When Gene Fraser reflects on his 41-year career in agricultural manufacturing with MacDon Industries Ltd., one word summarizes it best: FUN.
“It was so much fun,” says Fraser. “I used the word fun in my career all the way along. [MacDon] was a fun environment to work in, to get an understanding and an education, and to learn and try to figure out ways to apply things.”
Fraser grew up on a family farm in Antigonish, Nova Scotia and cites his parents as his first influences on his work ethic and eventual career path.
“My dad, his innovative way of thinking, and his practical approach to things gave me a good start,” says Fraser. “My mom was very social and the consummate host, so it’s not hard to see that I ended up in the ag business in a marketing and sales role with some of her influences coming through.”
In 1981, after graduating from St. Francis Xavier University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration, Fraser moved out west in search of greater employment opportunities. He went on to join MacDon Industries Ltd. in Winnipeg starting on the production line, before moving into quality control and production control.
“I got a great overview and a great understanding of how manufacturing works, how we eventually get the product out the door and what the quality and reliability means in that product,” says Fraser. “Looking at more efficient ways to do things and learning from the people on the floor how they were seeing things unfold, how they could do their job better, and how they could do it more efficiently and safer was an eye opener for me.”
Fraser moved into a marketing role at MacDon in 1983, providing a platform to incorporate his education with his work and industry experience. At that time, MacDon was a small but growing OEM (original equipment manufacturer) company, building for other companies including Massey Ferguson, John Deere, Case, New Holland and International Harvester (and, today, also include Claas and Krone.) By 1985, Fraser would help drive MacDon’s expansion as the company began to move into a dealer-direct model.
Fraser credits several mentors from his time at MacDon for their guidance and support as he progressed through his career. One of those mentors was John Killbery, a longtime production planner working in engineering and product design dating back to when the company, then owned by his father and uncle, was known as Killbery Industries.
“John was such an innovative thinker,” says Fraser. “He would take a problem, solve it in four different ways, and come up with the best solution. But his patience with customers was one of the things that truly stood out for me. He would get a customer or a dealer on the phone who would be looking for something that might have been a product from 25 years ago, and he knew it.”
Fraser also highlights the MacDonald family – brothers Allan, Gary, Scott and John, and their father Joe – as mentors whose skills in different areas each gave him a greater understanding of relationship building and the ag manufacturing business. He worked closely with Gary, who had led MacDon’s sales and marketing and later assumed the role of Executive Vice President, describing him as a “first-class guy” who had “an absolute unique presence in the industry.”
“Gary was very inclusive to everybody,” says Fraser. “Whether you were a small dealer, big dealer, small customer or big customer, Gary talked to everyone like they mattered the most in the world. You were the number one focus of his attention when you walked in his office.”
Fraser learned many lessons from Gary MacDonald’s career evolution, forward-thinking approach, ability to cultivate a fun work environment and people-centred focus.
“Gary coined a phrase very early on that stood out in a lot of people’s minds: ‘Business isn’t about business, business is about people.’ He truly meant that in everything he would do. It’s the product, but most of all, it’s how you interact with the customer. Being empathetic, being honest, being true, doing the right thing by the dealer and the customer – these are the things he focused on.
“Those are the things I applied and learned from great people like Gary, the MacDonald family and others.”
Fraser himself became a mentor to many employees at MacDon during his career. Through his experience on both sides of mentorship, he cites engagement and conversation as critical elements in cultivating the next generation of leaders in ag manufacturing.
“It’s hearing about what their challenges are coming in as a new employee and what aspirations and goals they want to have,” says Fraser. “Experience teaches you a lot of things. [Mentorship is about] sitting down, engaging people, giving them a sense of what the future could hold in store, and talking to them about how to treat people and how to look at things differently.
“Everything is a learning experience. Even the failures are a learning experience to the successes you have.”
Fraser emphasizes the strong reputation Canadian ag manufacturers have built over the years: “I would hear that no matter where I would travel to.”