Recruiting, mentorship and retention strategies help agri-retailers coax the very best from their workforce.

Last year, Jarrett Chambers faced a dilemma. His Oak Bluff, Manitoba-based production company, ATP Nutrition, was hiring a new technical account manager, and he had two incredible candidates to decide between.

What seems like an embarrassment of riches actually presents a tactical problem when company resources for training new hires are limited. Which candidate was a better fit? Chambers’s hiring team was stumped.

ATP Nutrition, a science-based plant nutrition company, is relatively small, with 22 full-time employees and an additional 10 to 15 seasonal staff. Every single member of the team contributes a great deal to the company’s output, so training a new employee marks a significant investment for the company as a whole.

“I look at new employees the same way I look at markets,” says Chambers. “Everything is in a four-year cycle. The first year, new employees are drinking through a fire hose. They’re trying to stay ahead of the game, but at the end of the year, the contribution from all of their hard work is not as significant as you would expect. This can deflate a lot of people, but in year two, when a person realizes how to work more effectively, their contribution makes up for their rookie season. They’re maturing. In year three they rock and roll, and in year four they’re amazing.

“What bothers me is when people leave after a year and a half, or less,” he says. “It’s actually a financial loss to the company. Their contribution is at best ‘break-even’, when looking at the bottom line they brought compared to the company’s investment.” 

Viewed through this metric, hiring the right candidate – someone who will not only stick it out until the company’s investment pays off, but actively contribute to the team’s success long-term – is crucial.

Chambers doesn’t leave it to chance. His company has a strategy in place to ensure they avoid missteps when it comes to hiring the right people and retaining talent.

And that’s why, when faced with the question of which candidate to choose, his hiring team had the resources available to help them make the right choice.

Recruitment Strategies

Laurel Hyde, associate consultant with business and wealth management firm Scott Wolfe Management Inc., has a lot of experience creating HR resources for the agri-retail industry, from small companies to large corporations.

She says recruitment retention strategies are essential for every company, no matter the size. This plan helps to determine and manage how companies recruit, the kinds of individuals they want to recruit and how to ensure employees remain engaged, meet expectations and have a strong retention factor.

“You need to be very clear on what the position is, and how it will fit into the organization,” says Hyde. “You should also have a clear understanding of the responsibilities of the position, and how it fits with other positions in the company. From there, you can determine which essential skillsets you’re looking for, and what’s desirable beyond those essential skillsets.”

This means every company should take a long, hard look at its needs and expectations when it comes to recruitment. Before going into the marketplace to recruit for a position, a company should first evaluate exactly what holes it is attempting to fill with the new hire.

“There needs to be an overall HR strategy of which recruitment is a piece, retention is a piece, employee advancement is a piece, compensation philosophy is a piece, and performance review management is a piece,” says Hyde. “All of these factors help position a company as a great place to come and work, and that makes recruitment and retention easier.”

Good communication about expectations is key to the process. Hyde says the agri-retail industry has come a long way in improving the communication of expectations to potential new hires. 

“This conversation has been taking place in agri-retail over the last 10 to 15 years,” she says. “Agri-retail has always had a very difficult time finding good people – it’s always been a real challenge because the marketplace is tight for strong individuals that can come into these roles.” 

Agri-retailers can’t afford to take chances with employee recruitment, when the marketplace is so competitive.

As a result, Hyde says agri-retailers have learned when to ask for help with recruitment – whether that involves appointing an HR director within a company, or hiring a firm like Scott Wolfe to work with the company to create a disciplined recruitment process.  

“We’ve seen that HR overall is getting a higher priority within companies, so there’s a greater attempt to ensure morale is high, a greater commitment to open communicating, and companies are putting good performance management processes in place,” she says.

Chambers says his company has learned the hard way that they need extra help when it comes to hiring.

That help has come in the form of the Kolbe A Index, a “creative instincts” and “cognitive strengths” testing tool that evaluates individuals’ overall modus operandi and ability to contribute to the team over time. (Click here to learn more about the Kolbe A Index)

Part of this evaluation looks at a person’s ability to follow through and implement changes long-term.

When ATP Nutrition faced its difficult decision between the two excellent candidates last year, they turned to the Kolbe A Index to help them decide. 

“One of the candidates had no follow-through skills whatsoever,” says Chambers. “The other had a high follow-through rating. This was important because the existing employees who would be working with the new hire had low follow-through scores. If we’d hired the first candidate, that would have meant that nobody would have follow-through skills.”

Chambers says the tool has made a huge difference to their team. Now, everyone at ATP Nutrition is required to take the test, so the company has a better sense of how employees can better work together—and how they can decide between candidates when the company is growing.

Management and Mentorship

At Sylvite, a Burlington, Ontario-based independently-owned organization that offers agricultural wholesale and retail supply, transportation and logistics and industrial chemicals, the human resources department has a seat of honour at the boardroom table.

Melanie Warr, director of human resources, says the company has 250 employees, but seasonally it swells by 60 to 75 new hires for fertilizer employees, necessitating highly organized HR strategies. 

Warr says branch managers and supervisors oversee hiring at local offices, because each branch has a different set of circumstances and needs for seasonal hiring. “We use the head office as a support network for branch offices,” says Warr, “But we like to let the branch offices make hiring decisions, because they know how individuals will work in each office.”

Brad Culp, vice president of agri-services and transportation at Sylvite, says the company has made staffing planning a priority, due to challenges in attracting new hires to the company over the last five years. They learned some valuable lessons in the process. 

“We’ve learned that it goes beyond hiring someone with a general business or sales degree and developing them,” says Warr. “We look for agriculture students – people who want to stay and work in the field.”

“A lot of these individuals come from the communities we’re servicing – they know the folks, they have an interest in the community,” adds Culp. “These are the folks Sylvite wants to invest in.”

At the same time, the company sees the benefit in hiring young grads, and is working together with the University of Guelph, Ridgetown campus and Western University to scout for new hires. “We’ve been teaming up these new hires with senior staffers, like a mentorship plan. We’re trying to approach succession planning through this program,” he says.

“Those senior people are the face of our business when you walk in the door. It usually takes a good two to three years for these new hires to understand the business, the customer base and the product, and feel comfortable.”

One success story Warr and Culp are keen to mention is that of Amber Van Ittersum, who the company hired a few years ago and teamed up with a senior staffer. Though she grew up on the farm, Van Ittersum’s training was in sales. Through the mentorship program, Van Ittersum has become a strong performer for Sylvite.

Warr and Culp have also learned the value of backfilling positions, so the company is never left in the lurch if an employee’s position is suddenly vacated. “We’ve learned the hard way that there’s no one person who knows a job. Every manager is responsible to make sure that cross-training happens within their staff,” says Warr. 

“We’ve got folks doubled up at most branches,” adds Culp. “Sales get called through the branches, so there is always someone backing up each person.”

Investment in Training

Employee retention has a lot to do with how well senior management is able to relate to staff, and what kinds of investments they’re prepared to make in an individual’s training and internal advancement.

“We’ve got lots of stories about people who have worked their way up through the business,” says Culp. “For example, Tyler Evaschuk was working at a branch office doing general labour and driving, and then he started to look after that branch under the operations manager. Then he moved to the head office in Putnam and is now the operations manager at our largest location. He’s 27, and within a five year period he’s worked his way up to a senior level.”

“There’s a significant level of enthusiasm with the younger people knowing they can make an impact on the business at the branches,” adds Warr.

Chambers, too, knows the value of investment in individual staffers. His head of HR at ATP Nutrition entered the company with a high school diploma and had begun her post-secondary education.  With the company’s help, she recently completed a bachelor’s degree in business with a major in human resources. She now oversees employee benefits and company policies, sits on yearly employee evaluations, and assists with recruitment.

“That was something that took a long time, one course at a time, but she got it done,” he says. “A lot of our people don’t take advantage of continuing education, but we strongly believe in it, if it helps them develop.”

Hyde believes an employer’s willingness to invest in employees’ development sends a strong signal that a company is a good place to work.

“It’s so competitive out there, and it’s a tight market to find experienced salespeople or agronomists that can hit the ground running, so you do have to invest in training and mentoring,” she says. “There is a cost to that, but if the upward potential for the individual is there, it’s a good investment.”

She says agri-retailers’ reputation and credibility sometimes rests on employees’ certification, so it’s an investment worth making.

When it comes to hiring – and retaining – young staffers, Hyde says agri-retailers should see them as a major benefit to the company. While they’re less concerned about their titles, they want to advance in the development of their skillsets – and they love what they do.

Effective Transitioning

When employees don’t work out, or senior staffers retire, it helps everyone when there’s a strong HR transition plan in place – including the agri-retailer’s customers.

Culp says it can be disastrous if transition plans are not a part of an agri-retailer’s HR strategy. 

“If you lose your senior staffers, and you’re not planning for transitions, what happens is that it trickles down to the customer. It’s hard to service a grower properly if you’re not experienced. Then you become a very transactional company, which we want to avoid. We want to sell a service,” he says. “You’ve only got one chance with some of these growers.”

“Having a plan enables you to do a lot of things: You’ve got the proper support at each branch. You can buy equipment. You can have the right product at the right time. If you do those things properly you can put money back into the community.”

In Chambers’ case, having the right paperwork in place is another key aspect of smoothing out upheavals from staffing changes. ATP Nutrition offers proprietary chemistries, and when chemists depart the business, they can take specialized knowledge with them and re-hawk it in the marketplace.

“So we have employees sign confidentiality agreements the day they start,” says Chambers. “But I know the legalities, and I’ve spent enough to know you can’t do a lot about employees leaving and taking knowledge or customers with them. It’s unfortunate.”

But Chambers’ philosophy is not a defensive one. For his company, trust is a core value, and means the difference between employees leaving, or staying because they feel valued.

He makes it clear that those employees who choose to stay with the company will find it pays off over time. “The odd time I have conversations with people who leave because the grass is greener somewhere else, and I tell them, ‘You never really owned your job. It doesn’t really pay off until you’ve been in a position for three years,” he says. “Then you can control your destiny.’”

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