Family still at the forefront for Jane Blain Gilbertson, new leader of Farm & Fleet

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Jim Leute
Saturday, July 26, 2014

JANESVILLE--Jane Blain Gilbertson recently attended a retirement party for the manager of the Farm & Fleet in Chippewa Falls.

She was there as owner of the 35 Blain's Farm & Fleet stores in three states and Blain Supply, the company that supports them.

Also attending were the store manager's mentor, a man in his late 80s, and people whom the store manager employed 30 years ago as kids.

“I looked around and thought to myself, 'This is exactly the kind of culture we want,'” Blain Gilbertson said.

The gathering affirmed the family-oriented culture of Blain's Farm & Fleet, launched in 1955 by brothers W.C. “Claude” Blain and N.B. “Bert” Blain.

In Blain's case, family extends beyond the immediate members of the two generations that have run the business.

It also extends to employees and communities in which the company does business, Blain Gilbertson said.

When Bert Blain died in 1993, his son, Robert, became president.

Robert retired in June after 38 years in the business.

Jane, Robert's sister and Bert's daughter, became president, chief executive officer and sole owner of the companies that now employ more than 4,000 people, including about 180 at Farm & Fleet in Janesville and 350 at the Blain Supply headquarters here.

About half of the product sold in the 35 Farm & Fleet stores flows through Blain Supply's massive distribution center on Janesville's east side.

Blain Gilbertson recently sat down to discuss the recent ownership transition and the companies' futures.

Q: How did the transition come about?

A: About five and a half years ago, we started talking with a family business consultant about succession planning and involving independent board members.

As a family business, we wanted to have guidelines and the right structure. What do we want to do with the rest of our lives, both from the business and family perspectives?

Robert and I bought out the other family members 16 years ago, so it was just the two of us.

Robert decided in January that he wanted to retire. People were somewhat surprised when he said he needed to be all out and not stay on as chairman of the board or whatever.

Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn't, and I think Robert recognized that for him that wouldn't work.

It was a very generous thing for him to do, and if we hadn't done what we did in the last five years, it would have been much more difficult.

Q: Is there more pressure leading the company as, at least for the time being, the last Blain standing?

A: I need to ensure this company survives me whether our kids are involved or not. I guess it could be daunting. Maybe I'm missing something, but I've never been more energized.

I have specific work to do, and I have good people around me. We will continue to get the right mix of people, outside people willing to poke and prod and balance with the long-timers who know the values and history and how to get things done.

Q: Blain's has built its legacy on families helping families. Is that, and community involvement, still important?

A: I know it sounds corny, but we've always felt that our associates and their families are an extension of our family, and we've heard that's what they're looking for when they come to work for the company.

We're trying to make decisions for the long haul, and that involves all the people. We recognize that life goes on outside of work.

Community service is important. Our associates do a lot of it, although we don't tout it. We've been told that we should.

It's certainly not a bad thing, and it does go to perception. People want to shop where they know people are involved in their communities. It just felt uncomfortable talking about it.

I want people to have passion for whatever they're doing. From my own community service experiences, I've learned a lot, met some amazing people and picked up lots of skills.

Q: Will there be a third generation involved in the company?

A: Our 24-year-old has expressed an interest, but she wants to get more experience. She's worked at the stores and has been recently working outside the company.

If she does come here, she wants it to be when she can really contribute.

We've always told the girls that if that's what you want, you've got to be serious about it. It's just too big, and too many lives depend on it.

Q: Since your father died in 1993 and Robert became president, Blain's opened seven new stores, completely replaced eight others and increased employment from nearly 2,800 to 4,000. Is further expansion on the horizon?

A: We've got a pretty decent model, and communities usually seek us out.

We'll open a store in Dubuque in October, our 36th, and we're replacing our store in Morton, Ill.

We're committed to bricks and mortar, but we're doing it in smaller buildings. We used to be in 160,000-square-foot buildings, and then 125,000. Now we're doing 110,000-square-foot stores.

We have tons of space in our distribution center in Janesville, plus room to grow.

Part of our problem is that we sell bulky items, and while our retail floors are not necessarily smaller, our back-ends are, and we have to be smart in how we configure them.

Our future calls for significant growth … online, bricks and mortar and perhaps additional businesses.

Q: Speaking of online, how is that working for you?

A: We were late to online, and that was primarily by design. It's a huge investment, and we made it in baby steps.

I'll never forget sitting in the meetings trying to decide which of 150,000 (products) to put online first.

We eventually worked through it, and, within the first five weeks, we sold to all 50 states, which kind of blew me away.

Our first online sale was a step stool. I thought, really, they don't sell step stools where you live?

Our approach to online sales was not all that different. We really tried to step back and understand the customer experience. The customer is saying, "I want it when I want it, and you better figure it out or you're not going to be a player."

We're doing very well with online orders that are store pickups. That's one reason we're looking at how we configure the back ends of our stores to accommodate pickups and enhance other customer experiences.

Q: Is the name "Farm & Fleet" as appropriate in 2014 as it was in 1955? And what does "fleet" refer to?

A: The fleet part of it came from our work with auto dealerships and farm implements.

We've had consultants look at the name, and at one point we added Blain's to indicate it was a family business.

Still, it might hurt us with younger generations.

The consultants have always come back saying the name is our biggest advantage and it's our biggest disadvantage, so what do you want to do? Change it to just Blain's?

"Farm" still means something to people. It means home, family and good values, even if someone has no connection to a farm.

Plus, we've got nearly 60 years invested in the name, and actually, the farm segment is growing for us.

We've got legions of dedicated customers who call themselves "fleeters." They're very loyal.

It's an incredible feeling to think that people care about you.

I don't want to do anything to screw that up.

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