A Semple recipe for success

2016 ABEX Business Leader of the Year honouree and Brandt Group of Companies Chairman Gavin Semple chats with Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce CEO Steve McLellan about leadership, innovation, and the ‘most important sale’.

Steve McLellan denoted by the initials SM; Gavin Semple denoted by the initials GS.

SM: Mr. Semple, thanks so much for sitting down with me, and congratulations on your recognition as the chamber’s 2016 ABEX Business Leader of the Year.

GS: Thank you, Steve.

SM: Let’s start by talking a little bit about the idea of opportunity. How does Brandt look for new opportunity in a ‘rainy day’ type of economy?

GS: When things are good, business is booming, and we’re all focused on keeping up with demand, there is sometimes a tendency to think short-term instead of long-term. The converse is, when things happen in the market that hurt your business, it forces the whole organization to rethink what new products you can introduce, what new markets you can enter, and what new ventures you should take on to grow.

Coming out of the storm, Brandt has expanded its product line in just about every division. We’ve entered into new partnerships, and we’ve captured market in places we hadn’t previously done much before, such as the Maritimes.

But when we do look for those opportunities, we look for synergies with the business we already do. For example, about eight years ago, we decided to get into the manufacturing of attachments for construction equipment sold through Brandt Tractor. Now, we employ about 100 people in that division alone. We’ve also now entered the trailer business. Every piece of equipment we sell usually leaves our lot on top of a trailer, so we asked ourselves why those trailers couldn’t be made by Brandt.

SM: Is leadership in this sense about seeing the economic downturn as having a silver lining, or is it an absolute necessity for business innovation?

GS: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. So, whether you’re a football team or you’re running a business, sometimes losing causes you to do some soul-searching, look for the areas that need improvement, look for the areas that are ripe for opportunity, and take advantage of them. Winning, believe it or not, can make you weaker.

The reality of the marketplace is that all businesses cycle. One of the things we did a long time ago was diversify our business — no different than the farmer who grows six different kinds of crop. They’re not all going to be high-priced or bumper crops at the same time; but, on average, you can have some consistency in profitability.

SM: Brandt has roughly 2,000 employees today — about 10 per cent of which are managers at various levels. If one of those managers comes to you and asks you to define what you expect of them as a leader, does it change depending on their specific position or experience?

GS: The vision may vary, but the qualities of a leader I don’t think change, regardless of the level. It takes an ability to interact with people, to listen and understand the needs and desires of the people within the organization, and to lead them by example.

Good leaders have a strong work ethic. They have a bias towards positivity. And they expect to win. They invariably have their own ideas of where the organization is heading, too, so they need to be strong communicators and persuasive.

SM: That’s very clear, thoughtful advice. Were there times in your career when you said: Hey, there’s a lesson for me as a leader, or where you came across a leader you wanted to emulate?

GS: There were several, but there was one in particular that had a big impact on me. He was the owner of Ditch Witch down in Oklahoma. He was a very modest, quiet, principled leader, who truly valued his people. So, a lot of the things we’ve done at Brandt — both my son, Shaun, and I — have been patterned after that example.

Celebrating success as an organization, for instance, so everyone feels they were a part of it, he did very well. We’ve tried hard to do just that and recognize achievement. He had such positive people — and he cultivated that environment by leading from the back. He was a big inspiration on my life.

SM: You mentioned Shaun, who now leads Brandt as president. You’ve been fortunate to be able to come to work with your son every day and see him grow throughout his career. What is one lesson you’ve learned from Shaun?

GS: Shaun has a lot of strengths I don’t. He’s a ‘long thinker,’ a big thinker — a bigger thinker than I am. He’s also a bigger risk-taker. He won’t make decisions because they’re easy, and it’s taken me a long time to learn that lesson.

When you’re dealing with a difficult situation, there are often a variety of paths forward. Some are easier, short-term fixes, and others are tougher, long-term solutions. Shaun defaults to the long-term.

SM: That’s an interesting place to pivot. Let’s look to the long-term. Fifteen years from now, what does Brandt look like?

GS: I expect to see Brandt continue to grow reasonably aggressively. It will probably be slanted towards manufacturing, as we enter new markets and introduce new technologies on the shop floor. I know Shaun and his team have some big plans on the horizon.

That said, we will also expand on the distribution side — and part of that is technology-driven as well. We recently launched a positioning technology division, using a product called Topcon, which is akin to precision farming, but for construction equipment. We sell that to our contractor customers, who use it to improve their productivity and gain a competitive advantage when using our equipment.

SM: If a company does not have a formal or informal innovation strategy or appetite right now, what advice would you give them?

GS: That’s the direction the world is going. It’s pervasive — it’s in every sector. Advanced technology is not all that advanced anymore. In many ways, it’s actually quite standard.

For us, innovation is embedded into each of Brandt’s business units. We have about 60 people solely dedicated to engineering, so they’re on the leading edge of the technical aspects of innovation, but it’s not their responsibility alone. It’s up to everyone in each division to know the industry they’re in, empower creativity, and drive innovation in every product and process.

Lean is a big part of that at Brandt. It engages every employee and systematically allows us to continually improve what we’re doing and deliver better results for our customers.

SM: One of the core tenets of lean is adding value for your customer — that’s front and centre. And whenever I hear you talking about any aspect of the business, you tend to always circle back to the impact on your customers first. Where does that come from?

GS: Back to Ditch Witch. Their entire focus is on the customer — meeting with the customer, learning from the customer, fulfilling customer needs. They hammer that point home in their training.

We have four core values at Brandt: Quality, innovation, commitment, and customer-focus. Everything we do in the first three is to satisfy the fourth. That is the source of all our success. But for that to work in an organization, it has to be truly believed by staff and management. It has to be part of your culture and fundamental to how you do business.

SM: Let’s, for a moment, get to know a little bit more about you. What does the typical day look like for Gavin Semple?

GS: I’m an early riser — between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. The first thing I do in the morning is spend an hour on the treadmill. While I’m on there, I switch the television back and forth between CNN, BNN, and CTV, so, by the time I’m done, I’m caught up on the news, the markets, and those crazy politics south of the border. Then I get ready and head into the office, usually for 7 a.m. at latest.

Once I’m in the office, it’s usually a day full of interacting with people. I spend a lot of time in meetings, liaising back and forth between associations and government, and — of course — on the shop floor talking with staff. I’m home for supper by 5 p.m. most days, unless there is a [Regina] Pats [hockey] game that evening.

SM: Apart from the Pats, what are some of your hobbies? What do you do to decompress?

GS: Every weekend, we go out to the farm. I have a large extended family; so, we have a lot of family gatherings. It’s not uncommon to have 25 guests out for supper on a Saturday night — usually on short notice.

SM: No opera as a pastime?

GS: I don’t sing opera, but I did grow up in a home that listened to opera. I do like music, though. I own four guitars. In fact, one of them was owned by Garth Brooks. I usually don’t admit to being a guitar player because my brother, Jack (a Juno Award-winning blues musician), outshines me. But, at the farm, when you’re 30 miles from people, you can play guitar and pretend to know what you’re doing.

SM: You’ve been married to your wife, Annette, for more than 50 years. What role has she played in your professional career?

GS: She’s always encouraged me, even when she didn’t have much to go on. She’s believed in me and supported me — and that’s real important when you’re an entrepreneur with everything on the line, especially in the early stages. It’s a big family sacrifice. Convincing your spouse to come along on that journey with you is really the first, and most important, sale you have to make.

SM: Jumping back to business and current affairs, there has been a lot of talk about the carbon tax. Say the prime minister came to you and said, “We need to reduce emissions, we looked at our options, and now we need a solution — what should we do?” What advice would you give him?

GS: Much like our own business, I would suggest we look at what Canada is already doing and find ways to leverage it.

What concerns me is that it seems the general public believes industry doesn’t care about the environment. Nothing could be further from the truth. I merely think a carbon tax is an inefficient and ineffective way to reduce emissions. And we haven’t thought through the unintended consequences to the economy and small businesses.

I just look at our customer base. Take agriculture: It is a modern miracle, if you back up and compare to what it was like 30 or 40 years ago, how productive and ecologically efficient our practices and equipment are today — and we still can’t feed the world. I spoke to one farmer that estimated a carbon tax would cost him in the vicinity of $120,000 per year. Pressures like that aren’t going to move the needle on emissions — they’re going to put families out of business.

Instead, my advice to the prime minister would be to focus on innovation. Encourage entrepreneurs and companies to develop and adopt technologies that reduce emissions. And, in the process, we may very well create a whole host of new opportunities, world-leading businesses, and revenue streams that didn’t exist before.

SM: Last question I’d like to finish with: What advice would you give to a new manufacturing leader on the Prairies?

GS: First, if that’s your passion, commit to pursuing it. Don’t be afraid to ask people for advice, who have already been down the road you want to travel. You don’t have to take their advice. I have asked many people for advice over the years — some I listened to, and some I didn’t; but I learned a lot from other leaders who had more experience in the industry than I had. It’s always good to hear from others who have been where you want to go.

Second, you can’t do it alone. I came to the realization in the early stages that I needed to build a team of capable people especially in areas where I lacked experience. It took me a while to learn to trust their judgement, which is another important factor — especially as the organization grows. Attracting and retaining capable members of the team who share your values is the most important factor in the success of any organization.

Third, don’t quit. In business, one is faced with disappointments and setbacks on a regular basis. Determination and resilience is the cost of entry for entrepreneurs. If you don’t have it, don’t enter.

Finally, celebrate success with your team! Everyone likes to be part of a winning team.