Étienne Gosselin | Agronomist | Journalist
Back in 2007, Frédéric Jobin-Lawler was a sales director for a greenhouse supply and equipment company. He inquired about the possibility of purchasing his client's business during the next 5-10 years... and just three weeks later, opportunity came knocking! The time was already ripe for a new, interested owner to step in!
Since that summer, the L'Abri Végétal (in French only) greenhouse has changed considerably. The business, located in Compton, grows vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, fine herbs and garlic.
While they still export produce to New England, Frédéric and his spouse Annie Lévesque are also proud of developing their local and regional markets (40-50% of their total sales). All of this was achieved with the blessing of the former owners, Jean Longpré and Manon Sévigny, two pioneers of organic greenhouse farming. They even turned down a more lucrative offer, instead choosing to mentor Frédéric and Annie, who were awarded a bronze medal from Quebec's Ordre national du mérite agricole in 2016.
What was important?
Help with the transition
During her maternity leave, Annie decided to build a bank of hours for the business. She wanted to get to know the property, since no two greenhouses in Quebec are alike--especially since they're using the site's soil! For every hour and a half that she and Frédéric worked, Manon and Jean agreed to give an hour of mentorship. Not only did this build a solid partnership, it also led to mutual understanding, which has since blossomed into friendship.
Sharing the risks
Frédéric and Annie had plenty of experience... but not a lot of cash. Jean and Manon had to agree to sell their business over several years (patient capital), so that the young couple could pay by instalment. This way of transferring ownership also reassured the financial institution. Annie and Frédéric accepted without negotiating the price, which reflected what the business was capable of earning (sales) rather than what it was actually worth (assets and established clients). By boosting productivity, they were able to buy the business in less than two years!
Focusing on management
In terms of agriculture, Annie and Frédéric had a lot of knowledge about increasing productivity, growing in low light conditions, and automating environmental controls. They set up systems to enrich the greenhouse using the carbon dioxide from the propane gas used for the greenhouse's supplemental heating system--most of the heating has been produced by geothermal power, since 1998. It's the economic aspects--government programs, sales, financial management and accounting--that the mentors were able to help with the most.
Taking a step back
For the former owners, the business was their baby. It wasn't easy to step back, especially when you still hold shares... and you live just next door! The couple wanted to diversify, but Manon and Jean added a bit of nervousness and emotion into the affair. Everyone needed to sit down and have an open talk about risk tolerance, the desire to innovate and keeping a healthy distance.
Inspired by the mentorship they received, Annie and Frédéric are giving back, opening their doors to research and development projects, school groups and interns studying in agricultural programs. Since the pair has degrees in biology and plant science, this is a great way for them to pay it forward!
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