For over 70 years, the farm machinery business in B.C.’s Fraser Valley has relied on Avenue Machinery in one form or the other. And that isn’t expected to change anytime soon.
Avenue Farm Machinery Ltd. opened its doors for business in 1947 with the goal to serve the Fraser Valley family farming community. Over the years, the owners have changed, but the company’s dedication to the farming community has stayed the same.
In 2000, Avenue Farm Machinery Ltd. in Abbotsford was purchased by the Japanese conglomerate Marubeni Corporation. Avenue Farm Machinery became Avenue Machinery Corp., and expansion came with the acquisition of Reliance Tractor in Vernon, B.C. and the opening of the newest location in West Kelowna, B.C.
According to Al Short, president and chief financial officer with Avenue Machinery, the three locations give Avenue the ability to service a large portion of southern British Columbia.
“Our locations serve a very diverse customer base,” he noted. “The Abbotsford location is predominantly dairy, blueberry and vegetable farms, while the Okanagan offices cater to dairy farms, fruit orchards and the wine industry.”
In 2012, Avenue was purchased from Marubeni Corporation by Avenue’s management team along with a group of local businessmen, bringing Avenue back into the hands of individuals that live in the local community. The current dealer principals include Andy Mitchell, Al Short, Dave Brandsma, Chris Britten and Mark Jones.
“We are proud of Avenue’s past heritage and look forward to continuing to serve farmers throughout British Columbia who helped build Avenue for over 70 years,” said Short. “Since 2012, Avenue has more than doubled revenue by focusing on providing quality customer service in all areas of the business and through an expanded product offering.”
For the past three years, Avenue’s Abbotsford store has been the highest volume Kubota dealer in Western Canada. “Avenue’s Abbotsford store serves the Fraser Valley and Greater Vancouver area,” added Short. “The Fraser Valley is a relatively small area but is intensely farmed, while the greater Vancouver area is predominantly urban and supports the construction equipment side of Avenue.”
Meanwhile, the Vernon and Kelowna locations serve the Okanagan region of British Columbia which is roughly 350 kilometers to the northeast of Abbotsford. Farming activities in the Vernon/Okanagan area in particular are very diverse and differ significantly from the Fraser Valley, which serves predominantly dairy and blueberry farming, whereas the Okanagan region consists mainly of orchards, vineyards and beef farms.
“We have a pretty good trapline of all of B.C. really, and we serve parts of Alberta and Washington state with used equipment,” said Andy Mitchell, used equipment sales manager. “We’re known to be a retailer of used equipment for our long-time customer base, and they tend to look at our inventory and shop from afar. For what the customer is looking for, our selection is typically very good which isn’t something most dealers can say.”
Conducting business and sales across the Canada-U.S. border isn’t too onerous, Short added. “We deal with a few brokers who have the export process down pat. But we’ve also had customers drive up from the states with their own flat deck truck to pick up a tractor.”
Dealing with long distance customers, however, doesn’t mean Avenue Machinery neglects the one-on-one customer service that is so important in the machinery business. The dealerships still get customers coming in who like to “kick the tires” before making a purchase decision.
“We have a large contingency of lifestyle farmers and a lot of them take a long time to make a purchase decision, with both new and used equipment,” said Mitchell. “I’ve seen customers in here every third weekend for two years straight before they make a purchase decision. For some people, buying that tractor for $20,000 or $30,000 or $40,000 is a big purchase decision.”
“The hobby farm market is big,” added Short. “Both Kubota and Massey Ferguson lines in particular are very strong on compact tractors in that market. We do a good job of the customer base in that.”
While Avenue Machinery does big business in a lot of different segments of the farming sector, they also supply and service the construction industry. “We’re very close to the Vancouver area, so we do a lot of business in mini excavators, skid steer loaders and the like,” said Short. “The diversity in our company is quite interesting, and it’s hard to compare us to the big farms and big equipment dealerships on the Prairies.”
The relationships Avenue Machinery makes and nurtures with all its customers is important, whether it’s at the parts level, or service or sales.
“That’s what we really push with our staff – to make a connection with that lifestyle farmer and that professional farmer. This is true whether it’s with a farmer who’s made a large purchase right down to a farmer coming in to buy parts,” said Dave Brandsma, sales manager. “It’s just like your neighbourhood pub
where everyone knows your name. And that goes a long way with customer loyalty.”
It’s the personal connection the dealership is seeking. A customer may look online and check prices and dealers, but they still want that personal connection.
“We really emphasize that with our frontline people – parts, service and sales – that you’ve got to understand that that person is dealing with you as an individual first, then with the dealership and thirdly, with the product,” said Brandsma. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a receptionist, a truck driver, a parts person or a service writer, or even a salesman, if you can’t make a connection with that person, that’s not likely to build a long-term relationship with the dealership.”
Training is key
With its current 80 employees, Avenue Machinery realizes the importance of training to ensure service is number one. The company has six service vehicles on the road to service customers onsite, and with its diverse array of equipment and applications, training is essential to keep technicians up to date and able to help customers.
“Training employees has been a very big part of our success,” said Short. “Technicians regularly attend manufacturing training or take online courses. And we have held equipment field days to familiarize technicians and sales staff on new equipment.”
With a tight labour market, Short said one of the challenges they had since buying the company was finding employees – and retaining them. Yet they have been successful in finding young people who want to apprentice and helping them find success.
“When we started, we only had a few journeymen mechanics, and everyone else were apprentices,” he said. “Now we have about 10 journeymen who have gone through the (mechanics apprenticeship) program while working at Avenue, and we have another four or five in various states of the program.”
Indeed, there’s a renewed interest from younger people overall to enter the trades professions. “We’ve found that bringing them up through the ranks is the best route to achieving success and having good, trained people.”
Avenue Machinery goes a step further and works with some of the local college’s trades courses to ensure these potential apprentice mechanics are aware of what opportunities exist in companies – and industries – such as theirs.
Benefits of WEDA membership
Being an active member of the Western Equipment Dealers Association (WEDA) has proved beneficial to Avenue Machinery. Short said the association keeps them abreast of industry trends as well as dealing with some of the regulatory bodies necessary when running a business. Avenue Machinery has also relied on WEDA to help with government advocacy such as when they’re running into tax issues for farmers and equipment.
“What I really like is WEDA’s annual cost of doing business report, because it gives us a good year-to-year comparison and some benchmarking information that we can use,” said Short. “Also, they often circulate articles; recently, there was a discussion board on modifying tractors – what the perils of that are for a dealership such as ours, and the consequences of being involved in that kind of thing. This information is very helpful to us in running our business effectively.”
With backing from WEDA and excellent customer service, it’s obvious Avenue Machinery is in for the long haul. Going forward, continued consolidation is in play, as well as diversification and specialization.
By Janet Kanters
Janet Kanters is a national award-winning writer, editor and photographer who has covered agricultural production, technology and business topics for over 25 years.