New alliance gives independent retailers a collective voice

In the ever-changing world of agribusiness, is it possible to maintain independence and still compete with the big boys?

AgLink Canada says yes, and that’s what it wants to provide to ag retailers. This uniquely structured entity is based on a very successful model that has been operating in Australia for three decades.

Last fall, 14 independent agriculture retailers in western Canada signed a founding agreement to create AgLink Canada, as well as form a strategic alliance with its parent organization in Australia. That alliance included the “borrowing” of long-time AgLink Australia CEO Bill Dowdle, who was welcomed to Canada in January. The frigid temperatures did not cool his enthusiasm for the AgLink concept and what it will mean for prairie agriculture.

“It doesn’t matter how big or small you are as an independent, it’s nice to have likeminded individuals that you can network with — that was the genesis of AgLink in Australia,” says Dowdle, who’s based in Calgary.

“It’s been a very successful model. It’s really around giving a collective voice to independents with the manufacturers or suppliers,” he explains. “The DNA of AgLink in Australia has really been around technology, helping manufacturers bring technology to the customer, and helping them position the technology so that it creates benefits for end-users.”

After searching the global marketplace, the group of Canadian retailers approached Dowdle to learn more about AgLink Australia, which commands a $1. 2 billion AUD input market, representing 23 per cent of the market. The wheels were soon in motion to create AgLink Canada, with each retail member purchasing an equal share.

McEwen’s Fuels and Fertilizers, which has eight outlets north of Edmonton, is one of them. “It really appealed to us to be part of a larger organization across western Canada,” says Mike Gaumont, partner and vice-president of sales and operations for McEwen’s.

“Initially, the biggest draw was to get a better voice with suppliers and manufacturers so we can compete with the larger, national companies,” he says. “The sideline to come out of that was the networking that we’ve developed over this last year, which actually, to me, has become a bigger part of being part of this team.”

Gaumont has 20 years of experience in the industry under his belt but, through AgLink, is only now meeting colleagues from Saskatchewan and Manitoba who he’d never connected with before.

“We are like-minded business people, so just bouncing ideas off each other is pretty nice,” he says. “You’re not stuck on an island trying to solve the world’s problems by yourself. It’s a support community for the small businesses.”

From his experience down under, Dowdle is big on the benefits of independent retailers being able to network. “There are so many good ideas that come out of entrepreneurial small businesses,” says the Aussie with 40 years of ag experience.

“You don’t have to re-invent the wheel. By sharing ideas amongst yourselves, you create value. Being involved in an AgLink platform allows you to do that, to learn from other like-minded individuals,” he says. “But you still have the freedom to be your own person. The greatest strength of independents is their independence. The secret is you don’t obstruct the independent nature of the businesses but harness the collective capability of the group.”

That can range from comparing notes on business computer programs or staff retention to, perhaps more importantly, strategic thinking for the future. There’s no doubt when you get 14 independent thinkers around a table there will be differences of opinion and some lively discussions.

“It’s been really positive,” Gaumont says. “When the doors open and we all leave back to work, we are speaking the same message as a group. I’m pretty proud that in the short period since we launched, it feels like we’re coming together as a team. For a new company, it’s pretty neat to see.”

Manufacturers and suppliers are becoming aware there’s a larger entity to deal with now in western Canada, which has been key, early work for AgLink. “When you’re a small independent on your own, it’s harder to be heard,” says Dowdle. “If you’re a group you can actually get their attention. You’re more important as a group than you are as an individual to get a ‘fair go’, as we say in Australia, in the heat of the battle. That’s important.”

BEYOND PRICING

All this won’t necessarily translate into better deals for farmers. Dowdle points out independent ag retailers have to be price competitive, but because they’re local businesses and community members, they’re often more in touch with their customers’ needs and situations. He says AgLink is really about helping the members take those trusted relationships and build on them further, by providing more and broader services.

“Does it necessarily mean a lower cost of product? I would say that’s not why we’re doing this,” says Gaumont. “But bringing the best we can bring to our customer group, that’s really our focus. That’s why we joined. We’re trying to use this as a tool for securing the foundation of being a small independent in northern Alberta through access to new products and innovation to the same level as the national companies,” he says.

“Really, it’s so that we don’t get left behind in new product launches or marketing opportunities, or access to training so our staff can keep ahead of the changing technologies, so that we stay on the forefront of the industry,” explains Gaumont. “At the end of the day, if our farm customers aren’t successful, if they’re not profitable, not sustainable, it doesn’t bode well for our retail business. We have to make sure they’re environmentally sound, and profitable. Then we’ll all be in it for the long run.”

Looking ahead to the technological challenges and opportunities farmers face, Dowdle sees a real fit for AgLink Canada. “There’s a whole tsunami of technology coming at you. In Australia we pride ourselves on being leaders of technology in each of our regions — in technology relevant to the area the farmer operates in,” he says. “It’s in the best interest of our members to ensure that farmers have that access and we want to play a role in helping with that.”

Dowdle is well aware there are some big differences in farming between Australia and Canada, like the intensity of the Canadian growing season. He stresses they’re not trying to implant Australia here, but rather learn some lessons from the way independent rural retailers do business there. The relationship is already spawning other activities, including one AgLink Australia member who plans to bring 100 Australian farmers to tour western Canada later this year.

“What makes me get up in the morning is independents and for them to be successful in very competitive and changing environment,” says Dowdle. “I think AgLink will play a part going forward in the development of strong independent retailers in western Canada over the coming years. It will be one platform where people who want to be part of something can be, and they can be heard.”