Seed producer bullish on stalk market

Tom Droog may be one of Alberta’s most successful entrepreneurs, but you won’t find Canada’s sunflower king setting up shop in Manhattan any time soon.'

A team of wild horses couldn’t drag the straight-shooting president of Alberta Sunflower Seeds and his thriving business out of the farming community of Bow Island, 50 kilometres west of Medicine Hat, where he is most comfortable.

Droog is quick to point out that the phenomenal success he and wife and business partner Emmy have enjoyed with Alberta Sunflower Seeds and the Spitz brand stem from their farming roots in the southern Alberta community.

“This is where I’m staying put,” pipes the president of Alberta Sunflower Seeds, who still lives on a farm near Bow Island.

Gail Ellison, for Business Edge
Hard work, determination and faith are the characteristics Tom and Emmy Droog nurture in their sunflower business.

“I’m very proud to be a farmer, because having the farm got me the business.” 1. What was your boyhood dream growing up in Holland?

“Freedom. Freedom from rules and regulations. I came from a place in Holland where we had the dike around (us) and if you put a hole through the dike, you were 12 feet under water. That is where I got the basic understanding of hard work and honesty and integrity. My family farmed. We grew cash crops – potatoes, sugar beets and grain.”

2. How much money did you have in your pocket when you arrived in Canada in 1972?

“One hundred and twenty bucks. And some good advice. My dad (Willem) was a millionaire in Holland but he didn’t share it with his kids on an early basis. I said, ‘Dad, is that all I’m going to get?’ He said, ‘No, you’re going to get some advice and you can only spend it once.’ He said, ‘You’ve got to have honesty and integrity in business.’ Basically, he believed you had to say what you do and do what you say. I’ll remember that till the day I die. It’s funny. When you’re 20 years old, you know everything. Then, when you’re 40, you don’t know squat.”

3. How did you fare as a traditional farmer growing wheat and other crops?

“That went pretty good except then I had to tangle with the Canadian Wheat Board. I didn’t know what the Wheat Board meant. Until you tangle with it, you don’t know what it is. I said: ‘There’s gotta be a better way of doing this.’ And then in 1982, I started to look at a crop that was not regulated by the Wheat Board – which was sunflowers.”

4. At what point did you see the potential for sunflower seeds?

“A little old lady phoned me and asked me if we had some birdseed. I said: ‘Ma’am, we shoot the birds.’ She said: ‘Don’t shoot the birds – we gotta feed ’em.’ She said she was paying 30 cents a pound for birdseed, and I was getting eight cents a pound for my sunflowers from UGG (United Grain Growers). So that’s when we went into the birdseed market. In 1989, we started with Spitz and that’s when the business took off.”

5. What was your revenue last year?

“From the two companies (Alberta Sunflower Seeds and Spitz), it was $30 million. The first-year revenue in 1982 was $58,000.”

6. To what do you attribute that phenomenal growth?

“Hard work and determination. And a lot of faith. And I love marketing. That is the key, I guess. You get people value for their money and the response will be fantastic. I always look at the positives. The minute you start talking in the coffee shop and get caught up in the negatives, you end up negative. Negative thoughts give you negative results. Positive thoughts give you positive results.”

7. Why do you think Spitz was so successful so soon after you launched that part of the business?

“When we started, Sid’s in Regina was the main competition, so I said: ‘We’ve got to be different and we’ve got to be innovative.’ We were the first company to come up with flavours (there are now seven flavours) and a resealable bag. That’s why we were able to take the competition by storm. People also liked the name and the quality, and it took off like a bullet.”

8. Why haven’t you taken the company public?

“I thought about it but, hey, that’s like the Wheat Board. Forget it.”

9. What is it like working with your wife Emmy as a business partner?

“It’s very difficult. But I wouldn’t want to trade it for the world. But it’s very challenging at times. I think husband-and-wife teams in small business can be absolutely awesome. I come up with some ideas and she keeps me grounded to bring it down to a certain level. Then, we’ll make a decision and go from there. It’s give and take. Without my wife, I could never have pulled this off.”

10. What’s your vision for your company?

“It is absolutely tremendous. I’m sure we will have a plant in the United States within four years and we’ve started with a plant in China and that will grow from there.”

11. How is your Chinese operation working out?

“The Chinese way, very good, the Canadian way, not so good. But it will come. I’ve got to find my way down there. You can’t do business there the Chinese way with the Canadian culture. But they spit a lot of ’em (sunflower seeds) and, y’know, there’s a billion of ’em. You got to find your niche.”

12. Are you concerned about how the SARS outbreak may affect your operations there?

“Oh, yeah. I was supposed to be in China now, because we’re talking about making a deal to be the exclusive sunflower seed supplier for the (2008 Beijing) Olympics. There are still some small details we have to work out yet, but I’m not going to go there now.”

13. What would an Olympic contract mean to you?

“That will be awesome. I will pee my pants if that happens.”

14. Do you spit seeds during boardroom meetings?

“Yeah, usually there are Spitz on the boardroom table, but I try to take them off, because the minute you start spitting, you can’t stop and then when you’re talking to people and spitting sunflower seeds at the same time, it isn’t that appealing.

15. How important is money?

“Money is secondary. That’s not my motivation. I love the challenge and I love the ideas. When you give people quality and value for their money, hey, in between, if you’re not happy with it, get out. I’m motivated by seeing people succeed and the higher people get, the more they succeed. I love to see that and I love to motivate people. Eventually, I’ll turn the business over to someone else to manage, but everybody has different ideas, some of which conflict with yours. I’ve got to tell you a story. When do you think an entrepreneur should sell? An entrepreneur should sell when he’s healthy, when he’s alive and the business is doing well. The reason an entrepreneur never sells is because he’s healthy, he’s alive and he’s doing well.”

16. How has success changed your life?

“In my point of view, it hasn’t. In my friends’ point of view, it hasn’t. But in other people’s point of view, it maybe has. To some people, I’m a farmer. To other people, I’m an entrepreneur.

“To other people, I’m a businessman. And to other people, I’m an asshole. Who am I? I’m the same person. I’m a very proud farmer. I love driving around to see the farmers and talking to them, but I love talking to entrepreneurs too. Some people say, ‘Why don’t you do this, Tom, or buy this?’ I say, ‘We’re living in Bow Island, guys.’ In Calgary, if your neighbour buys a new car, nobody knows. But down here, they all know.”

17. Would you move out of Bow Island?

“It’s 1,500 people drippin’ wet, and I love it. The people are absolutely awesome here. We went through a tragic accident where our grandson (Gabriel Strom) died three months ago. He was only 2 1/2 years old. The support was absolutely overwhelming. He went to the dugout with his little dog and drowned. That was gut-wrenching. But life goes on, and now you’ve got to give it a good spot in your heart and you’ll never forget.”

18. Who’s the entrepreneur you most admire?

“My favourite in business has always been Henry Ford. I like the way he slowly built up his company. I also thank the good ol’ Lord for giving me the ideas and the freedom. And I thank Canada every day for giving a guy from a different country a chance to be what God meant him to be.”

19. What did you learn from the early, lean years of your business?

“You’ve got to start small. I stuck my neck out way too far. We were going to build a plant for $150,000, which we could have done ourselves, but then the agriculture people told me to build a little bigger because they said they could help us out with some cheaper money. My God. I almost got finished over that one. All of sudden, interest rates went to 22 per cent and that’ll just about choke a horse. How I did it, don’t ask me. We did it with perseverance, honesty, integrity and a lot of faith. Fortunately, things took off when we started with Spitz. But I tell everyone, ‘Don’t build too big.’ Now, I’d love to see interest rates go to 22 per cent, because I’m on the other side of the fence.”

20. What are you investing in these days besides your own business?

“The best investment is your own business, because the rest you’ve got no control over. I’ve invested in the Alberta Beef Company and I did make a very good investment in WestJet. Clive Beddoe (WestJet CEO) is a very good friend of mine and he’s an awesome entrepreneur.”

THE COMPANY: Alberta Sunflower Seeds
* Brass: Tom Droog, president; Emmy Droog, vice-president.
* Profile: Alberta Sunflower Seeds produces sunflower seeds out of Bow Island in seven flavours and other snack food products through the Spitz brand name, and distributes them through centres in Medicine Hat and Stratford, Ont., to 24,000 stores via 140 trucks. The company also has distribution centres in Loveland, Colo., and China. Alberta Sunflower also markets to the birdseed market.
* Awards: Alberta Sunflower Seeds won the Prairies entrepreneur of the year award in 1996 (food and agriculture division), and was recognized as one of the 50 best-managed private companies in Canada in 1996, 1997 and 1998.
* Head Office: Box 767, Bow Island, T0K 0G0.
* Phone/Fax: 403-545-6877, 403-545-2566.
* Spitz Sales Inc.: 2055 Holsom Road S.W., Medicine Hat, T1B 4L9; 403-527-7188, 1-800-567-7748.

IN PROFILE: Tom Droog
* Born/raised/age: Beemster, Netherlands; 54.
* Title: President/owner, Alberta Sunflower Seeds.
* Residence: The farm, Bow Island
* Education: High school, Agriculture School of Holland.
* Family: Wife Emmy, two children.
* Career: Droog emigrated to Canada in 1972 and has farmed at Bow Island since then. He and wife Emmy started Alberta Sunflower Seeds in 1982 as marketers
of birdseed and began marketing sunflowers for human consumption under the Spitz label in 1988. He is also a shareholder in Alberta Beef Company Inc.
* Idol: Henry Ford.
* Passions: Spitting, reading biographical success stories, gardening.