By Kaveri Braid
Photographs by Stuart Kasdorf
As you walk into Grandwest Enterprises, the first thing that hits you are 25 pairs of eyeballs peeking up over the walls of their cubicles. Most quickly look away and continue to focus on the person on the other end of their telephone headset.
This is Grandwest’s call centre. The 25-person department is set up neatly, right in the middle of the office, and employees here take approximately 2,000 customer service calls each day. Grandwest is the largest automotive accessory distribution company in Canada, and all its operations are based in Saskatoon.
At the helm is 63-year-old George Reddekopp, who started the business with a friend in 1980. Now, 37 years later, he is the sole owner and employs 120 people. Most of those employees have been working with him for more than 20 years.
“We have so many people here – one of the staff told me last week, ‘I’ve been here for 21 years and I don’t even rank in the top 20 as far as top seniority,’” says Reddekopp.
It is rare when a job opens up at Grandwest. Reddekopp says the business has always functioned with very low staff turnover. And if there is ever a need to hire someone, Reddekopp just goes to his employees for help.
“In 25 years we grew from a staff of 22 to 100, roughly. How did we advertise and get people? Well, we didn’t. They all came from word of mouth; we never advertised in 25 years. When there is a job opening, we like to ask those people in the call centre. We say, ‘We’re thinking of getting another person in here.’ We ask them, ‘Who would you like?’”
A reputation based on relationships
Reddekopp is protective of the positive word-of-mouth reputation he has built. He believes reputation, whether good, bad, or indifferent, is what will help build a business or bring it down.
“One of the things I have learned about business and life is that it’s all about the people, and if you can foster good relations and establish a good rapport and establish a good reputation, it will serve you over and over,” says Reddekopp.
Reddekopp says he learned this lesson on relationships very early on when he first teamed up with his former partner, Dale Johnson, to start Grandwest Enterprises. Johnson decided to sell his shares to Reddekopp more than 25 years ago, but they are still close friends – a relationship Reddekopp notes is a rarity, as sometimes business partnerships don’t end well. Reddekopp says he has adopted Johnson’s approach to business partnerships, and the secret is to have the right attitude.
“When you have a partner don’t expect it to be 50/50, expect to do more than your share. And when you do more than your share, things will work well. If you expect everybody will be 100% fair, well, it’s just not going to be. We are all different and maybe we all contribute in one area and less in another, or maybe they aren’t as good a partner as you, but if you are prepared for that, it’ll still work well.”
Take care of your people
It’s a moral code George Reddekopp took forward when building his team at Grandwest.
Reddekopp says the best thing he has ever done in business is invest in his people, and there is no shortage of examples. Every employee receives a bonus based on performance, plus a one-week stay at one of the lake properties Reddekopp owns in Saskatchewan. One year he offered his staff a customized 1955 Chevy truck to drive throughout the year. The company’s year-end celebration in February is legendary: all employees and their families receive an all-inclusive weekend stay at a downtown hotel with a formal banquet to recognize and celebrate the entire staff.
“If you ask someone, ‘26 years ago what did you get for a bonus?’ they don’t know. But I ask my staff, ‘Do you remember that vehicle?’ and they say, ‘Yup, I do.’ So you want to say thank you in a different way,” says Reddekopp.
Purchasing manager Roger Braun agrees that being taken care of by George has been part of the reason he has been a long-time employee at Grandwest. Before working here, Braun pumped gas and worked in the construction industry. He says job stability and full-time work were originally why he signed on at Grandwest. But what has kept him here for 31 years is the opportunity for personal growth. Braun says Reddekopp allows his employees to learn.
“As a boss George has high expectations. He will let you fail and then learn things, and then he will show you how you can do these things better. His expectations are high but he always brings criticism forward in a positive way, by saying, ‘Hey, you could have done that, or done this a little differently,’” says Braun. “He is one of the most positive people I know. In fact I may even bug him about it at times!”
For employee Trevor Giesbrecht it’s about fairness. Giesbrecht works as a shipper/receiver, and he says of all the places he has worked, the experience at Grandwest has been the best. “The more you put into the company the bigger the salary and the bonus. If you come in late or start working in the afternoon, your salary is reflective of that. George rewards you for what you do, so I think that is fair,” says Giesbrecht.
Reddekopp may not have known it at the time, but the investments he made in his employees during his years building the company up transferred into a brilliant human resource strategy of retention. It served Reddekopp well during 2008, when the Saskatchewan resource economy was booming but at the same time creating one of the worst labour shortages in Saskatchewan’s history.
“2008 was a hard year; there were just no people available. Somebody might apply for a job but wouldn’t even show up for an interview because they found something else or didn’t feel like moving. The huge benefit for us was that we had little turnover and we were able to keep the employees we had,” says Reddekopp.
A healthy view of growth
The son of a farmer and a nurse, Reddekopp had humble beginnings growing up on a farm in Hague, Saskatchewan, in the 1950s.
Reddekopp says he always admired the business acumen of his father, a man who himself had meagre beginnings and for years rode the freight trains looking for work. “We got the sense of what is productive; [for example,] to choose between buying a car that depreciates quickly when cash is scarce or spending the same money on land. Now you’re buying land that’s going to give you a return or be productive. So I think we learned that as kids – how we can make some money here.”
That insight, combined with hard work, carried Reddekopp through many jobs growing up: working in the potash mines, being a purchaser, insulating attics, selling motorcycles and cars, and flipping houses, all before finally settling on his venture with Grandwest Enterprises.
Employees want to see growth and they want to see change, but they don’t want to necessarily see big changes where they’ll lose their jobs.
“My vision was never to be in charge and have a lot of stuff. I just wanted to be established in life,” he says. “I like to see things grow, I like to see things progress, and I like to do it in an orderly fashion. I’m not chaotic as some entrepreneurs can be, and so I’m Steady Eddie, but not standing still.”
Grandwest has experienced considerable growth. The company started in 1980 distributing only three products. That selection grew quickly to include more than 300 product lines with a selection of 30,000 products. Inventory is now stocked in a state-of-the-art 130,000 square foot warehouse, and Grandwest boasts the largest inventory selection in the automotive and trucking industry in the country.
Reddekopp believes growth is healthy not only for business but also because it provides opportunity for his employees. But he warns that risks should be reduced as a business grows. He believes this is an obligation to your employees. “Nobody wants to work here while we are doing something wild and crazy, and we may or may not make it. Employees want to see growth and they want to see change, but they don’t want to necessarily see big changes where they’ll lose their jobs.”
Still, Reddekopp believes in taking chances, and he admits he has done so a few times himself, but carefully. As he looks back at his 37 years in business, he describes it as being fun, a career filled with learning valuable business lessons, some of which have been taught to him by his own staff.
“Twenty years ago there was part of our marketing where we were doing flyers on a monthly basis, and I was part of it. And after the reviews, the result was that I got kicked off the job by the staff! But they were absolutely right, I was holding up the process. They told me, ‘We know what we should do, we know what you want, but you are busy doing other things and you’re slowing down the process,’ and they were right! So our staff had to train me. And I don’t mind telling them once in a while, ‘You guys have got to help me – this is the first time I’ve been the boss and I need your help.’”
But Reddekopp has been the boss for close to 40 years now, and he doesn’t seem to be slowing down. As he continues to grow Grandwest Enterprises and explore other business opportunities, there is one thing that remains constant: his employees are happy to stick with him.
First published in the March 2018 edition of The Business Advisor.