Farm & Fleet built on family, relationships

It might seem counterintuitive for the CEO of a retail company to say she sees her job as being about connecting people and information — isn’t retail supposed to be about connecting people and products, after all? — but Blain’s Farm & Fleet is a bit of a counterintuitive retail company to begin with, something its president and CEO Jane Blain Gilbertson seems perfectly at ease with.

After all, she notes, Farm & Fleet is the same retailer that opts to keep its doors closed on all major holidays, including —gasp! — Thanksgiving.

Whereas some retailers might see this as an opportunity and dollars lost, Blain Gilbertson simply sees this as an extension of the company ethos created by Farm & Fleet’s founders, her father, N.B. “Bert” Blain, and her uncle, W.C. “Claude” Blain, who she says focused on fairness and working with vendors and associates to build the business for the long haul, while avoiding apparent short-term wins that could damage their reputation.

Blain Gilbertson plans to discuss her journey to the top of one of the Midwest’s most iconic brands at the Icons in Business breakfast series Friday, June 3, 2016. Ticket sales for this program close at 5 p.m. CST today, Tuesday, May 31.

In many ways, Farm & Fleet is still the same small, family business it started as, just operating on a much larger, multistate scale today.

Re-entering the fold

Though she’s now in charge, Blain Gilbertson didn’t always want to be a part of the family business.

When you grow up in a family business, Blain Gilbertson notes, there is little separation between family and business.

“The business is just woven into your life from a very young age. My mom helped out in many — unpaid — ways with the business when I was young, and when I was in middle school she created our giftware department. She always stressed with my dad that there needed to be more products that appealed to the women and families in our stores.”

Blain Gilbertson says there were times growing up when she got to travel with her parents to trade shows, and she recalls how they thought about their customers and tried to always remember who they were buying for when they made their decisions.

“I was extremely fortunate that both parents let me see what they did and be around as they worked with their vendors, their associates, and their customers, so I could see firsthand how they thought about things and worked with others,” Blain Gilbertson explains. “Of course, I didn’t know that I was learning!”

Still, while Blain Gilbertson worked for Farm & Fleet in her youth — first in high school in the stores and then in college in the buying office — after she graduated from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in 1983 with a bachelor of science degree in retailing, she decided she was not going to return to her family’s business, and instead struck out on her own, accepting an assistant buying position with Macy’s Midwest division in Kansas City.

“They offered me a wonderful training program and I was introduced not only to the art of buying but also the business of financials, as well,” says Blain Gilbertson. “It was a learning experience for me in more ways than I could have ever imagined, but in many ways I saw business done quite differently than the way I had seen my family build its business. I know now that I was quite naïve in many ways to how many department stores did business in those days and I know now that those were the lessons I really was intended to learn.”

When her mother passed away unexpectedly at age 54, Blain Gilbertson knew that she really belonged back at home in Janesville, where she returned in 1985 to join the family business for good and be close to her father and brother.

After her father, Bert, died in 1993, Blain Gilbertson's brother, Robert, became president. Eighteen years ago, she and her brother bought out her uncle Claude’s side of the family and two years ago she bought out her brother when he retired, leaving Blain Gilbertson the sole owner and CEO of the company.

Blain’s Farm & Fleet now boasts 36 stores in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois and it’s opening in two new locations, in Romeoville and Elgin, Ill., by October, with more stores on the way.

“I would say that while I learned many, many things from my time with Macy’s — and it was a wonderful opportunity for me right out of college — probably the greatest impact for me was learning that how you choose to do business really is a choice.”

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Breaking barriers and building a brand

Female CEOs are no longer uncommon in the business world, but they’re also still in the minority. Closing that gender gap is something Blain Gilbertson is passionate about.

I love that my two daughters can’t believe that when I was in high school (Blain Gilbertson was a 1979 graduate of Janesville Craig High School) every sport was not offered to young women. They just simply can’t even imagine it!”

That’s the key to fighting the battle for equal opportunity and pay for women, Blain Gilbertson says — if you can’t even imagine it still happening in 2016, then you mustn’t let it continue.

“I was a lot of female ‘firsts’ in my career,” notes Blain Gilbertson. “Many of the boards I joined, I was the first woman. When I was asked to fill out information for a paid financial board I was joining, the form actually asked for my ‘wife’s beautician’s name’! When I pointed this out to the all-male board, saying I assumed this came from a ancient time when they worried about their male board members sharing confidential information with their wives, who might talk about it at the beauty parlor, you can imagine their sheer horror at my question. These are the stereotypes and backward thinking we are all responsible for calling out as the ridiculous things that they are.

“I’m proud of my two daughters who can politely call a spade a spade and challenge a situation when it arises,” she continues. “And I’m also proud of my associates, both male and female, who speak up immediately if they feel we might be creating this kind of perception in our work. Call it out, fix it, and move on.”

Since she’s assumed the role of CEO, Blain Gilbertson says her job has been to connect people and information.

“I have always gotten great energy, as my father did, by working collaboratively and that has been a very big focus as I took on this new leadership role. We are very much focused on sharing information and data with our people in ways we would never have done just a few years ago,” Blain Gilbertson explains. “As I grew in the organization, from buying roles to various leadership roles in marketing, merchandising, and operations, I found I enjoyed the work most when we were able to pull people who should be connected with the topics — but might have not been asked to participate in the past — together to help us to think about the business and our customers or associates in the right way.”

Part of that process includes enhancing the company’s focus on internal development. “I truly believe it’s not a leader’s job to create followers, but to create more leaders,” Blain Gilbertson notes enthusiastically.

For any business, Blain Gilbertson continues, everything must be done with the customers’ experience in mind. “We all compete with too many options, so we must always ask ourselves, regardless of our business, ‘Why would someone chose us? How would they speak about us after their experience with us?’

“And for a family business especially, we need to be as good as all the public companies we compete with, but we get to do it the way we choose to do it, by treating our customers like neighbors and our associates like family. If you are proud of being a family owned business, everyone should be able to feel the difference!”

To hear more about Blain Gilbertson’s thoughts on business leadership and learn about what’s next for the Farm & Fleet empire, register to attend her Icons in Business presentation this Friday at www.ibmadison.com/icons. Ticket sales for this program close at 5 p.m. CST today, Tuesday, May 31.

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