As we sat down for a chat with Patrick Podolinsky and his sister, Deanna Valiquette, it was in the wake of the firm the pair help lead—Podolinsky Equipment Ltd.—having won the Sarnia Lambton Chamber of Commerce Agri-Business of the Year award at the Outstanding Business Achievement Awards gala.
We began by talking about how this family business took shape.
“A lot of people are surprised that all three generations of our family still work here,” notes Valiquette, operations manager of an enterprise that began 54 years ago when Ann Podolinsky opened its doors with her husband.
Today, Valiquette and her brother Patrick, the sales manager, along with their cousin Jason, who is service manager, are at the helm of a thriving but complex family business that not only has adapted but continues to do so in an industry that is constantly evolving.
We talked about much of that, starting with the path Patrick and Deanna took to get to where they are today.
“We both took different paths,” notes Valiquette, who has been working “off and on” at the dealership since she was 13.
Graduating from Brock University where she earned a degree in international business, she took the coop route at school, working three stints at General Motors in nearby St. Catharines in jobs involving manufacturing and finance.
When she graduated she worked in Sarnia-Lambton with the Sarnia-Lambton Economic Partnership before joining Royal Bank as a senior account manager, a role she had until March 2013 when an opportunity came up at Podolinsky—“the need for some leadership” as Valiquette describes it.
Her brother, in addition to his role at the store, continues to farm, an occupation he first took to at the age of 14, working every day for the next seven years.
“They had enough help here at the time,” he says, a playful chuckle in his voice.
Having went to high school in Petrolia, Podolinsky headed to the University of Guelph, earning a degree in business agriculture and then taking on a job with a seed company, where he worked for the next five years.
Today, with brother, sister and cousin Jason involved in key roles, there’s an understanding of the complexity an operation like Podolinsky Equipment has come to embrace, especially given the seasonal nature of the enterprise.
That’s required the firm to take on other brands in addition to its core John Deere business, even with all its lines—varying sizes of farm tractors, golf-related equipment, lawn and property maintenance, and even categories like skid steers.
Also a recognized powerhouse in snow machines, Podolinsky has sold the Arctic Cat line for some 13 years and about 18 months ago, added the Polaris brand to its inventory.
But this business is not just about moving product, a point that Patrick Podolinsky makes—ironic considering his role as sales manager.
“People see the big combines and tractors on our property, but most people who work here aren’t in sales,” he notes. “They’re in parts and service and people forget about that.”
Indeed, very much like an automotive dealership where a balance between sales, service and parts is critical to a healthy bottom line, Podolinsky does all three and does each with the kind of commitment and attention to detail that keeps customers returning.
“You need all three to be successful,” notes Patrick.
For Deanna, it was the experience working in coop positions with General Motors, that she points to as being foundational for the work she does now at the family business.
“Learning to work with people, to manage people, lead a team, set performance targets—all of that was important,” she says. “It’s helped me in dealing with people which is why I’ve taken on that HR related role here.”
She also pointed to lessons learned around marketing, all related to her international business degree.
“You laugh now but the idea of international business was new at the time,” she adds, smiling. “Today, it’s just business.”
Patrick acknowledges that the lessons learned, not just at university but on the job selling seed to farmers, were critical to his current role at the dealership.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today without that education and the accelerated development afterward,” he said.
In the winter, the work shifts over to maintenance, with growers taking on preventive work, although there’s the snow machine work that’s also a focus of an operation that is pretty much busy year-round, depending on the interest of various customer segments.
And then there’s what Deanna Valiquette calls “meeting season”—the time when various conferences become opportunities, essential in a business where technology is ever changing and driving competitive advantage in the industry.
Those courses—John Deere, for example, calls its program John Deere University—are not without a cost.
“We pay for everything,” says Deanna, without a hint of regret in her voice. “It’s all continuing learning, through peer groups, product training, conferences. There’s never a dull moment when it comes to learning.
That “keeping up” is especially important in the dealership’s Precision Ag business, an increasingly important category that includes hardware and software that allows farmers to document, with the kind of precision that’s reflected in its name, that will deliver improvements in yield and overall performance.
Still, there are challenges, which both brother and sister and others in the business have come to understand as a matter of fact.
“One of our greatest is that there’s not a lot of people expressing an interest in getting into farming these days,” says Deanna.
Her retort is simple.
“You don’t have to go to agriculture school to get a job in this field. You can be a marketer or get into service.”
For these members of the family and others who are part of the 60 or so people who work here in the “high season,” the business—considered a fairly large store among its peers in the area—remains one that both Patrick and Deanna have embraced with a passion.
That’s especially, but not exclusively, the case with Patrick, whose background in hands-on farming translates into being able to relate to those whose business is, quite literally, growing.
“Farmers are the best group of people you could work with on a daily basis,” he says, noting that it was when he was at the tail end of his seed business career and found himself dealing with spreadsheets that he longed for the day when he could walk the fields and help farmers solve their problems.
Looking to the future, both are also excited to see the kinds of changes that are coming, especially around technology.
“There are already tractors that will text you if they need something done,” notes Patrick.
Changes in the industry are undoubtedly going to eclipse even technology that’s currently available.
“In the end, we’re going to continue to support our customers in different ways,” notes Deanna. “We’ll be more predictive than reactive, calling them when the tractor is going to have an issue. And the tools we’re using are becoming more and more electronic.”
All told, it’s a fascinating business, one for which Podolinsky Equipment Ltd. is at the top of its game, as evidenced by its 2018 Agri-Business of the Year award from the Sarnia Lambton Chamber of Commerce.