Sebeslav took ownership of The Peanut Mill Natural Foods Market from his mother Antje Wirth in 2009, things were already in good shape.   Established in 1976 by Antje, the St. Catharines, ON store was one of the longest serving and most successful in the Niagara region.

When Jason Sebeslav took ownership of The Peanut Mill Natural Foods Market from his mother Antje Wirth in 2009, things were already in good shape.   Established in 1976 by Antje, the St. Catharines, ON store was one of the longest serving and most successful in the Niagara region.

It had a steady and loyal customer base.  Two years earlier – in 2007 – the store had moved from an 850 sq. ft unit to a more spacious 2,200 sq. ft. location in the same plaza.  All was well.

However, if you know Jason, he is an observer, a student.  He is not one to leap wildly or blindly into something.  He has an inquiring mind, likely owing to his literature and journalism background (he has an English Masters and spent a couple of years as an editorial assistant at Alive Magazine early in his career).  “I’ve been known to investigate things to death – almost to a fault,” he admits, but with a hint of pride.

First thing: a POS

For the most part, Jason let the store he had purchased carry on as is. It was a business he knew well, as he had worked alongside his mother for many years off and on, beginning part-time in his teens.  In 1998, after completing his tenure with Alive, he joined the store as a full-time employee. One of his first projects at that time was to institute a new POS system – a major shift in operations that brought challenges, but ultimately huge benefits in ordering time, inventory levels and reporting capabilities. More than 10 years later, and now as the store owner, Jason was once again contemplating the store’s structure and operations.

“As a new owner – especially when it comes to a family business – there is some pressure to NOT change things too much, especially at first. But it didn’t take long for me to start feeling as though my position within the store was not sustainable. I had kept all the supplement ordering for myself, as well as the marketing side, and was now also trying to fill the role of general manager. I was feeling more and more overwhelmed, and any new ideas I had were always being put on the backburner for lack of time.”

Two major influences

It was very early into his ownership that Jason encountered two major influences that would help shape the store’s future: The “Rising Stars” retail seminars and the book, The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It.

Jason attended the Rising Stars 1 session in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2011.  He recalls being one of only two independent store owners in attendance. The remainder of the group of 40 was made up of department managers from larger U.S. health food stores or coops.  “What was eye opening for me at that time was that everyone was talking about managing departments, looking at department financials and so on, while I was still very much in a ‘whole store’ mindset. Not that it was wrong as an independent owner to think in those terms. It was just that I realized then that even though we were relatively small, we could still begin to departmentalize. It seems so obvious now, but at the time we weren’t operating that way at all. Our structure was all over the place, with staff assigned ordering duties somewhat randomly, with no real accountability or insight to the financial piece. I left Rising Stars very inspired and with the rough sketch of a new structure for the store.”

Around that same time Jason had come across the The E-Myth Revisited, a book by Michael Gerber. The book’s main tenet is that small business owners often sabotage their own entrepreneurial potential by building businesses that rely on them too much. Gerber’s directive to his readers is to systematize everyday operations to the point that you’ll have the freedom and opportunity to ‘work ON your business, not IN your business.’

Bigger-picture thinking

“The book was an eye-opener for me. I could see that I was leaving no time or energy for bigger-picture, strategy type thinking. It’s not that I didn’t want to be involved in the daily operations of the store – part of me loves that direct interfacing with customers and employees, couriers and sales reps. But I could see that something had to shift, not only for my sake, but for the growth potential of the store.”

Changes made sense

When you’re considering a significant change, there is an initial urge to question what you’re doing, explains Jason. “You start thinking, ‘Well, this works okay, and that works pretty good…so why change it?’  But more and more, it made sense to make the change.  Even though we are not a large store (1,500 sq. ft. of sales floor space), we were busy enough that I realized we could still have three distinct departments: food, wellness and customer service – each with a dedicated manager.

“It seems somewhat simple and obvious looking back on it,” laughs Jason. “But at the time, it was a pretty major shift for us.”

Jason approached one of the Rising Stars session leaders, Carolee Colter, to help finalize the re-structuring plan and arranged to have her come to the store to conduct an intensive two-day consultation session.  “Carolee wanted to meet with as many of our employees one-on-one as possible, to get a sense of their personalities and ambitions, as well as our company culture. She and I also spent a good deal of time hashing out exactly what I was looking for and what would make sense for our store’s size and scale.

“The next day, we met as a group – Carolee, myself, and some of our longer serving employees who would be considered for the new positions. She was very organized and professional, but also very sensitive to how the prospect of these changes might be challenging or threatening to the staff. Carolee was instrumental in helping to roll this out. Really, it was just a matter of talking it through with our people.”

Defining moment

Jason says the move to department managers was a defining moment for his store.  “Five years later, we are all still learning and growing.  Our managers are still learning about store metrics and strategies: turns, margins and inventory levels…all the things that matter more and more these days to stay on top of our game.”

Bringing Carolee in was imperative to making it happen, he says.  “I’m a big believer in using outside consultants for the business, and I still use them.”

Another important element both Carolee and the E-Myth book reinforced was the need to build positions and job descriptions around store needs and not people.

Jason explains: “I think it is fairly common to build positons around people. It’s tempting to start custom-building jobs to fit employees’ strengths, or interests, or even preferred hours. This locks you into these people and so when they’re away on vacation or sick or when they leave the company, you may be in trouble. Now you’ve got a position that is hard to fill because it’s too strange. It wasn’t built for the needs of the business in the first place.”

Empathy and passion

Jason is careful not to imply that people don’t matter, however. You don’t want to ignore people’s strengths or what skills they offer.  ”I’m not saying you have to be cold about it. But if you’re looking at the best job structure for the business, you have to leave the people and personalities out of it to some degree. Build the job descriptions you need and then find the best people to fill them. Hopefully – as in our case – some of the people are already on your staff!”

On the topic of people, Jason realizes this is the most crucial element of his store.  “We’re the kind of industry that’s built on empathy and passion, and those are the qualities we look for and encourage in our staff, and what ultimately attracts customers to the store. Structures and systems are important, but people are at the core of what we do.”

The Peanut Mill’s customers love the staff, reports Jason, “and they love our personal service and knowledge level. We have nutritionists, a herbalist and even a naturopath on staff. We also have many long-time employees that have helped shape us into who we are. I’m very proud of our people and feedback from our customers is outstanding. But these days, it has to be.”

Not ‘specialty stores’ any more

Health food stores are currently in a tenuous situation, says Jason.  Although health food is riding an incredible wave of popularity, our industry is facing unparalleled competition.  “I don’t think health foods stores can count just on the growth of the industry to keep you afloat. That may have worked years ago when it was relatively easy to be a ‘specialty store.’ But we’re not really in that category anymore. Not when our products are also in Costco and Wal-Mart and the big grocery store down the street. Now we need to always be way ahead of the curve in our products, offer exceptional service, keep our staff educated and keep ourselves educated as owners and retailers, too. And those aren’t necessarily bad things! I’ve still got a lot to learn.”

Setting up for growth

From the time he took ownership, Jason was never in a rush to put his stamp on the store or make change just for change’s sake.  He knew he had a business that was functioning and profitable, so he had the luxury of time to watch and monitor and investigate ways to improve.  But he also knew he was up against the clock in some way.  “I felt that if we didn’t change, if we didn’t shift our structure and start to pay more attention to the metrics and compare ourselves, we would not be able to keep up. We would have stayed the same.  Making the changes we did – and are still doing – has brought us up to a level of operation that set us up for growth.”

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