Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.
- Franklin P. Adams
Sherrit Rep Stories
I became a Sherritt rep in the fall of 1967. My first farmer meeting was in southern Alberta on a bright, winter afternoon in a rural community hall. My boss, George Gould, introduced me. We had a canned slide show that prompted me on what to talk about. After a few opening remarks, I asked for the blinds to cover the windows. There weren't any, I put - the slide on the wall and you couldn't see anything. Well, George, now sitting at the back of the room, just smiled at me as if to say, "OK. It's your meeting. What are you going to do now?"
At that time, in that area, there was a lot of summer fallow and not much nitrogen being put on stubble. So I asked if anyone had tried. One farmer put up his hand. I asked if he would mind telling us what he did and his opinion of the results. He did a great job telling his story. The meeting quickly evolved into the farmers' telling about many different experiences they had with using fertilizer. It was really going well.
Then a farmer stood up and said, "Young man, how would you like to tell me how come, since we started using all this fertilizer and chemical, you have to have a vet present every time your sow has pigs or they all die?" The room was silent. I was thinking fast. Everyone, including my boss, was waiting to see what I was going to say. Just then, a farmer stood up and said, "Frank, if you spent as much time in the hog barn as you do in the bar, you wouldn't have dead pigs." Well with that, Frank left. Within a few minutes, we were back on track.
After an hour and a half, I dismissed the meeting, but no one left. We continued for another hour. That day, I learned a lot more from the farmers than they learned from me. This is still the same today. I recommend to our new agronomists that they spend more time listening than talking.
By the early '70s, the Sherritt reps had established several new dealers in Alberta and Saskatchewan, most of which were selling NH3. At that time, it was Sherritt's responsibility to deliver the NH3. Val Mohr was the traffic manager for Sherritt, and it was his responsibility to find carriers to haul NH3. The use of NH3 was growing fast, so NH3 carriers were in short supply.
One day, I was in Val's office and he told me that there was no way he would have enough NH3 carriers, so I said, "Why don't we buy one and get a contract trucker to pull it?" Val said, "Yes, why not?" We formed a company called VLR (Val Mohr, Larry Laird, Roger Henry). We ordered one NH3 trailer, and two weeks later we ordered the second. With Val dispatching the trailers, we were assured that SVF would not be running out of NH3, as many dealers did. VLR grew quickly, and Val left Sherritt to manage it. It grew to over 20 tractor-trailer units and operated for several years before we sold it.
My first company car was a 1968 Dodge Monaco. I had a five-foot Comino fertilizer attachment mounted on the back bumper. In areas of Alberta where low rates of nitrogen were common on stubble fields, I would pull into the field and apply a strip across and back with a good rate of nitrogen. I also put strips on hay and pasture land.
In the winter, would have a farm meeting in that area and ask, "What happened in that field?" No one knew what I had done, so the most common answer was, "Must be on an old pipeline." I would then tell them what I did, which would prompt a lot of good discussion. Nevertheless, the best fertilizer salesman was the fertilizer attachment; they would run out of fertilizer, a chain would break or come off, and the results of having no fertilizer would soon be very evident.
In the early '70s, Bob Urquhart and I were traveling together, looking for prospects for fertilizer dealers. Neither one of us was raised on a farm. I had some exposure in my so-called hobby farming days, but Bob was from the city.
It was a beautiful winter day. We had just finished an afternoon meeting and headed to the closest town with a motel, and it was starting to get dark. As we passed one farmyard after another, we could see the kitchen lights on. We had been talking about how well we were doing in our job: good pay, company car, expense account, a home (although not paid for), etc.
The next farmyard we came to, we pulled off the highway. There was still enough light to see buildings and equipment. I said, "Let's do a net-worth estimate on this farm."
We made notes on the amount of grain storage, the amount and size of equipment, and the outbuildings. There was a newer house and an old one, which indicated a second-generation farmer. Then we figured out how much land you would need to justify the equipment and grain storage.
Our conclusion was that the farm was worth between $3 and $4 million. Then I said, "Let's do a net worth estimate on ourselves." Well, we were
Jack McEwen was one of the first NH3 dealers. He was also a successful farmer in the Bon Accord area. Jack was a great believer in NH3 and often said you can't use too much. "It's all good." Well, he applied 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre on manured fallow at Horricks' farm on 97 Street. They seeded it to oats. By early fall, it was already over seven feet tall. The Horricks planned on harvesting oats, but needless to say they had a lot of green feed.
I was called out to Robert Huff's farm. Bob had bought some Sherritt 27-27-0 bagged fertilizer from Harvey Ash, manager of Commercial Veg Co-op. The night before, when he finished seeding, he thought he would top up his fertilizer attachment and be ready for on top of the morning. Bob had a few bags of Pool's 23-23-0 leftover, so he poured them the 27-27-0. Well, by morning there out of was water actually dripping the bottom. The problem was that Sherritt's 27-27-0 was a blend of urea and 11-48 and Pool's 23-23-0 was a blend of ammonium nitrate and 11-48. If you mix urea with nitrate, it turns into water. Needless to say, we spent the morning cleaning out his attachment, and Sherritt gave him some new 27-27-0.
I recall one day I went to the Hector and Vic Soetaert farm at seeding time. They were in the process of filling the fertilizer attachment with Pool Fertilizer bags. I pitched in and was emptying the Pool bags. Hector and Vic were having a big laugh at the Sherritt rep unloading Pool bags. I said, "That's OK. Next year they will be Sherritt bags." people in this community know, Soetaerts are And they were. As most people in all born with a great sense of humour.
My Granpa Laird's
Old Ned doesn't always ride the day he saddles.
The wildest colts make the best horses.
hard-pressed to come up to $150,000 each, and we were sitting on the side of the road 200 miles from home planning to sleep in a motel away from our wives and children. The farmer was in his warm home with his family having a nice supper. You tell me who's the smartest.
I have never forgotten that day. We both gained a lot of respect for the men and women called farmers. And Bob went on to become Sherritt's Canadian sales manager.
When I left Sherritt, Jim Maykut became the new Sherritt rep. Jim was and still is a real character. He is a prankster and can imitate almost any accent. One day I got a call from a potential customer with a strong Dutch accent. He said he was a potato farmer from the Fort Saskatchewan area and wanted some information on fertilizing potatoes. Well, I was all over that, knowing potatoes use a lot of fertilizer. I was keen to find out how many acres were involved.
He just said, "I'm going to fertilize them all.' After dodging the question two or three times, he finally said, "I'm going to fertilize all three hills." The light came on. Jim had got me again.
A couple years later, I got a call from a man with an East Indian accent. I thought, "OK, Jim. You won't get me this time. He had a lot of questions about our equipment and the services we offered. I gave him a lot of nonchalant answers. Finally, he said, "I think I'd better come and see you personally." I said, "Sure, good idea.” I had a little chuckle and expected Jim to walk in any minute. Well, about 20 minutes later, a man walked into the office "looking for Larry." He was wearing a turban. My heart just sank-it wasn't Jim! It was a large prospective customer. When he came into my office, I was really embarrassed and I apologized profusely. Then I told him about Jim. Fortunately he had a good sense of humour, and we both had a good laugh. I learned to take every call seriously after that. It's one thing to be fooled by someone, but to make a fool out of myself was quite another.
In the late '60s and early '70s, my main job was to find and develop fertilizer dealers. Before Federal Grain sold to the Pool, we could only look in areas that would not conflict with them and UGG. This pushed us out of grain country into cattle country. I had a farm dealer out west. He was into haying, cattle, and trucking. He and his wife were honest, hard-working people who had been married about 18 years. One day, she told me she had not bought a nice dress since they were married, nor had she been to a nice restaurant or show. Not even on their anniversary. He who was one of these guys probably told her once that he loved her, and if he changed his mind, he would let her know. So I took him to task in a teasing way. His year-end bonus cheque was coming up in about six weeks. I told him he would not get the cheque until he bought her a new Sunday dress and took her out to a nice restaurant and a show of her choice. After three weeks, I phoned him to remind him. In another three weeks, I was there with his bonus cheque. "Well, did you meet the requirements?" He said no and that he'd been busy. So I left with his bonus cheque.
Harvey Ash was one of our first Sherritt dealers and was manager of the Commercial Vegetable Co-op. He was a very laid-back, easygoing kind of a guy. His wife, Mary, was the opposite. She was on the fly all the time.
One day I went to see them, and Mary had a really ugly black eye. Finally, while Harvey and I were enjoying the traditional nice lunch Mary made, he said, "Don't you want to know how Mary got her black eye? Well, we were going out to the garden. I wasn't walking fast enough to suit her so she passed me and stepped on the rake." Harvey paused and continued, "I always wondered why men let the ladies go first and now I know. It's a safety issue."
Two weeks later I went back and was met at the door by a smiling lady holding a very nice dress. She informed me that she had been to Edmonton for a nice meal and a show. He said he didn't think I was really serious but that they did have a very nice evening and stayed over in Edmonton. He said, "She knows I appreciate her, but I guess it doesn't hurt to say it and show it once in a while."
Harvey, Mary and their children were down by the river for a family picnic. Mary was back in the trees making lunch. Harvey was standing down by the river having a beer. Harvey looked up just in time to see his two-year-old son floating down the river. At that instant, Harvey was almost knocked into the river as Mary flew by, jumped into the river, and rescued the boy. Harvey said it was sure a good thing Mary saw him or it could have been serious.
When I was a Sherritt rep, I was often in hot water. I have never been known for being patient, so I made decisions without running them up the corporate ladder. When I left to manage SVF and would call Sherritt with an issue (and there were many), I always asked who "God" was on the issue. I wanted to talk to whoever had the final say because I wanted to know now. It wasn't long before they started to call me "the Pope." When I'd call the Sherritt office, I could hear the receptionist call out that the Pope was on the phone and wanted to talk to God. To this day, the old Sherritt people still call me the Pope.
In the previous nine years, I had found and developed several good dealers, some small and some large. My claim to fame was getting Larry and Madeline Andrukow into the fertilizer business. Andrukow Farm Sales was born. The story goes something like this:
Larry and Madeline were personal friends of Pat's and mine. Larry was an engineer working for AGT, and they were living in Edmonton. Larry had just received a promotion and would be moving to Calgary. Madeline was in Calgary for a few days looking for a suitable house. In the meantime, Bob Black and I were out at Ryley doing some repairs to Ernie Brown's NH3 tank. Ernie told us he was getting too old for the business and asked if we would be interested in buying him out. Well, Bob said no, and I was already involved with SVF. So I called Larry and gave him the pitch on becoming a fertilizer dealer. Larry said he could be interested.
The next day, Larry came in to meet George Gould, the Alberta manager. George was impressed with Larry and asked if he would need any financing to buy out Ernie. Larry declined. So, when Madeline came home from Calgary, Larry told her he was planning to quit AGT and buy a fertilizer dealership in Ryley.
Well, Madeline was some ticked with me and said that if they couldn't make it in the business, they were moving in with us. As the saying goes, the rest is history. Today the Andrukow Group is owned by Larry and Madeline's son, Greg, and his wife, Esther. It is one of the largest independent fertilizer dealers in Western Canada, with several outlets. I now tease Madeline about where my royalty cheques are.
Well, my territory was from Leduc north, so my area bought thousands of tonnes. At year-end, my commission was far beyond what management expected. So for the next year, management wanted us to pay back the commission on any sales less than the previous year. All the reps objected and appointed to Bob Urquhart (a rep at that time) as our spokesman argue that that was not fair. As usual, he won, and that was the last of any commissions for reps. Today fertilizer application equipment can evenly spread fines, and the price is just under $400 a tonne.
It was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do in my life. There was pleading, begging and crying. Reckoning the account was no small job. At that time $10 to $15 was the normal margin per tonne, so when you could make $80 to $100, he just couldn't stop.
As mentioned earlier, ammonium sulphate (21-0-0-24) was a by-product of the nickel refining process. This product was screened to make regular 21-0-0-24, but what could we do with the fines? Well, given the lack of value, they were piled up outside in the rain and snow. Finally they were made available to the dealers and were offered to the farmers at $13 per tonne FOB Sherritt at Fort Saskatchewan. Although they were wet and lumpy, they sold like hotcakes. The next year or so Sherritt decided to keep them inside, up the price and give us reps a small commission per tonne for sales.
In the early 1970s, there was a shortage of fertilizer in the U.S. Prices went up considerably. There was no shortage in Western Canada, so some of the dealers were shipping product into the U.S. at a very good profit. Some farm organizations were concerned that, by the time we started seeding in Canada, there would also be a shortage here. The federal government was made aware, and they in turn told the fertilizer manufacturers that they would step in if the manufacturers did not stop their dealers from shipping product into the U.S. Well, I found out that one of my dealers was bringing in railcar loads of bagged fertilizer and shipping it to the U.S. I told him that he must stop, but he didn't. I then told him that if he continued, I would have to cancel his contract. He continued. After the third warning, my boss, George Gould, told me to cancel his contract or my job could be in jeopardy. So I did.