From the Factory Floor to the General Manager’s Office
By: Robert Fowler
When I was a student at Brock University studying economics, I started driving a taxi on the nightshift. This job allowed me to make extra money between classes, at night and on weekends. Anytime I was not in a lecture, I was driving around St. Catharines, Ontario.
During this time, I gained a deeper understanding of how to read and connect with people. My experience as a taxi driver allowed me to interact with a multitude of new people each day giving me a wealth of customer service expertise. This experience is something that could not have been replicated by any university class or management book. To this day, I take many lessons from this time of my life, and apply them in my current role as General Manager of M.K. Rittenhouse & Sons.
Enrolling at Brock University
Being a late baby boomer living in Burlington meant that when I was in high school, the factories, refineries and construction industry were thriving. My friends and I had the expectation that when we left high school, it was likely that we would not need a university degree to get a good job.
Immediately out of high school I worked at refineries and factories but realized most of the jobs that I wanted at these factories were taken and a university education was essential to help me land a career opportunity that I wanted.
Brock University seemed like the perfect distance from my hometown and I quickly fell in love with the city of St. Catharines.
After university, I began searching for a career opportunity. Driving a taxi had taught me many lessons and paid my bills through school but I was ready to find an organization where I could see myself staying at for many years to come. I found that at M.K. Rittenhouse & Sons (“MKR”).
On the Factory Floor
My first job at MKR was on the factory floor building the spraying equipment. To this day, I still perform troubleshooting calls for the machines I built back when I first started. From the factory floor I moved to sales, to equipment troubleshooting, to e-commerce manager and network administrator. The e-commerce manager and network administrator job did not exist when I first joined the company and was born from the previous owner of MKR, Mark Rittenhouse’s greatest idea.
While working in the part sales department in the 90s, Mark Rittenhouse came to me with a great idea: “to put our catalogue on the internet.” Mark was a constant source of great innovation and this internet idea ended up being one of his best.
By January of 2000, we were on the cutting edge in Canada when we launched our MKR e-commerce website and received our first e-commerce order. To put it in perspective, Google went live in 1999. At MKR, from our Niagara head office, we were right there with the cutting-edge innovation of the internet age. From our first completed e-commerce order on January 23rd 2000, we slowly built up our online customer and product base.
In the early 2000s, as MKR’s E-commerce Manager, I knew that we could reach more customers if we ranked higher on search engines. Today, we call this Search Engine Optimization or SEO. However, in the early 2000s, there was no SEO handbook. All of the information to rank higher was found online in forums and learned through trial and error. I was an active member of these online forums and even attended conferences to learn from fellow web-masters. It was from these efforts, MKR began to rank higher in search engines, growing our online customer base.
This was a critical steppingstone in MKR’s history.
MKR started off in 1914 manufacturing agricultural machinery for the local Niagara market of local greenhouses, vineyards and orchards. Today, we have a major e-commerce business selling +25,000 SKUs of products to customers worldwide and we are an industry leading custom manufacturer of spraying equipment.
Massey Capital Acquires MKR
After 20 years of working just about every job at the company, I had gathered vast experience in all departments of MKR. When Massey Capital purchased MKR in 2018, I was appointed General Manager.
I have been at the company for over two decades and had all the knowledge and expertise of the products to fill that role. The one aspect of the job that I had to adjust to was managing my peers. Together with the tremendous support structure offered by Massey, I thought back to all my experiences and realized that if I focused on what I was great at: connecting with people, I knew I would succeed. Putting people first is one of Massey’s core values, so it helped to have a partner that was aligned with my objective and values. Since 2018, our company has seen tremendous growth. We recently opened a new facility in Beamsville, ON to keep up with our increased warehousing and production needs. Our online presence has grown tremendously every year. We have implemented Adobe’s Magento e-commerce platform, Klaviyo and also sell our products on Amazon and eBay.
Our online presence has been instrumental in MKR’s adaptability to the changes in the agricultural industry. We have been able to reach markets outside of Canada and sell our products to large agricultural hubs located in places like Puerto Rico, California, Florida and the Dominican Republic.
Culture at MKR
We have an open-door policy at MKR. So much so that I don’t even have a door on my office.
From my years driving a taxi, one of my greatest strengths is building relationships. My open door policy allows our associates to have full access to me when they need to talk. The strong relationships I have with our associates has allowed me to catch when someone shows an aptitude or interest in a particular position that they are not currently in, I can allow them to try it out. I have sourced some of our best salespeople from employees who used to work on the factory floor.
At MKR, we believe in developing our workforce and are committed to making our organization a great place to work.
Advice to the Next Generation of Leaders
For the upcoming generation of leaders, I have some advice:
1) Every job you have, even when you are young, is important. They will help you develop your strengths and set you apart from your peers.
2) Volunteer to work on all projects that you are passionate about or even not passionate about.
3) Make yourself indispensable to your company.
4) You never know what lessons you will learn from your next challenge.