Canadian Exotic Grains
Now a fully employee-owned company, Canadian Exotic Grains began as G.H. Schweitzer Enterprises Ltd. in 1981. Gary Schweitzer established the business. As a local grower, Schweitzer wanted to boost his marketing power as a producer and soon began offering his services to other farmers in the area.
Specialty crops have long been the focus of Canadian Exotic Grains, though Schweitzer has delved into crop research over the years and added new products to the company’s lineup. The business now serves as a producer and marketer of grains, pulses and spices – many of which had not been grown in Saskatchewan up until the last few decades.
The business has a strong market share in North America. Business is split roughly 60/40 between distribution in Canada and the U.S. A margin of product moves overseas, but Jocelyn Hartsook, director of marketing and shareholder of Canadian Exotic Grains, says North America is the focus.
Hartsook and her colleagues became owners in 2011, when Schweitzer decided he wanted to retire gradually over the following years. He offered ownership in the business to all of his full-time employees and five of them took him up on the offer. Schweitzer still serves as company president, but works primarily on a consulting basis as his team gets its footing.
A learning opportunity
“Figuring out the ownership piece has been a steep learning curve and it is great to have Gary still involved,” says Hartsook. “Our main goal over the last few years has been to re-establish and grow from what he had started. We are responsible to our employees and our growers, so we are always looking at margins. We have our worries, but they keep us grounded.”
With four shareholders and four additional full-time employees as well as a handful of part-time employees who get busy in the harvest season, the business is small from an operational standpoint. Involvement as an owner-operator, Hartsook says, has offered perspective. “As long as we keep perspective, everything will eventually work out,” she explains. “I know now that while I am strong in some areas, I have more to learn in business management. I’m learning a lot as I go.”
Beyond some additional responsibilities, however, Hartsook says not much has changed about how Canadian Exotic Grains operates. All of the shareholders have kept their established roles in the business. “From that perspective, the transition was fairly easy,” she explains. “Customers and growers know us – to them, we really just changed the name to better fit our operation and scale. What we do as a company stays the same.”
While serving as a consultant, Schweitzer is still one of the company’s primary growers. He is around the office to lend a hand and is works daily with the new owner-operators to ensure the company is set up for success. Hartsook estimates Schweitzer will remain involved in the business for a few more years as she and her colleagues master the ropes.
Expanding in a niche market
Despite the challenges of changing up the company’s structure, Canadian Exotic Grains is growing. Hartsook and her colleagues have seen an increase in demand and production, leading the business to examine growth options for the coming years.
While the company is not planning on expanding its product line, Hartsook says the business is diversified enough to maintain margins even when some products have a rough season. For example, coriander got a late start this season. With high rainfall, seed germination percentages were low and it has been tough to find quality coriander. “We spread ourselves out enough that one disaster doesn’t affect other areas of the business,” she explains. “In this business, it’s always one thing or another. On the sales side, everything is positive. And we work with some great, experienced growers who make adjustments where they can.”
“There seems to be a good supply of everything right now and as long as everyone can make a little money along the way, we can keep everyone happy,” she adds. “Right now we contract the cleaning portion of our process. The businesses we work with are vital to our community and we don’t ever want to put ourselves in competition with them. At this point, however, production is increasing and we don’t have the local capacity we need for the years ahead.”
For that reason, Canadian Exotic Grains is looking at options to expand facilities in order to accommodate some in-house processing. “That will keep us on top of our production and also may open up some new opportunities for us,” notes Hartsook. “Bringing that capacity in-house could offer us better control as food safety standards change. It could also translate to grinding or milling – it depends on what the industry dictates.”
Canadian Exotic Grains is just warming up and once the ownership transition is complete, Hartsook and her team foresee continued steady growth in the future for the business.