their customers are facing and what they need. Creating a single entity allows suppliers to access us more easily, and we can sit down in a professional atmosphere to discuss opportunities and threats going forward,” he says. “Because of our connection with growers, we’re in a position of strength to help suppliers launch new products, seed technology and so on.”

According to Bulani, this enhanced level of communication will allow independents to do long-term planning more efficiently, since they will have better knowledge of the new products and services entering the market, and can offer expert advice on their customers’ needs.

“More communication can only be healthier,” he says. “AgLink will help shape and strengthen the independent sector by allowing for two-way feedback between retailers and our suppliers."

With more knowledge of upcoming market developments, retailers will also have more opportunities to distinguish themselves from their competition. As part of the AgLink Canada network, retailers can market their business as a leading source of information on upcoming industry advancements.

“It gives us the chance to really market ourselves and blow our own horns about what a great group of people we are,” says Bulani. “We’re supplying our customers with more than just commodities. There’s a lot of extra passion when it comes to how independents run their businesses.”

Overseas Inspiration

AgLink Canada was formed as a strategic and commercial alliance with AgLink Australia, an established group connecting independent Australian agri-retailers.

“When we looked at forming this group, we wanted to see who else had done something similar,” says Bulani. “We discovered that AgLink Australia has been operating for close to 30 years and that they have been quite successful.”

To help AgLink Canada get started, Bill Dowdle, former CEO of AgLink Australia, is moving to Canada to join the new company as its CEO. Dowdle brings nearly 12 years of experience leading the team at AgLink Australia, and more than doubled the group’s revenue during his time as CEO.

“Canada is a very different space in terms of climate, but the thing that was really noticeable to me when I met with some of the independent retails in Canada is that, fundamentally, the same challenges exist in both markets,” says Dowdle.

He says the challenges presented by the physical distance between independent retailers is one of the biggest similarities between the two markets.

“Just like in Canada, Australian independents are very spread out and it is typically very difficult for suppliers to communicate with independents as a group,” he says. “Being a part of the AgLink Australia network brought a lot of value to both the suppliers and members involved, and that value has remained quite stable for nearly 30 years.”

Dowdle notes that Canadian and Australian producers are early adopters of new technology. Both want to use it to maximize the opportunities their environments present, and both value a personal connection to their local retailers.

“The small farming communities in both countries are very connected. It seems like farmers want a personal relationship with their retailers, and want to see retailers support community initiatives,” he says.

Bulani agrees, and adds that the formation of AgLink Canada has been a reassuring development for some customers who are concerned about the health of the independent retail sector.

“Customers like local service; they like local business. Some customers have had concerns about the health or viability of their local independents,” he says. “Our growers have reacted quite positively to AgLink Canada because they want us to grow stronger so they can continue relying on us going forward.”

Bulani estimates that independents currently make up an estimated 27 per cent of the retail market in Canada. He adds that independents will continue to hold a consistent market share because of their extra passion, dedication and connection to their grower customers.

“The idea that large multinationals will outcompete independents is probably not very accurate,” he says. “Farmers want independents to be a part of the landscape. Despite all the consolidation that has been happening, independents still occupy a major part of the market.”

Strengthening the Industry

As a result of their partnership with AgLink Australia, AgLink Canada’s members will have immediate access to all intellectual property, management systems, governance models and related expertise from that group to get them off to a strong start. Bulani estimates AgLink Canada is about three years ahead of where they would be otherwise, thanks to the resources they will receive from AgLink Australia. 

However, Dowdle says despite the head start, AgLink Canada members must be realistic about what can be achieved in the first few years of operations. 

“AgLink Canada is brand new. It has to crawl before it can walk and run. We will have to be realistic about what it can bring at first,” he says. “But it will grow; and as it grows, it will bring enormous opportunity for all involved.”

Dowdle says he looks forward to bringing his experience to Canadian retailers, and believes his expertise will help contribute to AgLink Canada’s success in the long run.

Growth and opportunity come from starting a dialogue. We can share a lot in terms of global engagement and how we work with our customers in both markets.Bill Dowdle

“Over the years, I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t work – at east in the Australian context – and I believe we will all benefit from that,” he says. “With so many large international mergers occurring, many suppliers and manufacturers are now the same company in both Canada and Australia. So, fundamentally, I am familiar with their leadership and their capabilities.”

As an international alliance, AgLink also creates potential opportunities to strengthen the industry by building connections and allowing independents from both countries to compare notes and learn from each other.

“There are a lot of long-term potential opportunities created by connecting independents in various countries around the world,” says Dowdle. “In this case especially, there’s a really good chance of a strong connection developing between the Canadian and Australian networks because there are many similarities.”

He says networking and learning from one another will allow Canadian and Australian retailers to participate in workplace exchanges, creating new opportunities and communication channels.

“Whenever people can share ideas, that’s a good thing,” he adds. “Growth and opportunity come from starting a dialogue. We can share a lot in terms of global engagement and how we work with our customers in both markets.”

Forging international connections is just one of the ways AgLink is seeking to benefit the overall agri-retail industry. On a national scale, AgLink supports the vitality of the industry by supporting CAAR.

CAAR membership is a criterion to become an AgLink member; if a company is not a member, Bulani says they must agree to become one. He believes it is important for independent retailers to support CAAR, so CAAR can continue advocating on behalf of retailers.

“If our members are CAAR members, that will strengthen CAAR, and that strengthens the health of the overall industry,” he says. “CAAR is our only national voice in the agri-retail industry. We need them to continue representing our interests as retailers on regulatory and policy issues, as well as in government programs.”

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