The venerable founder of Shur-Gro celebrates a half-century in ag-retail.
When Ron Helwer started Shur-Gro Farm Services Ltd. (Shur-Gro) in 1968, he had his sights set on turning his Brandon, Man. based business into the largest independent fertilizer dealership in Western Canada.
“I had a plan of growth in the industry – fertilizer was just starting to go and to me it looked like a good future business,” Helwer shares. “It’s something that needs to be used every year, so it’s not just ‘buy once and you’re good for five years,’ like a tractor.”
Fifty years later, Helwer is still at the helm and Shur-Gro is still growing. Operating on a foundation of innovation, integrity and customer service, its longevity is testament to the vision and perseverance of its founder.
As one of the first independent fertilizer dealers in Western Canada, Helwer had the opportunity to do things a little differently. Up to that point, most fertilizer was sold as a side-business or by implement dealers, and dealers were limited to carrying just one brand. But, making the rules up as he went along, Helwer was able to offer a wider selection of products along with an ever-increasing line-up of value-added services.
In the ‘70s, the company invested in high-flotation granular application equipment, making Shur-Gro one of the first companies in the province to offer custom application.
“We were trying to do things that others weren’t doing, and we grew fast because our services were in high demand,” says Helwer. In fact, Helwer says the demand was so great, there were times that Shur-Gro almost couldn’t keep up with customer requests.
Even with the popularity of the new service, Helwer says some farmers were still skeptical. In order to turn skeptics into believers, Shur-Gro began offering a soil sampling service – a concept that had yet to catch on, but quickly proved to be a useful selling tool that earned the company many new customers.
“Soil samples weren’t common at that time,” says Helwer. “Although there were a few folks that had done them, they said, ‘Oh, they don’t help – fertilizer doesn’t work.’ So, I said, ‘You know what? I will do soil samples.’ We did soil samples for our growers at no charge. And we could recommend what to use and show them we could get results for them.”
As new fertilizer application technology and techniques surfaced in the early ‘80s, once again, Shur-Gro was quick to embrace them. Although they had spent the previous decade building their fleet of high-flotation equipment, they sold that equipment off as new research unveiled the next big innovation in fertilizer.
“Jim Beaton and John Harapiak were doing research on banding fertilizer into the ground rather than spreading it on top,” he says. “They were showing that was a more beneficial way of putting fertilizer on, so we sold off our floaters and bought band wagons to rent to farmers to band fertilizer into the ground.”
Helwer credits Shur-Gro’s customers with making it easy for the company to stay on top of new developments, since they have always been eager to try the new methods and products offered by the company.
“With farmers, there are always innovators and we try to work with those innovators,” says Helwer. “We are fortunate they are also the ones that are growing in size and doing well. So, it works well for us to keep trying to do things to help them better their returns.”
With farmers, there are always innovators and we try to work with those innovators.
According to Wes Arnfinson, manager of Shur-Gro’s Shoal Lake branch, that approach is what sets Shur-Gro apart and demonstrates the company’s commitment to helping farmers succeed.
“When I started at Shur-Gro 30 years ago, that was the first thing I noticed,” says Arnfinson. “Whether it was equipment or technology, we would use what we had to do the job and always find ways to make things work for the customer.”
Putting his customers’ success first and helping them excel is a credo that has served Helwer well. By making customer service their “thing,” as he puts it, the company has enjoyed a high level of customer loyalty over the years.
For Dwayne Leslie, who runs a 3,000 acre grain and specialty crops operation near Poplar Point, Man., it has been the people who keep him coming back as a customer.
“In this business, it’s all about the people that you deal with every day,” says Leslie. “The same box of chemical is the same from any retailer. Even though prices can vary, it’s the service that comes with it that’s most important.”
Demonstrating the company’s commitment to service are the investments it has made in its operations to make them more efficient and convenient for customers. In the past ten years, Shur-Gro
has replaced older fertilizer plants with ten new, higher-capacity ones, giving them the ability to blend and handle fertilizer faster.
“In some areas, we’ve gained customers just by being able to load a truck quicker – the trucks that farmers use are getting larger, so we have to be able to blend and move fertilizer and load trucks faster,” says Helwer.
In June of this year, Brandon’s Assiniboine Community College presented Helwer with an honorary diploma in agri-business, recognizing his five decades in the industry. The honour was just one of many bestowed on Helwer throughout his career – he has also received CAAR’s Chairman’s Award, CAAR’s Retailer Hall of Fame Award and was inducted into the Manitoba Agricultural Hall of Fame in 2014.
Helwer isn’t in business for the accolades, though. He simply loves his job. At 85 years old, he is still often the first person in the office and enjoys interacting with staff and customers, impressing those he encounters with his enduring enthusiasm and work ethic.
“Ron is always one to lead by example,” says Arnfinson. “He has a tremendous work ethic – his hobby is work, so it’s pretty tough not to appreciate the guy.”
After years of expansion, including the purchase of Munro Farm Supplies in 1990, and seeing his business through industry highs and lows, Helwer has met his goal of owning the largest independent fertilizer dealership in Western Canada, servicing the entire southern half of Manitoba.
Things will always change, but we expect that we can stay with the change and prosper in the future.
Helwer continues to look for opportunities to grow the business and just last year purchased a controlling stake in South East Seeds. The company has also recently expanded its Brandon Terminal Ltd., which can now handle the storage and distribution of 80-100,000 tonnes of fertilizer per year and supplies its 13 branches and other dealers.
With no plans to retire, Helwer remains optimistic about the future of the industry and of his company’s place in it.
“Things will always change, but we expect that we can stay with the change and prosper in the future,” says Helwer. “We have a good little outfit, we’re happy doing what we’re doing, and we plan to keep doing it.”
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