REGINA, Saskatchewan — Gavin Semple, one of six children raised on a modest western Canadian farm, landed a sales job for an agricultural equipment company and eventually bought it.
Over the years, with the help of his son and eventually more than 1,800 employees, he built a multi-billion dollar group of companies based in Regina, Saskatchewan.
Now Semple, the chairman, and his son, Shaun, president and CEO of Brandt Group of Companies, are considering a Central Illinois site as the U.S. headquarters for their agricultural business as a part of an aggressive plan to grow their business internationally.
If they can reach an agreement with the current owners of Kongskilde Industries in rural Normal, and are able to secure an incentive package involving McLean County area government entities, they plan to manufacture agriculture products here, including grain carts, grain augers and belt conveyors.
At a time when many companies are leaving Illinois for neighboring states, Brandt is considering the Land of Lincoln as best suited to meet its business plans and philosophy. The company made illinois one of the finalists along with sites in other states, including Iowa and Ohio, that are generally thought to be more business-friendly.
This community and Brandt would be a good match, said Kyle Ham, CEO of Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council.
“McLean County has a long, successful history of a good economy with agricultural roots being one of the leaders or the leader of corn and soybean production in the nation," Ham said. “The strong insurance, financial, health care and education community here with Illinois State University, Illinois Wesleyan University and Heartland Community College attracted Brandt to the Central Illinois location.”
That, combined with its vast infrastructure, including the intersection of three Interstates highways and a superior airport, makes the community a contender, he added.
Then, there are the potential jobs.
While the lllinois unemployment rate remains at 5 percent, the Illinois Department of Employment reports a decline in jobs in recent months. In September, Illinois non-farm jobs decreased by 10,800 and in August job loss was 2,600 from the previous month.
“With the impending closure of Kongskilde (factory) and the vacancy of the building, timing is perfect to return a few jobs and bring new high-paying, family-waged jobs here,” said Ham.
During a recent interview with Gavin Semple at his headquarters in Regina, it became clear the Normal location coincides well with his and Shaun’s philosophy and experience.
The site was initially established by Illinois farmer-inventor Rich Follmer, who started Progressive Farm Products in 1978 and built a factory to produce spraying and fertilizer equipment in 1988.
Follmer sold his company and factory in 2010 to Kongskilde Industries, a Danish-based company, started by two blacksmiths in 1949. Kongskilde, which had set up U.S. operations in the area eight years earlier in Normal with a handful of employees, started at the new factory with 40 employees and grew to more than 100 at its peak of production building and painting tillage and other farm equipment.
Last year, Kongskilde sold its tillage and hay lines to CNH which leased the factory until it could move production to its own site. Kongskilde Industries is downsizing and moving to a new location in Normal.
Brandt takes ownership of the 200,000 square-foot plant on Dec. 15, intending to expand the current factory, and increase the number of employees working in the Bloomington-Normal area and elsewhere in U.S. in the coming years.
The Semples already have ties to Illinois: two of Shaun’s sons graduated from universities in the state, Northwestern in Evanston and DePaul in Chicago.
“We are honored Brandt is considering our community. We applaud their long history as a family business and respect what they’ve done,” Ham said.
The early years
Gavin Semple knows about starting small. “I was born and raised on a farm north of Regina. It was six kids and mom and dad,” he said of growing up in a house that didn’t have electricity or running water. He attended a one-room school house for the first eight years, then at age 14 moved into dormitories at a Regina high school for four years until graduation.
His father, who had operated a successful farm and fence post business, died suddenly when Semple was 19 years old. Unexpectedly, he and his older brother, Bill, were in charge of running the farm, including a 125-head cattle operation.
Even though their time together was short, Gavin said his father taught him things that have served him well. He taught Gavin and his brothers how to box. Those lessons about getting up again when knocked down stayed with Gavin, who has a signed photograph of the late boxing champ, Muhammad Ali, on his office wall.
While still helping with the family farm, to earn extra income and to suit his ambitious nature, Gavin tried his hand at selling things, including vacuum cleaners and insurance. When he was 21, he married Annette Marcotte. While she worked in accounting, he honed his business and sales skills studying the habits of successful people.
In 1972, at age 27, Semple took a job “at a little company” called Brandt Machine and Manufacturing, selling agricultural equipment, including grain augers in the southwest territory of Saskatchewan. He took pride in selling “real, tangible products," he said.
His aptitude for it showed. Within two years, he was sales manager. By the time he was 31, in 1976, he was president, general manager and 15 percent owner of the company. In 1981, he became chairman of the board and the next year, the majority shareholder.
Shaun started in sales in 1984 when he was 17. “He didn’t know any limits,” Gavin said of his son’s enthusiasm. “He started at the bottom and worked his way up working in every department in the company.”
In 1986, Gavin’s brother, Jim, joined the company as machine shop manager and contributed for 25 years until he retired. Brandt had reached about $9 million in sales revenue by that point, and the team was ready to grow even more.
The yellow tide
“The year that really made a difference for us was 1992,” Gavin said. “Shaun saw an ad for a John Deere (construction and forestry equipment) dealership.” They had been looking for something to balance their agricultural focus, but Gavin wasn’t so sure it was a good idea.
Father and son went back and forth several times before deciding that getting into John Deere construction and forestry equipment was their next move. That was the year Shaun became president of Brandt Tractor Ltd., the largest of the five companies in the Brandt Group.
“We had aggressive people and a little capital,” said Gavin, who had worried about starting the dealership because they had no trained staff, a short time line and no previous John Deere experience.
“It proves anything is possible,” he said. They continued adding John Deere dealerships in western Canada in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia and expanded to the East coast, adding locations in the Maritimes five years ago.
Today, with 27 dealerships, they are the largest John Deere construction and forestry dealership network in the world.
“John Deere changed who we are,” said Gavin Semple.
The company kept growing and today employs more than 1,800 people in Canada and the United States and provides services in 20 countries. In addition to the John Deere construction and forestry, they also have divisions specializing in pipeline and mining industry, custom products, railroad equipment and agriculture products and construction attachments.
“It’s always about the people,” said Gavin, who was named the 2016 Business Leader of the Year by The Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce. The award presentation noted that when the company surpassed $1 billion in annual revenue for the first time in 2011, the Semples and Brandt launched the "Thanks a Billion" program to give back to the customers, employees and communities that helped them reach that milestone.
They have continued the campaign annually and also are known for generous donations to the United Way, the Cancer Society and numerous other worthy causes.
The company also bought the naming rights to the arena in Regina, The Brandt Center, and soon added a digital scoreboard. It was a big ticket item, designed by Gavin’s grandson, Christopher Semple, the vice-president of engineering at the company, and another up-and- comer in the family business.
Gavin didn’t choose to name the arena Semple Center or even to include Semple in the name of the business he has owned for 40 years. He never met Peter Brandt, the company founder, but kept the Brandt name because it was associated with good products. When asked why, he smiled and said, “There’s no business sense in changing it.”
You can see what a people-person Semple is as he walks through five separate business and production centers in the Regina community visiting staff. Whether he's in the corporate office, the customer service center or any of the manufacturing operations for specialized rail, mining or pipeline equipment, people greet him with “Hi Gavin” or “Hello Mr. Semple” and in return, he calls them by name.
In the paint department of Brandt Industries, Marc Eberle, operations manager, said that one of his employees won $400,000 in the lottery and still works at the same job. “That speaks for what a good place it is to work,” Eberle said.