FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Fred Mertz
February 21, 2017
This didn't start out as an interview in the usual fashion; it began with a call to Fred to get some information for a client of mine considering a farm land sale, just to pick the brain of a colleague ... and it began a deeper discussion and this interview unfolded ...
Fred’s passion for farming, for “weighing our birds every day” and other ‘excellence factors’ in the business seems very fresh in his mind – he talks about it so passionately. But as selling off farm assets demonstrated for him, it is difficult to see things objectively because there is so much personal investment, passion and history rolled up together – and there was nowhere to go for advice.
Fred Mertz is a crusader – and he’s on a crusade to change how inter-generational transitions for family farms works, and a crusade to show non-farming investors how to make great tax-advantaged investments in farm real estate. He comes by this honestly – his family roots, his father’s influence perhaps … and yet he adds, “there are so many minefields, I need a team”.
These days we hear a lot in the news about immigrants, about refugees – as if it’s new. For today’s younger generation it is, but Canada has long welcomed refugees and immigrants – case in point, the Hungarians who came here in the 1950’s. Fred Mertz was one year old when his dad, a freedom fighter, left everything behind – fled to Canada, first to B.C., then settled his family on a farm near Redwater, AB. The operation, Mertz Farms, raised turkeys and chickens on farms at Redwater and at farms in Langdon and other points around the province and 'a Yellowknife venture that almost came together'.
Fred is the eldest of four children – dad the farmer, mom the farmer’s wife. Fred was an average student, and an avid accomplished freestyle wrestler at Redwater High – but the math, not so good! “You only have so many fingers …”. Fred attended University of Alberta in Edmonton, Commerce Faculty, then NAIT for a Business Diploma. His math improved – he went to work at Gulf Oil (where he met his wife Christine) in Calgary as a planner. He earned his CGA designation (now CPA) but left in 1986 to return to the farm, working with his brother and his dad. At their peak, five farms. They’ve since sold the poultry operations (it’s all about the quotas!) and retained some of the land.
Fred’s progression from ‘busy accounting practice’ to where he is today sprang from a life-altering event in 1996, “a mild heart attack”. He cut back on clients, sold some business activities and began a more concentrated focus on lifestyle and practice changes. A client painted him a farm scene that hangs proudly in Fred’s boardroom – and a reproduction on the back of his ‘belt buckle shaped’ business cards has made it a trademark of his focus on family farms – helping them with transitions, sales of family farms and being a ‘whole package’ practice. He’s added to his team with a collaboration – 4QuartersAdvisory. His accounting firm doesn’t keep time sheets. They value bill and take calls 24/7. The office is a mix of memorabilia, some man-cave elements, and the strong influence of agriculture in the practice and in his life. He wears a suit and tie when he needs to but he is far more comfortable in a leather vest and his ostrich boots. And on occasion, for clients without means he’s accepted payment in chocolate-chip cookies – not sure if that’s generosity or just a love for those cookies. Both I suspect …
Why are you successful? “because I care, because of what my dad taught me”.
What has held you back? “Time. I have so much to do. I need a few more decades”.
How do you see your business – agriculture tax consulting – going forward over the next quarter?
… good, healthy, exciting – and when it comes to our clients selling farms, ‘all things are emotional’. We have our strengths. When farmers feel pain, we feel it. It’s a great time/place to be for me. This intergenerational transfer of farm wealth is tremendous – and we are here, well equipped, to offer a full range of professional help.
And over the next five years?
… a lot more pressure on our clients. The average age of a farmer in Canada is 60. In about 15% of situations, the kids take over. There is a huge capital hurdle for young farmers getting into the business – in terms of resources to grow and expand. By bringing non-farmer investors into the equation we help everybody.
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… I need to have trust in their integrity. Value. I don’t use price alone to make a decision. If I don’t trust someone I won’t deal with them.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Fred Mertz, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… because they know our integrity and we prove that we care. What we do is far more than ‘just tax’. We’re here for our clients, 24/7.
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… I have three full time staff and two consultants on contract – I’m a ‘let them do their own thing’ manager. They have been with me for many years. We have two rules: make sure you don’t miss deadlines; and, try not to make mistakes … and if you do, let the client know right away and fix it!
… No! … it’s getting better. For entrepreneurs there is no such thing.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… asking myself, “did I remember to do that?” … about many things!
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… my heart attack, my parents for their work ethic – and they taught me that if you look after the land, the land will look after you, BUT, you have to look after the land first. My client Jan Luft who knew I had to make a change – she was like a 2nd mom to me, and I saw the light. And my dad taught me, ‘your name is the most important thing you’ll ever own’.
… snowboarding. [seriously?]. Yes, a profound learning experience – my daughters were into it so I learned, and loved it. Hiking – we have a place in Canmore. I like to watch a movie, enjoy a craft beer …
What do you read?
… self-help books. Covey, that kind of thing. Books on happiness. Star Wars, sci-fi, that kind of thing too.
… 2008 Ford Special Edition truck. License plate, AGRI-TAX.
[In terms of disclosure – I should mention that Fred is, as I am, associated with MaxWell Realty; he joined MaxWell for the same reason I did – the integrity of founders Dick Oakes and Ron Stanners. I wanted to interview Fred, not to promote my colleague/competitor’s real estate practice, but because he is doing some really cool work providing a holistic approach to accounting, tax, planning, estate and investments all focused around ‘the farm’ which intrigues me]
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