County hosts first Business Resource Breakfast in Fergus

Those attending Wellington County’s first Business Resource Breakfast on Nov. 19 heard a tale of innovation, determination and survival from the head of a company that grew from a small start-up to a national leader in its field.

Ashley Chapman, who’s parents founded Chapman’s Ice Cream in the Grey County town of Markdale in 1973, told about 145 area business and political leaders how his company became Canada’s largest ice cream producer, despite a devastating fire that burned its plant to the ground in 2009.

From origins in an old creamery building with two trucks and four employees, expansions in 1985 and 2007 saw the company’s manufacturing facility grow to take up an entire town block.

“Then the unthinkable happened,” said Chapman of the fire that destroyed the company’s manufacturing facility on Sept. 5, 2009.

Devastated, but determined to rebuild, the Chapmans felt confident they had a three-month supply of ice cream in storage to keep store shelves stocked in the meantime.

“That was before we realized everyone in Ontario had heard about the fire. There were literally people going out and loading up entire shopping carts with their favorite flavours,” said Chapman.

The three-month supply was gone in just five weeks, but the company was producing ice cream again in only seven, after setting up in a temporary facility. Eventually, the company replaced its 85,000 square foot facility with a new 165,000 square foot plant and converted the 90,000 square foot temporary facility into what they now call “the nut house,” where products using nuts are manufactured, while the new facility is 100 per cent nut free.

Today, the company has 475 full-time employees during  slower months and “up to 700 in the heat of summer.”

Among the challenges of restarting, noted Chapman, was lost data. Not only were pricing and billing information lost, but the recipes for their products were also lost.

Fortunately, the company had numerous long-term employees who had long since ceased to use the recipes and were able to recreate them from memory.

Chapman stressed the value of employee retention.

“We knew that if we didn’t retain our employees (after the fire), we might as well just collect the insurance and walk away,” he said.

The company also learned several lessons, including the value of business interruption insurance, which Ashley’s parents had the foresight to purchase.

“And thank God they did,” he said, noting the cost of the insurance claim ultimately came in at around $100 million.

Chapman’s company data is now stored in physical form at four different off-site locations, as well as online “cloud storage,” he noted.

Chapman offered several other tips for businesses, including a strong recommendation they promote themselves through social media such as Facebook.

“If you need a Facebook administrator just hire someone under 25, I guarantee you they’ll know what they’re doing,” he said.

Youtube, he added, is a good way to “get seen by a ridiculous number of people.” He also suggested business owners engage in good financial planning and hire a “trusted, accredited accounting firm.”

The event also included exhibits and presentations by numerous area business resource agencies.

Economic development coordinator Jana Reichert said county officials were pleased with the interest shown in the event, held at the Centre Wellington Community Sportsplex, and noted it was among the initiatives interview subjects asked for in the county’s recent business expansion and retention study.

“We were more than pleased with the turnout and I think it confirms our business interviewees’ desire for more networking and learning under a Wellington business umbrella,” Reichert told the Advertiser.

Warden Chris White told the gathering he anticipates the county will be able to better serve its business community as a result of increased focus on economic development.

“We started this economic development program a couple of years ago when we realized we were trying to make some pretty fundamental decisions and we didn’t even know who we are from a business perspective.”

White said the county intends to “make sure we get out of your way,” by reducing red tape for business.

“A lot of us have run small businesses and we know how tough it is,” he stated.

Economic development committee chair George Bridge highlighted a number of recent initiatives by the county aimed at boosting business, including a new economic development website and business directory, as well as development of a building inventory to assist businesses in need of locations for start-ups or expansion.

He also urged everyone to sign up to receive the Wellington Business News e-Newsletter.

“It’s a really good effective way to communicate … communication is key,” said Bridge.