Know­ing its own shop­pers

Cus­tomers find it all at Farm & Fleet

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - BUSINESS - STEVE JAGLER

The sub­ject line on the email in my in­box stated, “Take your tail­gate party to the next level with these recipes from Blain’s Farm & Fleet.”

The email in­cluded recipes for Crock-Pot cheese­burger fries, ba­con sriracha queso, loaded tater tot skew­ers, “over the moon” pizza dip, cheesy meat­ball bites, buffalo chicken jalapeno pop­pers and more.

Enough to make the mouth wa­ter, for sure. But wait a minute: Why is Blain’s Farm & Fleet send­ing me tail­gate recipes for foods that it doesn’t even sell? Surely this must be some type of mis­take?

Farm & Fleet may not sell gro­ceries, aside from bags of choco­lates, nuts and jerky. But the re­tailer is keenly aware that its clien­tele is likely to go tail­gat­ing at a Green Bay Pack­ers or Wis­con­sin Badgers foot­ball game this fall.

And if they’re go­ing, they will need out­door gar­ments and gear to keep warm and to sit on, and they may need a por­ta­ble grill or a cooler — all of which are sold by Farm & Fleet.

The emailed recipes re­flect one of Farm & Fleet’s core strate­gic busi­ness philoso­phies: Know your cus­tomers and meet them where they live.

“Ab­so­lutely. We were at the Packer game yes­ter­day, tail­gat­ing. We think about our cus­tomers that way,” said Jane Blain Gilbert­son, CEO of the Janesville-based com­pany. “We sell prod­ucts that peo­ple can use tail­gat­ing. We think about our cus­tomers as our neigh­bors. And neigh­bors share recipes.”

Blain’s Farm & Fleet has grown to op­er­ate 38 stores and have 4,400 employees through­out Wis­con­sin, Iowa and Illi­nois. The com­pany plans to open two more stores at as-yet-undis­closed lo­ca­tions next year.

Re­plete with the scents of fer­til­izer and tires, if Farm & Fleet stores seem com­fort­able and fa­mil­iar to their Mid­west­ern shop­pers, that is an in­ten­tional and de­lib­er­ate out­come, Gilbert­son said.

Farm & Fleet mon­i­tors its cus­tomers closely and then pro­vides mer­chan­dise to ac­com­mo­date them and their life­styles.

You like free-range chick­ens or eggs? The store sells poul­try bed­ding and or­ganic feed.

You want to grow your own fruits and veg­eta­bles? The store sells jars and can­ning equip­ment.

You have a han­ker­ing for some fresh maple syrup? The store sells tree-tap­ping equip­ment to get it done.

You want to keep your feet warm to sur­vive a Wis­con­sin win­ter? The com­pany de­vel­oped its own pri­vate-la­bel Work N’ Sport boots.

And along the way, Farm & Fleet con­tin­ues to in­no­vate. One of its most re­mark­able in­no­va­tions came in 2003. On March 3 of that year, Tom Woy­chik, an em­ployee at the com­pany’s Janesville dis­tri­bu­tion cen­ter, suf­fered a heart at­tack, col­lapsed and died on the job.

“It shook our peo­ple to the core,” Gilbert­son said.

By Septem­ber of that year, the com­pany be­gan in­stalling au­to­mated ex­ter­nal de­fib­ril­la­tor de­vices in all of its stores. The man­age­ment teams at the stores and dis­tri­bu­tion cen­ters were trained to pro­vide car­diopul­monary re­sus­ci­ta­tion.

Over the years, ac­cord­ing to Gilbert­son, the de­vices and train­ing have helped save the lives of seven peo­ple, in­clud­ing employees and cus­tomers.

“Be­ing fam­ily-owned al­lows us to con­cen­trate on the right things,” Gilbert­son said. “In 62 years, we’ve been for­tu­nate to never close a store, to never leave a com­mu­nity. And we have no plans to do so. … It re­ally comes down to trust.”

While we’re here, let’s pro­vide the an­swers to some ques­tions so many Wis­con­sin res­i­dents have asked over the years: What’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween Blain’s Farm & Fleet and Mills Fleet Farm? Aren’t they the same stores? Don’t they sell the same things?

Blain’s Farm & Fleet was founded in Janesville by Gilbert­son’s fa­ther, Bert Blain, and his brother, Claude Blain, in 1955.

Mills Fleet Farm was founded later that year in Brain­erd, Minn., by Ste­wart Mills Sr., along with his sons, Henry Mills II and Ste­wart Mills Jr.

Though both re­tail chains were in­spired by a North Dakota firm’s orig­i­nal co-op con­cept, they are in­de­pen­dent com­pa­nies. Con­trary to ur­ban leg­end, they were not split up be­cause of a fam­ily feud or a divorce set­tle­ment.

As both chains be­gan to grow, they made a “gen­tle­men’s agree­ment” to jointly pur­chase whole­sale mer­chan­dise and avoid com­pet­ing in “each other’s back­yards,” Gilbert­son said.

Mills Fleet Farm was sold last year to Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, a pri­vate eq­uity firm.

“I’m sad­dened to see many fam­i­ly­owned busi­nesses be­ing taken over by Wall Street pri­vate eq­uity firms,” Gilbert­son said.

Over the years, it will be in­ter­est­ing to see if the new cor­po­rate hi­er­ar­chy at Mills — while Blain’s re­mains fam­ily-owned — re­sults in more dif­fer­ences be­tween the two chains.

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