Passing torch across border | Saskatchewan business owner plans retirement but is pleased it will stay in the family
The Johnston’s Grain empire has spread from its imperial headquarters in Welwyn, Sask., to seed a colony in Calgary.
It’s both an expansion of the long-time grain trading firm and the beginning of the passing of the leadership torch from the senior generation to the younger, with both family members and others building the firm’s future.
“My long-term goal is that I’d like to eventually phase out and have these guys take over,” said Allan Johnston, the family patriarch who recently turned 65.
“I’m just good for 20, 30 years and then I’ll have to slow down,” he joked.
Johnston’s has long played a significant role in the central Prairies marketing non-CWB crops and agricultural imports both in Canada and into the United States.
During the 2012 U.S. Midwest drought, Johnston’s moved thousands of prairie farmers’ hay bales to livestock producers in parched regions.
The potential for independent brokers and marketers has appeared to increase dramatically since the CWB monopoly disappeared two years ago.
That’s one of the factors that drew Chevy, Allan’s younger son, back into the family business.
“The opportunity to grow this business is huge,” said Chevy, who formed and primarily financed the Calgary office, along with former Welwyn Johnston’s marketer Joel Merkosky.
The office opened in July and is a separate legal entity, although it is an affiliated company with his father’s.
Chevy received a Masters in Business Administration in Oxford, U.K., and returned to Canada in September 2013.
Before going to Britain, he had traded electricity for TransAlta and worked for the company on a six-month contract after returning to Calgary.
He was intrigued by the family business, but wanted to stay in Calgary, which has been his long-time home.
Allan had been thinking about how to keep his company vibrant and pass it over to the next generation.
His elder son, Jesse, was working with the Welwyn office and Allan’s wife, Judith, a retired schoolteacher, was spending her working day inside the grain business.
When he suggested that Merkosky and Chevy open an expansion in Calgary, both jumped at the idea.
Chevy said it is a good move for him because it allows him to work in commodity trading in Calgary.
Allan said it is also good for Johnston’s because it expands the company’s reach into markets that have been on the periphery to this point.
“It allows us to get into Montana, get more clientele out of Alberta, B.C., more Peace River country,” he said.
Beginning a new business has challenges, but Chevy said the Welwyn office is sharing clients with Calgary, so while they drum up new clients on the western Prairies, they also have existing clients from the central Prairies to serve.
There are also pragmatic challenges to opening new offices, and one of those has Allan crowing about the business climate in Welwyn.
“You can get better telecommunications service in Welwyn, two miles north of nowhere, than you can in downtown Calgary,” he said, referring to hook-up delays that have slowed his son’s operation’s opening months.
Chevy said he gets along with the rest of his family, so he’s not worried about being inside a big family tent he can’t escape.
“The whole family’s involved now and it’s pretty collegial,” said Chevy.
“We get along just fine.”
Allan said he’s happy to know there are people who share his optimism for the company’s future.
“They’re the running back and we’re handing them the ball.”