Corporate culture in Canadian agri-retail puts an emphasis on superb customer service, employee appreciation and creating a sense of belonging.

You never know where the next million-dollar idea will come from.

Abdel El Hadrami, CEO of Omex Agriculture Inc., a crop nutrition manufacturer in Winnipeg, Manitoba, values the inspiration and insights of every one of his staff members.

“When we launch a new product, we often open it up to all of our staff to suggest names,” he says. “And our U.K. head office uses an ‘idea jar’ – to give anyone the opportunity to suggest ways for the company to save money, time or energy.”

This small gesture not only shows the Omex staff that their opinions are valued, it could potentially lead to information that benefits the organization on a much larger scale. It’s just one example of the many ways a company’s culture can inform and improve the day-to-day operations of the business and its people.

The idea of corporate culture may sound like a practice more suited to large urban organizations. However, agri-retailers across Canada are proving that a little culture can go a long way to enhance employee and customer satisfaction, retention and the support of the community at large.

Clarifying the Culture of a Company

The term “corporate culture” refers to the set of beliefs, standards, rules and behaviours that a company embraces in its internal interactions and outside business dealings. A defined mission statement is a key part of this, and something that many smaller companies often overlook when setting out goals for their business.

While many organizations may not have consciously defined their business philosophy, it’s there – and more evident than they may realize.

“One of the very first things candidates ask me is ’What’s their corporate culture?’ or I might hear ‘I don’t like their corporate culture,’” says Chad Bodnarchuk, recruiting manager for agricultural human resources firm AgCall HR. “I think that every company has that culture, that philosophy, whether they are aware of it or not.”

Defining an organization’s core values and mission statement will do more than bolster its reputation amongst job seekers. “When there’s real clarity about the values of an organization and the mission they are striving towards, it’s easier to communicate that with employees. This allows for them to understand what is expected, which is so important when you’re trying to manage performance,” says Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst, executive director of the Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council.

It’s important for agriculture organizations to look at their corporate culture, says MacDonald-Dewhirst, as this is something that hasn’t been done consistently by the industry in the past. “The industry tends to focus on the production side, and ensuring that sales are where they should be,” she says. “There’s an opportunity to refine the HR practices, and get a bit more out of the business.”

The Concept of Corporate

The idea of a corporate culture can seem counterintuitive in the agri-retail industry, where many organizations try to cultivate an atmosphere that is anything but corporate. A trend amongst agri-retailers who have explored their corporate culture is the priority of keeping a small-town, family and community feel within the organization.

For Rob Owens, president and general manager of Emerge Ag Solutions in Eston, Saskatchewan, maintaining his company’s independent and community-focused culture was critical, even as they faced the challenge of expanding to a second location.

“We don’t perceive ourselves as being corporate, but we are a growing company,” says Owens. “It’s been a process for us to get that structure in place. When you’re all in one location, it’s much easier to communicate with everyone.”

Emerge’s open-door policy for communications amongst staff and managers is one aspect of the company’s culture that Owens is working to preserve during this period of growth.

“Everybody can come and speak their mind at any given time. I tell every one of them: ‘If there’s something you don’t like, let’s sit down and talk about it,’” he says. “When you engage your employees so they have input, they feel like they’re a part of the business.”

Even with recent expansion, Owens sees the benefits of Emerge’s small-company culture. “The nice thing about not being a huge company is that if something’s not working, we can change it,” he says. “We can do something different tomorrow.”

Growing the Corporate Family

An organization’s culture can weigh heavily on its hiring decisions, and often it’s more about zeroing in on less tangible qualities, as opposed to hard skills and experience.

“So often in selecting people, we make decisions based on their knowledge and skills, and we forget to reflect on what else they bring to the table – the soft skills, as we call them,” says MacDonald-Dewhirst. “It’s really important for that to be a part of the selection process.”

“Research has shown us that people get hired for their skills and experience, but they get fired based on the less-tangible competencies – or lack thereof.”

Owens knows that a sense of belonging is essential to the success of his business, and a key part of his hiring process involves seeking candidates who can embrace the community where their operations are located. “The biggest challenge we have with hiring is finding people who want to live in small-town Saskatchewan,” he says.

“We don’t want someone who will commute. We want them to be part of our company, part of the community. We want to hire people who want to live in small towns.”

AgCall’s Bodnarchuk has seen agri-retail operations fully embrace the small-town family mentality. “Something that’s not as common in other industries as it is in agriculture is that feeling of being part of a family,” he says. “If a young couple in the company has a baby, there’s probably going to be a party.”

This sense of belonging extends far beyond the warehouse walls. “As an agronomist, you can walk out of your office after dealing with a customer, and then tonight you’ll be coaching their kid in hockey,” he says. “In a big city, you don’t see that.”

Developing Dedicated Workers

For El Hadrami of Omex, a key part of the company culture is encouraging his staff at every opportunity. “We consider every new employee a new member of the family,” he says. “We try to do everything possible to make them feel comfortable, help them expand their horizons and explore their skills.”

The culture of employee support takes several forms at Omex, starting with a flexible approach to their position within the company. El Hadrami explains that this might mean a shift in responsibilities, as the employee demonstrates an aptitude for one position over another.

“We tend to look at each employee’s strengths as they work with us,” he says. “We might move them into the positions that work better for them, instead of just keeping them in the role they were hired for.”

“We also have a program that supports our staff’s continuing education. We’ve had several employees go to night classes or summer courses to get new certifications.”

The ultimate aim of this highly individualized support system is to help employees find their place in the fold, and feel comfortable and challenged enough to stay with the company for years to come. “We hire with growth as a goal in mind,” says El Hadrami.

Seasonal Rewards

For many agri-retail operations, some of the best workers are only around for three or four months of the year – but that doesn’t mean they aren’t integral, valued members of the business.

“Seasonal employees come back because they feel like they’re part of the team,” says Bodnarchuk. “They’re not treated as though they’re only on for four months. They’re treated like they’ve been there all their lives – and some of them have! Some locations have seasonal employees who have been on for 15 or 20 years. They might be retired, or the timing just fits their lifestyle.”

Bodnarchuk says that agriculture companies who have defined a people-first corporate culture will recognize the importance of their seasonal workers, and reward them accordingly.

“Some of these workers have been through the hardest times with the company. The organizations who realize how essential these workers are will recognize them for it. They give them the five, 10, 15 and 20-year pins, and they invite them to the office holiday party.”

“It’s all about retention,” he says. “If you can keep these people happy, you don’t have to train newbies next year.”

The Community Connection

It would be remiss to live, work and thrive in a small community, and not consider the town itself an integral part of company culture. Considering how closely sales reps, agronomists and other staff work with their customers’ operations, this is especially true in the agri-retail sector.

“The ag industry is situated in almost every small town across the prairies,” says Bodnarchuk. “Employees need to feel that they’re part of something bigger, and that they’re making a positive impact in their community.”

“The company’s culture reflects throughout the community, through the staff,” he says. “You can tell the company culture by the way the staff are involved in the community.”

Agri-retailers at all levels have found positive and impactful ways to connect to the communities they work in. Owens at Emerge Ag considers the local population an extension of the organization he manages. “People notice that we’re supporting the community, trying to hire young people to work in that area, and it actually ends up that we’re one of the bigger employers in town,” he says.

“The town supports us, and we support the town. It’s a give and take.”

“Giving” is a key term when it comes to a company’s community culture. Emerge Ag sponsors many local events, and also helps to manage a fundraising land project – in which a crop is grown and sold to raise funds – for a local seniors’ hockey team.

Fringe Benefits

Small gestures can often be some of the biggest contributors to a sense of belonging in an agri-retail organization.

El Hadrami provides the opportunity for regular get-togethers at Omex, giving workers the chance to socialize and feel appreciated by the company. “We provide lunch for the staff every Friday,” he says. “Everyone gets together and talks about their plans for the weekend. We also have season tickets to (Winnipeg CFL team) the Blue Bombers, and the staff take turns attending the games.”

Every four years, Omex invites staff to the holiday party at their world headquarters in the U.K. This event is a chance for workers from both sides of the pond to strengthen their sense of involvement in the company. “They get to meet the owners, and their counterparts in the other operation,” says El Hadrami. “It’s a chance to meet and talk about business, but it’s also just an opportunity to socialize and get to know one another.”

Emerge Ag also looks for ways to say “thank you” that extend beyond a paycheque. “We do some team-building activities, and we recently took everyone to a Rush game (Saskatchewan’s world champion lacrosse team),” says Owens.

“We also try to be flexible with time-off requests,” he says. “Of course, over May and June we don’t want anyone taking time off, but outside of that we are quite lenient.” The understanding exhibited by a flexible vacation schedule shows Emerge’s staff that their time is greatly valued, and that a comfortable work/life balance is a priority.

Perks like staff rewards and the annual holiday party may seem fairly standard, but Bodnarchuk emphasizes that they are a key strategy for keeping staff – and their family members – satisfied.

“It’s not only about rewards for the employees, you have to embrace the family,” he says. “It means a lot, because you’re identifying that you’ve taken their spouse away from them for a big portion of the year. The holiday party is a big deal, because it’s a chance to thank not only your staff, but their support team.”

Defining Success

Every organization has a “corporate culture” with respect to internal communications, core values and customer engagement. However, unless it has been consciously explored, it may not be representative of how the company wants to be perceived.

So how can an agri-retail operation define their culture, and make it work for them?

“Go back to the beginning, and look at what has made you successful,” suggests Bodnarchuk. “Do you have the best and brightest staff, are you the innovative guy who is willing to take a chance, or are you seen as the trusted advisor? Look back at what has worked for your company, and build on that – see how you can apply it today.”

A defined corporate culture helps to define a coherent message that everyone in the company can stand behind. “Customers will be better served by employees who are really clear about how they should be acting, and interacting,” says MacDonald-Dewhirst. “When they know what the message is that they’re trying to convey about the business, it’s going to make their interactions more successful.”

A defined philosophy will also help to determine the direction of a company’s internal culture, which influences communications structures, approach to employee development and team-building bonuses. When the focus is on a warm, family-oriented company that is an integral part of the community, employees and customers alike will benefit from a sense of belonging.

Failing to apply thought to this area of a business can mean low engagement from customers and staff, yielding unfavourable results. 

“You’re looking at low retention rates – not only on staff, but customers as well,” says Bodnarchuk. “Customers can feel that. If you’re a business with low margin, high volume, tailgate pricing – that’s how you’re going to get treated. And those people are only going to come to you based on a sticker price.”

“Whereas if you have engagement and a relationship, now you’ve got something. They’re going to work with you.”

In considering how to solidify a company philosophy that will inform internal operations and outside relations, retailers should put themselves in the shoes of their customers. According to Bodnarchuk, getting your customers on board with the values you embrace is the key to success.

“If your customers believe in your core values,” he says, “they will want to come along for the ride.”

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