FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Dan Elrod
September 17, 2019
I recently got a two-for opportunity; to interview a fascinating guy, and to learn about one of Calgary’s oldest businesses. Wallace & Carey, part of the Carey Management organization, is a privately owned, Calgary based national distribution company that has been in business for 98 years. 800 employees. Locations and coast-to-coast distribution business supplying the grocery trade. Yes, 98 years, privately owned by the Carey family. Their recently appointed President, Dan Elrod agreed to this interview, and I came away feeling I’d got more than I usually bargain for – a two-for….
His expertise, and he talks at great length about it – is customer service, process, delivery is the key, and his focus is on squeezing wasted time and costs out of every element of their operations – it’s a highly competitive industry with historically thin margins for distribution. Our discussion was a gentle tug-o-war; I wanted more information about Dan, and he wanted to give me more information about the distribution business, about Wallace and Carey. I think we got balance.
Humble beginning in Appalachia. Dan was born in Gainsville, Georgia, star high-school and college quarterback, and he married the head cheerleader. However, there is much more to this story….
Following a long and stellar career in distribution and logistics, Dan Elrod was happily retired from a Berkshire Hathaway company that is a massive leader in the grocery and non-food distribution businesses in Temple, Texas where he’s lived and worked for many years. Coaxed out of retirement, and moved to Calgary and now leading one of our oldest companies that is ‘all those things’ on the Canadian landscape. If you are wondering what that might look like, next time you stop by a 7-Eleven store, anywhere in Canada, that everything on every shelf came through a Wallace & Carey warehouse.
Dan Elrod joined Wallace & Carey group in 2018 – recruited out of early retirement from McLane Company in Temple, Texas by Pat Carey, to take the role of VP, Operations, Sales, and Purchasing and then appointed President of Wallace & Carey this August – the first non-Carey family member to lead the company.
Dan was middle child of three; mom and dad parted when he was nine, mom remarried. As a student, Dan’s primary interests were football and the head cheerleader, but it became essential to focus on academics to get into college, which he did.
And Dan was the first in his family to go to college. Leaving Gainsville opened his eyes to a world apart from rural poverty – and a stellar college football career paved the way. He was all-state quarterback from a school that never won a championship – and he led West Georgia College to a national championship in 1982. He studied business and earned a Bachelor of Business Management degree. The cheerleader, Lisa, went on to be a cheerleader for the Atlanta Falcons in the NFL – but it seems Dan won the day (they’ve been married 33 years, have two daughters, and two granddaughters). A non-smoker, Dan’s first job offer out of college came from US Tobacco, the first of several stints in that industry, including the premium cigar business, before joined McLane Company where he spent 17 yrs. – in progressive senior head office roles, retiring in 2017.
Why are you successful? “I’ve never reached the level I think I should – and that drives me. To some degree, I’ve set a standard that I’ve failed to achieve, so I push myself. I wasn’t always that good – I just tried harder. In my view, It’s all about the standards you set for yourself. Things I learned in football, doing more with less ability. I’ve never had the ability to stop myself from doing something that needed to be done.”
What has held you back? “Nothing much comes to mind. I’ve been allowed a lot of great opportunities. When everything is done, I’m probably one of the laziest people I know – but maybe that’s not a drawback, because when work is done, I know how to fully relax.”
How do you see your business – service and independent distribution – going forward over the next quarter?
… oil & gasoline prices are a factor. Most of our customers are in the food and fuel business – so anything which pushes their revenue up or down directly impacts our business. I am confident we are ahead of our competitors – we’ve been taking significant steps to improve our cost-effectiveness, discipline, tightening up slack in every step of the process we can. Internet shopping is a factor. While Amazon and others are proliferating, we also sell a lot to Amazon, and we’ll be selling more to them in the future.
And over the next five years?
… aside from fuel issues (cost of gasoline, growth in electric cars) which impact ‘traffic in stores’ and therefore business for our customers – one of the most significant issues for everyone in the distribution business is concern about recruiting and retention of drivers. I see us adding to the range of products we distribute, adding customers. The pressures we feel are impacting every organization in our industry, so we need to continue working to be more efficient than we’ve been, and more efficient than our competitors. Internet shopping for groceries and home delivery are areas we watch….
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators, and suppliers?
… in terms of our personnel, we are sticklers for customer service. Same with suppliers. I am demanding in a very polite way. I am loyal to exceptional service. Attitude that fits the Wallace & Carey culture. In terms of goods or services – if the quality isn’t there, I don’t want it at any price.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Dan Elrod/Wallace & Carey, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… while I am careful about what I promise, I’ve learned it is our people who help me deliver – but there is something I learned well in my previous career, and I believe it is a fairly rare commodity in business: “Do what you say you are going to do.” Dependable is everything. In life, and in business, that has been my biggest lesson and my most unwavering principle.
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… I would describe myself as that antithesis of a micro-manager; my role is to engage strong performance from the best people – and then get the hell out of their way! I have a strong focus on follow up – to be sure the results are there, and holding people accountable.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… not much. I’ve learned to leave the worrying at the office. I feel and carry a heavy responsibility for the livelihood of a lot of people. I love leading an organization to be as effective and as efficient as it can be. This company has very capable competitors – so a lot of my focus is on how we can pivot into other areas where we can grow given our expertise in distribution, transportation, and logistics….
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… growing up where I was, everyone had low expectations – but football, coaches and teachers encouraged me and supported me, believed I had potential to get into and succeed in college; at UST I had a couple of leaders who taught me a lot about management and leadership practices that made a tremendous impact on me; in high school I was an ‘all-state’ quarterback with 1-19 team – and in college we were 23-1 and won a national championship. I learned it’s all about coaching, and I had great coaches.
… golf at Valley Ridge (handicap, 7), hunting (birds and big game), Ducks Unlimited. Lisa and I have been taking fly-fishing lessons.
What do you read?
… I’m a voracious reader; WWII history, historical fiction – and mainly 19th-century politics and history. I read books and on devices.
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