Taking Care of Business
PrairieCoast equipment began on November 1, 2009, when four John Deere Agriculture/Turf dealerships serving Northern Alberta and British Columbia merged to become one entity. This merger created one of the largest geographical areas of coverage for one John Deere dealership in North America, stretching as far north as La Crete, Alberta, to far southwest on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. The merging dealerships were all family-owned operations with long histories in their respective communities. Each had slightly different cultures and processes; however, all were aligned with customer-centric decision-making.
With expansive geography to cover, the dealership’s regional footprint supports many different sectors of the agriculture industry. With that, PrairieCoast defines its coverage areas into three distinct regions.
The Prairie Region (Alberta/BC Peace Region) includes its Grande Prairie, Fairview, La Crete, Alberta locations, and the Dawson Creek, BC branch. Agriculture industries here include small grains (wheat, barley, and canola), beef/cattle ranching, and hay farming.
The Interior Region includes its
Prince George, Kamloops, and Kelowna, BC branches. Beef production and accompanying crops and some dairy operations are prevalent throughout Prince George, Kamloops, and the North Okanagan. In the central and south Okanagan, tree fruits and vineyards and some hay operations are primary industries.
The Coast Region includes its Chilliwack, Langley, and Nanaimo, BC branches. These agriculture sectors include dairy, hay, and soft fruits.
Along with agriculture, PrairieCoast offers the John Deere turf equipment line-up through all its branches and golf equipment in its British Columbia branches.
“We have invested heavily in upgrading existing facilities like Fairview and Kamloops and have expanded our physical footprint into areas such as Chilliwack, Prince George and Nanaimo,” says JD Frame, general manager. “We made these investments to ensure we can offer a premium experience for our customers and provide state-of-the-art working conditions for our employees. Through these investments, revenue has more than doubled since 2009.”
Two important factors identified as critical to their sustainability are customer focus and innovation. “Our customers depend on us to earn their income. It is critical they know they can count on PrairieCoast when they need us most. We also understand that success can often lead to complacency. PrairieCoast employs approximately 260 full-time employees and we’ll typically add upwards of 10 or more seasonal part-time employees. Our teams constantly review our past success and failures and determine new innovative strategies to improve efficiencies and overall customer experience,” adds Frame.
Investing in Training
“PrairieCoast makes a significant investment in training annually,” says Frame. “Training is a big part of PrairieCoast’s development of employees. Training that is relevant to the employee’s current or future position is encouraged and sponsored by the company.”
Service technicians are enrolled in training paths through John Deere University and are regularly assigned courses to complete. Additionally, they receive technical training for specific machinery outside their learning paths, with these courses completed in the classroom and online.
Apprentices in a Heavy-Duty Mechanic or Ag Tech Apprentice programs can complete additional specialized John Deere training for each apprentice period through the John Deere Tech Program at Olds College in Alberta. As a company, PrairieCoast encourage participation in this program and offers apprentice incentives to complete the training. The dealership also has highly experienced and qualified shop foremen and journeymen technicians to mentor and train less experienced technicians.
Frame notes, “There are several training opportunities that we employ both currently and in the past: John Deere University; parts, sales and service staff all participate in required John Deere University training. As well, all employees have unlimited access to short online training courses through a third-party vendor, HRdownloads.com. Several courses are available in customer service, health and safety, performance and conduct, workplace wellness, HR training, leadership, and professional skills. On different occasions in the past, we have subscribed to WEDA’s annual webinars in areas of customer service, leadership, competition, and other areas of interest for employees and managers.”
Frame also adds that managers in leadership roles are supported in leadership development programs. “We currently have five managers enrolled in one-year leadership development programs. In 2020, we hosted customized WEDA training for 57 of our parts and service staff. As well as this personalized training, we were able to have 46 parts and service staff participate in John Deere Parts Expo training in partnership with John Deere University.
We are currently working with WEDA to implement a customized one-year in-house development program for our service managers. Sponsorship for university and college courses are offered to our administrative and accounting teams to upgrade skills and maintain accreditation.”
At the early onset of the pandemic, PrairieCoast was prudent in monitoring day-to-day business and making expense adjustments while they watched the economic repercussions unfold.
“We were initially fearful of a worldwide business slow down. With the actions of the Bank of Canada and the federal government, it was soon understood that business would continue at normal and to increased levels. Travel restrictions changed our business as movement between our regions was suspended. Travel for meetings or training quickly changed to virtual,” says Frame. “With these changes and the concerns of COVID-19 in general, we had some staff uncomfortable with coming to work. Those who had roles that could work from home were facilitated to work from home if they chose. Those whose positions required them to be in the branch that did not want to come to work were given the option of a temporary layoff. Through the course of the pandemic, some employees have chosen to return to work, and some have taken permanent layoffs.”
“In fiscal 2014, we launched what eventually would become PrairieCoast Connect. At the time, we recognized our branch parts counters could not keep up with the seasonal in-store traffic and increased phone demand. We started with one remote parts agent answering overflow parts calls from branches. We have since grown to nine agents, helping both parts inquiries, service troubleshooting, and overflow branch phone calls.
PrairieCoast Connect is open longer hours and holidays than our regular branch operating hours. Agents provide our customers an experienced live voice to speak with. PrairieCoast Connect is our path to a digital dealership where our customers that chose to do business virtually will do so. This service will not replace our traditional bricks and mortar operations but provide another alternative for those who choose so. Currently, webchat and parts online ordering is part of PrairieCoast Connect. Soon it will include additional sale functions along with precision agriculture expanded support.”
Continues Frame, “Supply in all departments has been closely monitored since the beginning of the pandemic. Once it was understood that business was returning, our energy focused on supply and immediately increased our parts inventories significantly to help buffer any potential shortages. The extraordinary challenges such as ice storms in Texas and the Suez Canal shutdown only further added to the supply challenges.
“During times of challenge, it is crucial to have open lines of communication, and John Deere is keeping us informed with weekly updates. Weekly updates allowed our front-line staff to communicate with our customers better and make necessary plans around any shortages. We proactively booked equipment into the shop for their annual maintenance well ahead of their regular booking times to allow for any delay of necessary parts. Currently, we are experiencing technology parts challenges that we are monitoring daily.
“In general, the business has continued along as usual. With everyone staying at home, there has been an unexpected increase in our compact tractor and lawn and garden business. With a return to pre-pandemic travel, we expect this business may level off.”
Frame says the dealership has taken safety from COVID transmission at its branches very seriously. “Initially, our safety coordinator held daily meetings with our corporate safety committee to plan around keeping our employees and customers safe, and at the same time ensuring our branch operations remained open.
“Implementing shielding, hand sanitization stations, and directional pathways, similar to what is seen in any retail operation, has become the norm. Educating our staff on physical distancing and not coming to work if you felt sick were some of the steps taken. We implemented video messaging from leadership to all staff to keep everyone best informed on the ever-changing conditions as they occurred.”
As events unfolded, Frame explains it was crucial to get updates from WEDA and their peer groups of what other dealers and businesses were doing to remain safe. This information was used to help them determine their plans. He said, “We are excited to see restrictions slowly being lifted, but at the same time understand some of the steps we have implemented will become the norm. We are proud of the safety conditions we have provided our customers and the proactive steps our staff has implemented to keep everyone safe.”
“We value our membership in WEDA on many fronts. Industry updates, trends, and advocacy would be one important area. The educational programs and customized onsite training have helped with employee career development. Our participation in dealer performance groups has been a significant part of our performance measurements for decades,” he adds.
“Business is increasingly challenging; efficiency decisions we make daily improve our sustainability as a company to ensure our customers receive better support,” concludes Frame.
PrairieCoast is dedicated to improving its customer’s performance to help them perform better.
Article Written By Joanne Olson