Five years ago, Mathieu Racine, the 33-year-old president and CEO of family-owned Quebec agricultural equipment dealer Comptoir Agricole Ste-Anne (CASA), was fed up with an age-old problem. CASA was in the business of selling American-made grain elevators, fans, dryers and conveyor belts to Canadian farmers. And the company had more orders than it could fill. “We were waiting three or four months for equipment on back order in the U.S.,” says chief financial officer Elie Tochan.
To solve the problem, Tochan and Racine transformed CASA from a dealer into a manufacturer. “Now we make our equipment instead of waiting for it,” Tochan explains. “We deliver more quickly to clients, who pay faster and want to keep doing business with us.”
It was a big change, and it wasn’t cheap. In 2014, CASA—which was founded by Racine’s father, Serge, in 1975—bought a $3.7-million factory and warehouse in Repentigny, east of Montreal, stocked with $3 million worth of metal presses, folders and automated welding machines. “The trick was not to spend more than necessary. I analyzed which machines would give us a cash return the fastest,” says Tochan, who created a three-year plan to make the transformation from dealer to manufacturer.
The change allows CASA to be more agile in offering cutting-edge innovations to its clients, such as a technology system that allows farmers to remotely monitor their grain silos for things like ruinous humidity. The move to manufacturing also gives CASA an advantage in the era of volatile Canada-U.S. border politics; for instance, Tochan says the current high price of American steel is driving a lot of interest in a made-in-Canada alternative. Today, CASA sells mostly to clients in eastern Canada, but is now evolving to serve customers in Alberta and the eastern U.S.
To keep the revamped operation efficient, Tochan and Racine carefully track the productivity of their factory employees. “Everyone works in front of a computer screen that measures the time they spend on each production task,” says Tochan. Far from feeling spied on, employees embrace the monitoring system: “It tells them if they are doing a good job. We see problems right away so we can find solutions.”
In addition, managers and employees meet monthly during the winter (agriculture’s slow season) to discuss what’s working, what’s not and how to improve things. “It can be anything,” says Tochan. “Our employees were complaining that the software we used was too slow and too limited. So we did our research and replaced it.”
It’s all hitting the mark among farmers; CASA’s sales have increased 17% in each of the past three years. “We are reliable and fast,” says Tochan, “and the word about us is starting to spread.”