People First HR Services

Employee expertise and engagement is the backbone of a growing company

John McFerran

Ted Northam is running on a full tank.

And that’s a good thing, because as president and CEO of Polywest Ltd., the largest Canadian distributor of durable liquid-handling products for agriculture and industrial use, he needs a lot of energy to oversee the rapid growth his company is experiencing in its 16th year.

Polywest is highly regarded in agriculture circles for its above-ground polyethylene tanks, fiberglass fertilizer storage tanks, septic tanks, pumps and hoses, but as Northam points out, his 30-employee strong company is growing beyond the farm because of other current issues.

“The public’s attitude toward the stewardship of our No. 1 resource, water, is slowly changing. People are now better managing their water; they’re storing it underground and using low-flow bathroom fixtures to reduce use. The growing awareness of water management and the need for better water systems has certainly worked in our favour,” he says.

Despite this recent success, Northam says that like many business owners, his biggest challenge remains recruiting and retaining top talent to lead Polywest into the future.

“We are now growing not only through traditional sales channels, but also through acquisition, which means we are constantly looking for companies that are synergistic with what we do,” he says. “To help us sustain our growth, we need the expertise of people who are engaged in what we are doing and excited about the potential.”

Q: Polywest is experiencing unprecedented growth. What challenges has this created for you?

A: We are already Canada’s largest distributor of liquid-handling products, and our dream is to be a significant supplier of these products not only in Western Canada but beyond. We currently have offices in Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Edmonton and we would like to eventually add new locations in Calgary, B.C. and Southern Ontario. These opportunities are available right now, but we don’t yet have the people, resources or the infrastructure in place to create the necessary supply chain. Mainly, we are short of key people to manage any potential new operations.

Q: Have you found that your people-management issues have changed?

A: It’s interesting, but I’ve found that as our company grows incrementally in sales, the more complex our human resources-related issues become and the more we realize the need to focus on our people. We can go out and convince suppliers that Polywest is the right company for marketing and distributing their products, but if we can’t back that up with an infrastructure of people who know what they’re doing and are engaged in what they’re doing, we’re in big trouble. The way I see it, we’re not going anywhere unless we have happy, healthy, engaged employees. If we don’t sustain the individuals who support us at level one before we reach level two, then our company will fall behind.

Q: What attributes are you looking for in the people you hire?

A: Our philosophy is simple: We hire for attitude and we train for expertise. It’s an old adage, but it still rings true and remains prudent every day, every week and every year of our business. Education is very important and we do consider a candidate’s accreditation, primarily in our agriculture business, where we seek ag degrees or at least some fundamental understanding of agriculture processes. Our sales people do not have to be agronomists, but they do need to be in touch with the industry and in tune with our customers.

Over the years, we have managed to attract a number of people who were previously stuck in dead-end positions elsewhere but demonstrated the energy and enthusiasm to start a new career with a growing company. Nine times out of 10, they told us their positions had been lacking key ingredients like employee feedback, strong vision, good communication and a clear objective. If these critical ingredients go missing, they make going to work miserable and unrewarding. They come to us because we are able to show them our plans for the future and the role we envision them playing in it, then back it up with the right support, resources and people practices.

Q: As a smaller, close-knit company, how do you handle the loss of an employee leaving?

A: Over the years, we have faced some unfortunate situations where people chose to leave us for whatever reason and it does hit close to home. The way I see it, every time we lose a valuable employee, we fail. It’s not the employee who failed us, the company failed them. In the past, we have made mistakes by not hiring the right person, by not properly reviewing job performance or by not helping them to move on if they weren’t suited to the position, to the business or to the culture. When you have happy employees, you create an engaging culture and a good working environment for all. That’s not rhetoric, it’s a fact. By learning from our past failures, I know we’ll make fewer mistakes in the future.

Q: How do you engage your people in a way that helps with building a cohesive team?

A: Creating fun is absolutely essential, because without it, what’s the point of doing all this work? We like to have periodic staff get-togethers like parties, picnics and Texas hold ’em (poker) games. Sometimes, management will bring in a barbecue and grill lunch for the employees. I realize that group activities like these are not practical in all environments, especially in large corporate settings, but if our company ever gets so large that we can no longer have fun together, I don’t want to be part of it. I like having fun; I enjoy the interplay between management and staff. I want to continue to like coming to work, too. It helps that we also get along. That’s not a mandatory requirement of working here — we don’t have to like each other, but we are fortunate in that we have a core group of young employees with growing families and similar needs; therefore, there is a lot of commonality. Shared interests also help us to bond, which is also for morale. In addition, we understand that measurable objectives, performance reviews and a bonus program are crucial to engaging our employees, which is supported by weekly staff meetings.

Q: What important lessons or memorable advice do you try to pass on to your people?

A: I’ve probably learned a thousand lessons and I’m a product of them all. We’re all products of what we’ve learned from our mentors, past situations and years of experience. Some of the best business advice I’ve heard is to be an owner who is engaged each day. Not only coming into work, but giving your business the attention it deserves. If you aren’t invested in what’s going on, things will start to slip.

I’m not a president by nature, I’m a salesman. I grew up in the sales world. Any gems of advice I’ve learned, I try to pass along to my sales staff to try to give them some inspiration into this vocation. Things like how Gordie Howe once told Wayne Gretzky, “No matter how much they pay you, earn it.” To use another hockey analogy, I remind them that I saw Gretzky score his last NHL goal, and it was like watching him score his first. I hope what they take from that is it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do — never, ever lose the desire to score and to achieve your goals.

— With reporting by Barbara Chabai

John McFerran, Ph.D, F.CHRP, is managing director of Boyden Global Executive Search. He can be contacted at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 27, 2011 H1