AVONPORT, N.S. - Merks Farms owner Andre Merks says poultry farming and the transport business couldn't be more different, yet there are many instances in which his skills can be applied to both busin...
SUCCESSFUL MODEL: Building a good rapport with customers is one secret to Merks' success. Photo by Katy de Vries
AVONPORT, N.S. – Merks Farms owner Andre Merks says poultry farming and the transport business couldn’t be more different, yet there are many instances in which his skills can be applied to both businesses.
Andre Merks operates a poultry farm, which is under supply management, meaning it is heavily regulated. He also runs the Merks Farms transport division, which is not regulated.
“The skill sets I have acquired can be applied to both aspects of my business, even though the two fields are at the opposite ends of the spectrum,” says Merks.
When it comes to both farming and the transport business, Merks has plenty of experience. He helped his parents build the business from the ground up.
John and Lucy Merks came to Canada from Holland and settled in the Annapolis Valley in 1952.
After starting both a dairy and a poultry business on the Merks Farm, a family decision was made to build a private feed mill.
That meant they needed a truck to haul feed.
Andre and his father purchased their first truck in 1981. Andre was destined to learn how to drive it.
He never turned back. In 1990, Andre bought a small refrigerated trucking company and started the transport subsidiary of the family business.
It started as a small venture, run from the kitchen table by Andre and his wife Janie. The office eventually moved from the kitchen to the garage. Soon an office space was necessary. The valley office, conveniently located right off Hwy. 101, just six miles from Andre and Janie’s homestead and right next door to the home farm, was built eight years ago.
Today, Merks Farms is the largest poultry producer in Nova Scotia, and the transport division includes a fleet of 50 reefer units and over 85 employees, hauling food and agriculture-related products both regionally, in Atlantic Canada, and long-distance into Ontario and the northeastern U.S.
And as far as growth goes, there doesn’t appear to be any end in sight.
“My son likes this and likes the business side,” says Merks. “I could see him doing this. I think I’m going to start him working on the farm side of it this summer which will give him some good experience and some understanding running a business.”
In addition to his farms spread out across the Valley, Merks has a farm on Prince Edward Island and two more in New Brunswick.
“I have my pilots licence and a small helicopter. I’ve flown for 24 years and being able to do that makes it so much easier to get from farm to farm,” he says. “It’s also handy for business meetings as well, if I have to get to Moncton or Charlottetown in a hurry, I just hop in the helicopter.”
The trucking business is tough, but there’s still a lot of business to be had, says Merks.
“My advice to other potential company owners or anyone in the industry is to truly understand your business before you move ahead too quickly. You have to know your up costs and know where you’re headed with your business plan,” he says.
Merks would know. His understanding of the business comes from learning every aspect of it.
“I drove a little, I did some mechanic work on the truck for the first few years, and I’ve done some of the administrative stuff, and dispatch too, so I’ve seen the business form all angles,” he says. “It is nice for our customers and our employees to know that you’re involved, they like that.”
Merks tries to maintain open communication with customers, he says.
“We have a good rapport with our customers. We take pride in our customer service and the relationships we have built and they like the personal touch that we can offer,” he says.
And driver relations are important too.
Merks is keenly aware of the difficulties drivers face, especially when it comes to the meager amount of time they get to spend at home with their families and their standard of living when on the road.
“I’m sure almost any driver I ask would say the biggest thing they face is getting time at home with their families,” says Merks dispatcher Stephan Lynch, who is also responsible for hiring drivers.
That’s why Merks runs things a little differently, says Lynch, himself a long-haul driver for many years.
“Our average out time has dropped to five to seven days, so these guys go out and get a couple of days off when they get home and then go out again. That’s why we are trying to build the home time into our system,” Lynch says.
Merks says it takes a dedicated person who is driven to succeed to be a good driver but says the same qualities can apply to running a successful business.
“Being dedicated to the business over the years is what has gotten us where we are today and will hopefully help us flourish as we move forward and continue to grow.”