As a key negotiator for grain procurement, Matt Speidel works closely with farmers and Avena’s Rowatt, Sask. processing team. Matt has been with Avena (and Best Cooking Pulses) for 17 years. What started as a first job out of high school, evolved into a career that has tapped his strengths as a hard worker, problem-solver and honest communicator. He has moved from Bagger to Operations Manager and Grain Buyer. Matt is integral to the operation and ongoing expansion of Avena’s world-class pulse splitting and cleaning and Avena Purity Protocol gluten-free oat processing facilities in the heart of the Canadian Prairies.
We sat down with Matt to chat about his role at Avena and his perspective as the Grain Buyer and Operations Manager, Rowatt.
What is your role at Avena?
Right now, I buy oats, peas, lentils and chickpeas. I’ve been buying pulses for a while now and broadened into oats in the past year.
I also watch like a hawk over comings and goings at the cleaning and splitting plants at Rowatt to be sure everything is moving in and out nicely. Between myself, Mike [Gallais, General Manager Rowatt and Director, Procurement] and Morgan [Gallais, Assistant General Manager], as well as a great group of employees, we get things done out at Rowatt. We work hard, push on quality and try to make it a fun place to work.
I’m the one calling the farmers, seeing how much I can bring in [to Rowatt], lining up the deliveries through the week and making sure we have product that the mills in Regina or Portage need from our cleaning and splitting plants. I work closely with Tyson Stettner, Oat Plant Operator at Rowatt, and Tera McCloy-Beach, Grain Supply Coordinator at Regina.
I was very involved with the development and building of the site and cleaning plant, so I understand well how the plant operates, how it runs and what the mills need from it.
What makes a good grain buyer?
My main objective as a buyer is building relationships with our growers. I try to build a comfortable relationship where we can work together and get the job done well. We chat and visit. It’s not just a transaction.
The majority of the time, pulse growers bring their samples right to the door. That’s where we start a lot of the engagement. We go through the samples together, catalogue, grade and decide the price. If they are interested in selling, I buy. If not, I catch them in the next round. The oat side is quite different – we contract long-term with them.
I like to stay in touch with our growers. I’ll shoot a text now and then, just to touch base. I like hearing how things are going with seeding and harvest on the farm.
There are longtime relationships where I am now dealing with the sons and daughters of growers I’ve worked with over the years. That feels like an accomplishment. There are opportunities to meet new growers that want to work with Avena as well.
How do you attract new growers?
Word of mouth is big. Often, growers will call me because a buddy, neighbor or relative gave them my name. Good referrals speak volumes as to the kind of job we’re doing.
Then it is my job to keep them happy. Little gestures go a long way, like giving growers a sample of their finished product right out of the cleaning plant after they’ve unloaded a truck. I remember when I was the new kid on the block, some of my first growers used to yell at me because I was behind. With Mike’s guidance, I’ve learned how to manage the situations that come up. It’s tough to keep all growers happy, but you try.
How did you get started at Avena?
I started at the Rowatt plant in 2003 when it was still known as Best Cooking Pulses. I had just moved to Regina from my hometown, Melville, where I had been working as a bagger for a seed company. I saw an ad for a bagger, took my work boots and went in to apply. The foreman hired me on the spot.
At the time, Best Cooking Pulses was run by the Heal family – Margaret Hughes, [Avena VP, Sales and Marketing], her sisters Trudy and Annette Heal and their dad, Geoff Heal. I got to meet the whole family. Even though we’re a larger company now, I still feel like I’m part of a family business.
Mike came in a year after me. He taught me the ropes along the way. He put in the role of managing the Rowatt plant and is mentoring me as a grain buyer.
How have things changed while you’ve been at Avena?
It’s been pretty neat to watch the Rowatt plant explode in the past few years. It used to be a hub of activity and truck traffic with our two pea splitting plants, a Viterra grain elevator and a Cargill grain elevator. When the rail bridge burned down, the other companies pulled out and closed down their elevators. It felt like a little ghost town, but Mike had a vision to build up our operation. We took out one of the splitting plants and built a cleaning facility for lentils and whole peas. We built a warehouse and automated some of the work. Then, we joined with Avena and now a new Purity Protocol oat mill is under construction. It’s like a little town out there again. From when I started to where we are today, it is something else.
What’s surprised you about Avena?
I definitely appreciate the work, the planning and the detail that goes in from any farmer but there’s even more that goes into it from the farmers growing Avena Purity Protocol gluten-free oats. The commitment from both the growers and the company is very impressive. Many of the oat farmers have been with Avena for a long time. They’re passionate about the Purity Protocol program and I see the same excitement from the new growers joining the program. Avena Purity Protocol is unique and they want to be involved.
We’re also building up Avena’s organic growers program so that has been a good development.
What do you like best about this company?
I feel like everyone at Avena is part of one big team striving for the same goal. It really starts with our growers and the quality they bring to us. We pride ourselves on delivering that quality to our customers. I think that’s what Best Cooking Pulses stood for and that’s what Avena stands for.
What kinds of things do you like to do outside of work?
My wife and I are busy with our two boys, ages 14 and 10. One plays hockey and lacrosse, the other plays rugby and competitive water polo. That’s a large time commitment. In the summertime, we zip around in our little camper – that’s our boating and lake time. And then there’s Brynn, our dog. We fostered her last spring and she’s made herself at home. She’s definitely part of the family now.