The Communicator profiles two newly established ag retail sites in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

While many experts will have different opinions, it would be impossible to say that there is only one right approach to opening a new business, be it an ag retail site or anything else. However, it is safe to say there are certain elements that can make a new ag retail venture more likely to see success.

CORE Ag Inputs in Virden, Man. (CORE Ag Virden) and Prairie Co-op’s Agro Centre in Cupar, Sask. (Prairie Co-op), are two newly established ag retail sites in Western Canada that both celebrated their one-year anniversaries this past spring. On this significant milestone, company managers reflect on setting up their operations.

These businesses took a different road to their grand openings, yet they made some similar and significant stops along the way that set them up to meet and exceed their goals for early days of operations.
Each had supportive business partners, each had community connections and each prioritized bringing the right people on board.

A Site to See

“You’ve probably seen the site, you just might not have known it was in Cupar,” says Randy Slough, with pride in his voice. Slough is the ag division manager with Prairie Co-op, which has 13 sites in western Saskatchewan, including the new agro and hardware facility in Cupar, Sask.

“Co-op’s marketing team has brought out drones and taken shots of our site for a few of the commercials that have run on TV,” he says. “The site looks pretty awesome.”

Plans for the “awesome” Prairie Co-op in Cupar began back in 2014. At the time, Prairie Co-op was operating its Cupar-area agro centre out of one of the sites Co-op had acquired from Viterra, after Viterra was purchased by Glencore. This was also the time Slough joined Prairie Co-op as Ag Division Manager, he had been working in the Co-operative Retailing System (CRS) for over 30 years.

Slough says Prairie Co-op’s contract allowed them to stay in the former Viterra facility for three years, then they had to find a new home. The owners knew they wanted their new facility to remain in the Cupar area and began a thorough market analysis to decide on the best location.

“It was a matter of where to build it and how big to make it,” says Slough. “We wanted to remain in that community and felt there was great opportunity in the ag sector and wanted to continue growing that area of our business and serving farm customers.”

A New Home

As part of their market analysis, Prairie Co-op set about evaluating the logistics of other Co-ops in communities across Saskatchewan and Manitoba, visiting them and taking notes on their size, setup and sales volumes.

They also held discussions with a single-entity co-operative that was doing business in Cupar at the time. These talks were successful, and Cupar Co-op became amalgamated into the Prairie Co-op family. Following this, any new site had to be able to accommodate all of the personnel and existing functionality from the old Prairie Co-op site and make room for the newly merged team to work comfortably.

At the end of the feasibility study, Prairie Co-op decided the best option was to build a brand-new agro and hardware centre from the ground up in Cupar.

Slough had previous experience with building a new retail site and understood the logistics and process of building out their facility requirements, including warehousing and certified chemical sheds. Prairie Co-op also had support from Federated Co-op Ltd.’s staff during the build. Even so, he says projects of this magnitude are never without complications.

“You would hope it would all go smoothly but, really, it never does,” says Slough. “It was pretty good, but I sure wish I had more time to be more hands-on. There were lots of little things that we caught as we went along the process, and some of them we had to live with in the end.”

Little things aside, Slough says the new, 13,700 square foot facility is quite the sight to see, with plenty of “wow” factor when someone enters the brand-new facility for the first time. Both its staff and their customers have been impressed by the “combination of everything” store with home, hardware and farm supply rolled into one.

“Some people come by here and just scratch their heads, because it’s a pretty big place for a smaller community,” he says. “We want it to be a big draw for the surrounding area as well, not just the town of Cupar.”

Some people come by here and just scratch their heads, because it’s a pretty big place for a smaller community.
Randy Slough

And now, someone living across the country might just see it on TV.

Building A Team

But, an impressive facility means nothing without the right people. Prairie Co-op already had a team at the time that they moved into the new store; a combination of personnel who had worked at the old site and those who had recently been amalgamated into the company.

Even so, Slough says they knew before construction was complete that they would need to quickly add more people to staff the new location to effectively serve customers.

“We had to identify where we needed to add more staff because of the size of the store we were going to build,” he says. “We knew that we needed some professional agronomists, and we needed more administrative staff.”

Slough says that agronomists are a “sought-after commodity” and it was challenging to find the right people to fill those positions.

“They were in short supply, even in Western Canada,” he says. “That was an issue for us, for sure.”

Since their grand opening, Slough says they have added some sales staff to support their agronomy team through more focused promotion of their products and services. The sales staff joined Prairie Co-op in January of 2019, and Slough is looking forward to seeing how the sales team and the entire staff grow together as everyone begins to settle in and get more comfortable and confident in their roles.

As it stands, Slough says the new Prairie Co-op has surpassed all of the sales goals they set for their first year. He is optimistic this growth will continue now that the Cupar location is well-established and everything is falling into place.

“We’re looking to have some good growth again this year because we’re offering better and better service to our customers,” he says.

The Right Time

About 300 kilometers southeast of Cupar, CORE Ag Virden has received its fair share of positive reactions from customers since they first opened their doors to the public on April 19, 2018.

“I’m proud to have accomplished this goal in my life, and I’m proud of our facility,” says Tyler Strachan owner and general manager of CORE Ag Virden. “It’s surprising how often we get complimented on how clean and fresh our warehouse is when a new customer comes into the shed for the first time.”

It’s surprising how often we get complimented on how clean and fresh our warehouse is when a new customer comes into the shed for the first time.
Tyler Strachan

Before opening the clean and fresh CORE Ag Virden, Strachan worked in Manitoba’s ag sector for over 15 years, including the past four years spent on the supplier side of the industry.

“Opening an ag retail was something I had looked at multiple times in the past, but walked away from because the opportunity, or the timing, just wasn’t right,” he says.

He never quite took his eye off the prospect, but life went on. Strachan and Brad Hunter – one of the first employees Strachan brought on who would become the agronomy sales manager – had both put down roots in the Virden community, and he says they both had a desire to “stick around for a long time.”

Within the past few years, a line company retail in the Virden area closed, creating renewed need in the community and its surrounding area for an ag inputs provider. The time was right for Strachan to go into business for himself.

Strachan says they were lucky to find a suitable facility that did not require extensive renovations.

The Right Support

It was also the right time in part because he had found the right ally. CORE Ag Virden is a partner within CORE Ag Inputs Ltd. – a crop input retail network that provides products and services to farmers through locally owned, independently operated retails.

When considering his new business, Strachan says he thought of CORE Ag Ltd. as a retail partner because of their extensive experience partnering with startups.

“Being that we would be their fifth new start-up partner within the year, I felt that level of experience would greatly benefit us,” says Strachan. “They also had established relationships within the industry suppliers and manufacturers.”

As well, Strachan says CORE Ag Ltd. had the resources in place to quickly and efficiently tackle logistics and keep the whole project moving on schedule.

“Their support was more than I expected, especially with our tight timeline,” he says. “They had a lot of plans and relationships in place already, and a lot of the to-do list was already in motion as soon as we decided to go ahead.”

When Strachan says they were working on a tight timeline to get CORE Ag Virden ready for its grand unveiling, he isn’t kidding. Planning their facility requirements began less than six months before they moved into their current location.

“We were able to find a fairly new building that did not require a lot of renovations with the warehouse and office space we needed,” he says. “We also rented some storage space that was AWSA certified to bridge the gap while we were still completing our renovations.”

In hindsight, Strachan says he would have allowed about four to six additional months for “the whole process.” He says they would have spent more time developing beneficial relationships with both potential customers and the local municipality if there hadn’t been such a rush to get their facility, product and staff ready.

CORE Ag Virden’s successful first year of operations means they are already outgrowing their warehouse space.

The Right People

When it came to staff, Strachan says attracting and hiring the right people came with a few challenges of its own, but CORE Ag Ltd.’s history of success with startups helped reassure prospective team members that CORE Ag Virden was a good choice where they could make meaningful use of their talents.

“Of course, anybody is going to question changing jobs to go work at a start-up company,” he says. “Establishing responsibilities and job descriptions was a challenge to get on paper, and roles have already changed as we have started to grow.”

Strachan credits having Hunter, who shared his vision for the company, with helping to smooth out the process of building a team. Once they started to get people in place, the pair immediately went to work forecasting what they would need to stock, sell and offer to meet the needs of their customer base. Good staff and those good supplier relationships allowed this to go relatively smoothly.

“We had a good idea what product growers in the area used as we have experienced local staff. The hardest part was forecasting amounts,” Strachan says. “But our supplier treated us well and we were able to work through our changing forecast throughout the year.”

Strachan says that overall, their customers and the community have so far responded very well to CORE Ag Virden and says being seen as a positive fixture in the community will continue to be a guiding light for the company.

“We have very specific goals on how we want to be perceived in the community,” says Strachan. “Prior to opening, I had been involved with the community in various ways and, in part, the community itself is why I chose the Virden area to open my business. We will continue to keep this community focus for years to come.”

Prairie Co-op and CORE Ag Virden each have a strong foundation to continue building their businesses upon. They may have a different story, but with supportive partners, experienced team members and strong ties to their local communities, they each arrived at the same place.

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