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Taking Care in Business

The same spirit that started Webb's Machinery over 90 years ago rings true today as it continues to create success by serving its community.

Honesty, hard work, and fairness are business virtues that seem almost antiquated in today's day and age. But for Webb's Machinery, they are the secret sauce that has helped it become one of Western Canada's longestlived ag dealerships.

"There are some entrepreneurs out there who can make a lot of money in a short period of time. I'm not in that category," said Scott Webb with a chuckle from his company's head office in Vermillion, Alberta. "For my family, it's always been a long game. If you show up, work hard and look after your customers, eventually you'll be successful."

In the spring of 2023, Webb's Machinery celebrated its 90th year in business. The company's founder, George C. Webb (Scott's grandfather), couldn't have imagined that the business he would start during the depths of the Depression would eventually grow to seven dealerships (six ag and one auto), more than 130 employees, and service an area over 20,000 sq mi (51,800 sq km). Think of Switzerland and add a quarter.

The company's history with MacDon goes back to at least the early 70s when they sold Massey Harris swathers made by MacDon's predecessor, Killbery Industries. Scott says he can remember ordering parts for those Massey-branded windrowers when he joined the company in 1975.

"Later, in the mid-80s, we began selling MacDon swathers under the Westward brand."

Reflecting on his company's start, Scott says he remains puzzled by his grandfather's decision to buy Vermilion Massey Harris dealership. Not only was he leaving a job managing the town's livestock business, but he was raising five children alone at the time (Scott's grandmother had passed just two years prior).

"I've always wondered why anybody would take on a business in the middle of the Depression. Someone has suggested that – because of the times – my grandfather was likely making little to no commission selling animals in '33. But I think the real reason he bought the dealership is that he wanted to make sure he had employment for his sons. If, indeed, that was part of his reasoning, then it worked."

Eventually, three Webb boys, Lawrence, John, and George Jr. (Scott's father), joined the business. One story his dad would tell provides a glimpse into those early days.

"Shortly after he bought the dealership, my grandfather also took on a bulk fuel business while still selling livestock on the side. My dad said they would often take a one-ton truck full of fuel barrels out to a farmer and come back with a load of pigs. Back then, nobody ever had any good loading facilities, so there was always a lot of pig chasing involved."

The ability to seize opportunities when they come along is something that has fueled Webb's Machinery's growth throughout its 90 years; this includes business milestones such as acquiring a Ford Mercury franchise in the 1940s, adding the Versatile Implement line during the 50s and deciding to become a Ford New Holland dealership in 1988. Recently, Webb's business acumen was on display in 2020 when they acquired Tri-Ag Implements and its three stores in Wainwright, Consort and St. Paul.

"They were having some financial difficulties, so we ended up buying them," said Scott. "It was in March, right at the start of the pandemic, when they were shutting everything down. Nobody was driving at the time, and I remember being out on these deserted roads and going to each store to give offers of employment."

That survival instinct to choose growth over the alternative continues even today. At the time of the interview, the Webbs were in the process of becoming majority shareholders of a nearby Ford dealership.

"We do these things not because we are out there trying to be aggressive, but when opportunities happen, you try to take advantage of them."

But for MacDon territory manager Brian Thomas the secret to the Webbs' success has as much to do with who they are as it does their business acumen.

"Scott is just the biggest gentleman in this business in Western Canada," said Thomas. "But it doesn't stop with him; they're all total professionals – not only the family but all the people working for them. And it doesn't matter which of their locations you go into, you're always treated the same, with utmost respect."

Thomas says that Scott has been a mentor for him, showing him that there is more to business than just making a dollar.

"A lot of people could learn from the Webbs about how to deal with issues. For them, the customer is always number one, and they always find a way to resolve an issue to keep the customer happy. I mean, nobody ever leaves their place stomping their feet. That just doesn't happen."

Finding ways to solve disputes equitably is something of a Webb family trademark going back to George C. himself.

"Our grandfather was known as a man of integrity, and thank goodness our family has always had a high standard of fairness because that is part of the reason we have remained in business so long. Sometimes, you do things for the customer that are not the best for the bottom line, but over the long run, it means something. We like to say we do the right thing when it's the right thing to do."

One way Webb's Machinery puts the customer first is by having more parts on hand than most.

"To me, where the rubber hits the road is if you've got the part in stock or not. Some business courses tell you that you've got to turn your inventory a certain amount to maximize profits, but we don't worry about that. Our biggest goal is to have the right part at the right time. We never tell our parts managers that they have a limited budget."

Next year will mark Scott's 50th year in the business. He says that will be a good time to reduce his responsibilities in the company.

"June 1st, 2025, is when I'll go off the payroll. I'll not worry about being at work before eight o'clock in the morning. I'll come in when I feel like it."

He'll be leaving the day to day running of things in the capable hands of Webb's experienced management and shareholder team. The group includes his cousin Mike Webb, equal partner in the parent company, minority shareholders Anton Krys, Mike Gottselig, Miles Mackow and Randy Metrunec, and his three sons Andrew, Daniel, and Adam.

"We don't take a lot of cash out of the business, so practically speaking, my retirement lies in my kids not screwing things up," joked Scott. "But seriously, I'm proud to say that my grandfather's vision now extends to a fourth generation of Webbs all working in the business."

Looking over his career, he says that he has learned to take pride in his contributions.

"When I was younger, I thought that the only reason that we were successful is because my grandfather, dad and uncles left us with a business that was successful. But now I realize I made a difference over the last 25 years, too. When I finally leave, I hope the business continues to grow and thrive and that my sons will feel the same."

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