Live so that when your children think of fairness
and integrity they think of you.
- H. Jackson Jr.
Working With Family
It is a God-given privilege to be able to work in harmony with your family. Many of our customers have experienced this. Pat worked in the office of SVF for many years and it was great. If I asked her to do something, she rarely questioned me. She just did it. I never did figure out what happened to that concept when we got home (ha, ha).
Doug started working with SVF right out of high school. He learned the business from the ground up, literally. He did soil sampling, ran the skid loader, drove trucks and operated the control room. In fact, I think he threw bags with George Ricard at Legal one winter. A lesson I will not forget was when Rolly Verbeek, who was operating our custom spreading truck, left to pursue other interests. I called Aub to the office and asked him if he knew anyone who would be capable of doing that job. He said he would think about it. The next morning, he said he knew a man for the job. "He is good with equipment, reliable, honest, and good with the customers."
I said, "Great. Who?" Aub said, "Your own son." This hit me like a sledgehammer. My dad had five sons and several businesses. We all tried to work with him and failed. He just wouldn't give us any responsibility or recognize our potential. I was making the same mistake. Rolly trained Doug for two days before reporting that Doug was already as good as him. Doug operated custom spreading equipment for the next few years.
Business continued to grow every year. I would listen to Merelyn booking out NH3 applicators and dry spreaders. It took four to six days to get equipment to the customer, so the next year we bought two more applicators and two more spreaders. The next year the business grew some more, and the service didn't improve, so we bought two more, and more NH3 delivery trucks and another spreader truck. We just kept buying until the customer could get same-day or next-morning service.
There was a lot of stress in the rapid-growth years. Each year we had more equipment and staff, but it was never enough. I was up at 6 a.m. and to bed at midnight or 1 a.m., seven days a week. One night, Pat and I were on our way home at about 1 a.m. I was driving the company pickup, and she was following me in her car. We got into St. Albert, and I was driving through the residential area for a while. Finally, this car passed me and stopped in front of me. A lady got out and walked up to me. It was Pat, and she asked, “Where are you going?" I said, "I think I'm going home, but I can't find it." Pat said, "Follow me." And I did.
When Doug had been with us about 10 years, I was still reluctant to delegate some of my responsibilities. One morning, the pressure was on. I was on the phone, and I heard on the radio that a driver had just broken an axle. Pat was waiting for confirmation that she had made a urea-Avadex blend correctly, and Doug walked in to say he was going to spread a different field next. At that point, my mind went blank and I just started to cry. They took me upstairs and I went to sleep for six hours. Doug parked the spreader truck and took over my desk and job. Later, when I went to the doctor, he said I was lucky. Most people under those circumstances would have had a stroke or heart attack. The next day, someone else took over the spreader truck and Doug stayed in the office to help me. Shortly after that, Doug took over all the dealings with the chemical companies. They were driving me crazy. Doug is calmer and more patient than I am, so I was happy he was dealing with them… and so were the chemical companies.
In the early years, I had a lot of frustration with the chemical companies. They expected you to buy their products, store them in an expensive government-approved warehouse, becom knowledgeable about their proper use, make sure the customer understood and then have men and forklifts to load the customers.
We had to take all the sales through our books, some cash and some credit, and take all the risk. If the products didn't do their job, the chemical company had a whole bag full of reasons why it was not their fault. We did all of this for a very low margin. With some products, it was a joke. One thing they did do to appease their conscience was take us on many very nice trips all over the world. Without a doubt, they were some of the best-organized and most enjoyable trips we've been on. Monsanto took Pat and Merelyn to Duluth, Minnesota, for the Silver Broom Curling Championship, which lasted about a week.
This is a good opportunity for me to tell you what happened to me when Pat was not around. Sunday morning, I took our kids to church. There was a no-parking area close to the church that I always wanted to use (who will give you a ticket Sunday morning?). But no. Pat would never allow me to park there. But today there was no Pat, so I parked there. It felt good. I went into church and during the sermon, I fell asleep. I woke myself up with a loud snort that sent laughter throughout the church. I left church quickly only to find a parking ticket on my windshield. But all was not lost. I could still turn up the volume on the radio, open the sunroof, let the wind blow my hair and drive home over the posted speed limit. I parked the car in the garage with the sunroof still open. Well, the room above the garage was the hot tub room. Guess what? During the night, the hot tub sprung a big leak, which soaked the plastered ceiling over my car, and a big chunk of plaster fell through the sunroof onto the plush cloth front seat.
Now, think about it. When God created man, it wasn't long before he could see that we were going to need a lot of help. Sherritt took us many places, including Cuba in 1992. We, along with Doug and Donna and other SVF staff, have enjoyed and appreciated the many trips made possible by our suppliers.
I'll never forget the Cuba trip. Two days before we were scheduled to come home, I got a ruptured appendix. I was taken 30 miles to a hospital. After one stop for gas and another for air in the front tire, we arrived. While we waited to see a doctor, two people died, one on a steel bed in the hall and the other sitting against the wall on the floor. The place was unbelievable. I have seen vet clinics at home that were many, many times cleaner. When we got in to see the doctors, they said they must operate now and handed me a consent form. I looked around and thought that if they put me to sleep and cut me open there I would never wake up. I refused to sign. The doctors (five in all) were astonished. I told Pat I was just going to trust God to get me home the next day, and if that was not His will, I preferred to die on a clean airplane. I arrived home the next day and went straight into surgery.
The doctor was amazed I was alive and told me later that a membrane had formed over the poison and contained it. He claimed he had never seen that before. I was allergic to the anesthetic they used to put me to sleep, so It took four days in intensive care to get me breathing on my own again. Since then, I wear a medical alert bracelet.
The next big adjustment for me was at prepayment time. I felt I should personally deal with each customer. I had a customer in my office and four others waiting. In walked Roger Vansevenandt, who was known for always being in a hurry. It wasn't easy to figure out what he and his sons were going to need and what share each was paying. So Roger was pacing back and forth waiting to see me. I suggested that he just go into Doug's office and he'd take care of him. He did. As he left, he stuck his head in my office and said, "I'm all done and he's better than you!" So I looked out at the customers waiting and said the next person should just see Doug. They did. Presently, for the most part, the crop planning and requirements are all done with the agronomists, and the customers know at pre-payment time what they need to pre-buy.
Pat and I have been spending part of the winter in Yuma, Arizona, for several years. It used to be that when I came back in the spring, there would be only one or two new chemicals, so I was able to get up to speed quickly. But each year there were more and more to keep track of, some with restrictions. One spring when I came back, Doug heard me make a recommendation, but there was a new product I wasn't aware of. He politely suggested the new one, which the customer bought. When the customer left, I had Diane make me a nice sign that I framed and put on the wall behind my desk. It simply said, "I'm not too sure. You better ask Doug."
Our daughter, Heather, has also been working for SVF for the past several years. Her main responsibility is payroll. Heather was born on May 22, so her birthday always conflicted with the fertilizer season. As a result, we often celebrated her special day in the lunchroom upstairs at SVF. Heather's husband, Mike Krogen, worked for SVF part time while going to the
University of Alberta. He graduated with a phys. ed. degree and a teaching degree and has been teaching at Meadowlark Christian School since 1997. Mike was one of the best skid loader and control room operators we have ever had. Heather and Mike have four children. Heather has been a "stay-at-home mom." What a joke that is. With four kids going to the Christian school, she had to drive them in and pick them up because there was no school bus. The older ones can help now, so she can work part time at SVF. Their son Joel also works part time at SVF.
Ron and Tronia Systems are very involved with SVF. There are always changes required for our software, and Cory Laird is now our go-to guy with Tronia. Ron and Donna's daughter, Kelsey, is going to the University of Alberta. She works for SVF in the spring and summer. She is very sharp and has good people skills. By 1996, with all my family involved, it was obvious that Doug had made a lifetime commitment to SVF. The decision was made to make an offer to purchase Roger and Merelyn's share in the company. They graciously accepted. Merelyn also agreed to stay and do the dispatch for the next two years. No one was ever better at dispatch. I'm sure she knew the approach to every field in our whole trading area. I wish she was still doing it.
In the spring of 2012, Doug's son Cory joined our staff. Cory has a a degree in commerce and an agriculture diploma. Doug's second son, Nick, also joined SVF in the Customer Service group. This makes three generations of the Laird family. I have told Doug more than once that if he gets even half the enjoyment out of working with his children that I have working with mine, it will be a great experience. At the present time, I am still president of SVF, and our three children are all shareholders.