As good as you or better,” says Rudy Knitel when I ask him what he was looking for when he went in search of a business partner. A sense of humour apparently helps.
Aged 74, Knitel did find his business partner, though. He’s Corne Mans, aged 22.
A 52-year age difference might seem like a lot. It might even seem insurmountable, but Knitel and Mans have come to see it as a plus. “It’s a perfect combination,” says Mans, explaining that he is young and that there are lots of benefits he can get from Knitel’s experience.
On the flip side, Mans contributes considerable drive and energy to the partnership. “We both have equal input,” says Mans.
It’s a sign of what it takes to succeed in food distribution, where anything that gets in the way has to be overcome with a combination of grit and personality, and a willingness to do things that other people say can’t be done.
Farm to distributor
Knitel and Mans met when Knitel was making the rounds for his business, called Galimax Trading. “I was buying milk,” recalls Knitel, explaining that Mans is the son of one of his suppliers.
“I met Rudy while working on the farm,” agrees the much younger Mans.
Mans admits that in those days, he had a thought circling about in his head. “Coming from a big family,” he says, “it’s hard to know if you will end up with the farm.”
When he saw Knitel, the idea crossed his mind that making the transition from farmer to food distributor might be part of the solution. “I like farming,” Mans says. “This way, you’re still involved with farmers.”
Knitel farmed too, having studied agriculture in Holland. “My wife and I, we farmed for many years,” says Knitel as he talks about clearing land in Peace River country with his wife Faye and their three daughters. “We didn’t quite go broke… but we walked off the place and gave it all back to the bank,” he says.
Into the food distribution
After leaving the farm, Knitel worked in a few jobs and ended up in the hay business. When he was 60, Faye, who had a decent job, suggested he slow down. “That’s not me,” laughs Knitel.
“I was in Italy for the hay business,” he recalls. “I’m not really a foodie, but I ate food there.” It was a transformative moment. “I didn’t think food could taste that good!” he says.
That sense of awe launched him into food distribution. Knitel and Faye started Galimax in 2001, with a focus on importing high-end European food for the restaurant market in Calgary.
Knitel says they imported for about four years. “It was two steps ahead and three back at times,” he continues. While Knitel liked the business, the model had one big flaw: distance. “Every once in a while a shipment went wrong,” he explains. Long-distance mishaps aren’t quickly corrected.
He credits Faye for suggesting they switch to more affordable foods and staples, which in turn evolved into a focus on Alberta-produced food. “I said, I got this client base of high-end hotels and restaurants, and I’m going to switch over,” he recalls.
Knitel wasn’t ready to retire, but says Faye had had enough. He chuckles, adding, “She said, ‘You’re too much of a risk-taker.’”
That’s when he started looking for a new business partner. He and Mans hit it off, and Mans now owns 49 per cent of Galimax Trading, and has been with the company for almost four years. During that time he has also completed a business administration diploma at Lethbridge College.
Knitel says a lot of small farm and food businesses don’t have the time, skills, or equipment to market and sell food products into the restaurant sector. Galimax focuses on fruit, vegetables, dairy products, and eggs, with some specialty items such as vinegar. They don’t sell meat, which he finds more complicated to manage since many restaurants want only the top cuts, while producers want to sell the rest of the animal too.
Farmers make deliveries twice weekly to the company’s CFIA-approved facility in Nobleford, Alta., near Lethbridge. It includes a warehouse, cold storage, order assembly area, and egg-grading station. Annual sales are $1.6 million.
Galimax Trading sells mainly to restaurants, but also to a couple of health food stores. Knitel says the restaurants are both medium and high end. “It’s not all foo-foo food,” he says with a laugh. The customer base has grown beyond Calgary to include places such as Canmore, Banff, and Lake Louise.
Mans feels the key to their success is being able to offer a reliable supply of key menu items. But with good customers, it can work the other way around too, and chefs build menus around what Galimax has on offer. “Often what they do is they run a feature menu,” he says. The features are a way for chefs to take advantage of some of the less-mainstream items that Galimax can get. For example, this year, some chefs designed features made with specialty cauliflower or dragon-tongue beans (flat beans with unusual colouring).
Knitel is excited about the egg business. They sell approximately 2,500 dozen eggs per week to hotels and restaurants. “We have our own rules,” says Knitel, as he talks about the requirements for their local network of egg producers. Right now they have 22 egg producers, mostly teenagers for whom it’s a part-time business.
Each producer can have up to 300 chickens (to avoid quota problems with the egg marketing board), must use feed from the supplier specified by Galimax, and give indoor-outdoor free run. “We’re constantly short of eggs,” says Mans as he talks about a demand that would allow them to double their sales.
One aspect of this business model that Knitel thinks is very important is that all of the food Galimax Trading distributes is presold. “Most businesses, all the money is tied up in stock,” says Knitel. Without unsold inventory, he faces less risk.
To foster loyalty and grow new customers, Knitel arranges an annual chef’s tour, where he rents a couple of coaches and takes chefs to visit farms. “We feed them and make it a nice day,” he explains. When I ask about the feedback he gets on the tour, he says, “Oh, fantastic!”
He makes sure to include line cooks and wait staff on the tour. The executive chefs, he says, have already been converted to Galimax Trading and Alberta-grown food. “You want people who are on the way up.” He says he gets calls from people who were on a past tour, saying something like, “I was on your tour three years ago when I worked for so-and-so. I’m now the sous chef and want to order from you.”
I ask Knitel what’s important to him when dealing with people. “The secret is, when you talk to somebody, you have to smile over the phone,” he says.
Today, Galimax Trading has 11 people on the payroll. Knitel says staffing is his biggest challenge. “We find it very hard to get good people,” he says, pointing out that he’s competing with the oilpatch.
To find good people, he has an unconventional interviewing technique. He sits interviewees down, gives them a sheet of paper, and says, “I give you 10 minutes to write down why you want to work here.” The results, he says, help him understand motivations, and also communication skills. If he’s satisfied with what has been written, the interview continues.
As a small company, the roles of the partners are not cast in stone. Although Knitel prospects for new customers and does public relations, as with any small company, he wears many hats. “I also drive truck,” he says, talking about their three reefer trucks.
Knitel is stoked about the future of the business, saying, “We’re very, very busy and have all sorts of expansion plans.” Mans is bullish about the local food sector, saying, “It’s growing, no doubt about it.”
“We have a lot of fun,” exclaims Knitel.
Knitel is pleased with the partnership and its outlook. “If you’re more than 20 years in the driver seat you’re ancient and should move on,” he says. He is sharing the driver’s seat. He adds, “A lot of old people think, ‘This is the way it should be — we’ve done it this way and it was successful.’ They become inflexible.”