Faces of Avena: Rod Lechner

Rod Lechner has been with Avena since 2008. As Head Miller of Avena Regina, he plays a key role in continually updating the plant and finding innovative ways to meet strict standards and ever-evolving customer needs. He recalls working side-by-side with the company’s founders to bring the dream of a certified gluten-free oat mill to life. As Avena prepares to open a second oat milling plant in nearby Rowatt, SK, Rod is ready to pivot as needed to keep Avena competitive in expanding global markets.

We sat down with Rod to chat about his role at Avena and his perspective as the Head Miller of Regina.

How would you describe your role at Avena?

I am responsible first off for making sure that the mill and everything we produce meets our high food safety standards. After that, it’s all about getting the product made, tested, stored and shipped, and making sure it meets certification standards and customer specifications. Our Purity Protocol gluten-free oats certification program has many quality and safety checkpoints at every stage of the process. I work closely with our production manager and with our grain buyers.

Where did you work before coming to Avena?

I grew up on the family farm near Balgonie, SK. Working on a mixed farm, I learned to picture problems in my head, adapt quickly and think on my feet to find solutions. I also spent fifteen years processing animal feed.  It was a bit of a learning curve to go from making animal feed to making food for human consumption. Feeding horses and cows is very different than producing food that is safe enough for your baby.

I started at Avena as a Process Operator, then Lead Operator, then Miller. I was Production Manager for a couple of years. Then I became Head Miller.

What does Avena do well?

Adapts quickly. Customers often have special requirements for packaging, for the specific thickness, weight or flavor of their oats, or for extra testing. It keeps us on our toes and prevents us from getting too set in our ways. I really don’t know how our Quality Assurance people keep up on it sometimes. It’s wild how many tests they run in a week.

What do you like best about Avena?

The best thing would be the people. We’ve always had a really good group of people in the plant. We’ve gone through exponential growth over the years and if we didn’t have a good team, who’s to say we’d even still be here. It just makes me step back and say ‘Wow! You guys are amazing.’

I work with a team of 14 millers. Many of them have been at Avena for eight years or more. I have spent an awful lot of hours here over the years. Thank goodness my wife is really understanding. I frequently had to come back in the middle of the night to babysit new equipment and keep things running. There have been some sleepless nights puzzling out problems too. Once I start something, I am pretty determined to see it finished properly.

We’ve been able to build up our maintenance team over the years. They keep the ball rolling now. They make quick recoveries in case of breakdowns, which is imperative to keep the mill operating.

In the early years, we were hard-pressed to keep up with new sales and growing demand. We were producing as much as we could. Goodness, there were days when we didn’t know how we’d get it done. We just kept building up the capacity. The new mill will expand our capabilities even further.

How did you like working with Avena’s founders?

We’ve had incredible leadership. So many good people were involved in making this company great.

I remember working side-by-side with management and shareholders to test out systems when we were first developing the Regina mill. I tested out a steam system with Abe Ens, our first Operations Manager (2006-2012), and Dale Richardson, the Director of Operations and Sales (2008-2016). Dale may have been the director, but he was right in there getting his nose dirty with the rest of us.

Maryellen Carlson, Chief Executive Officer (2009-2014), lead us through some tough times. She was one of the first ones that really made it feel like a team and a family here. She was so great at making sure everyone felt appreciated.

I remember Lyle Garrett, one of the original shareholders, writing personal cheques to make sure everybody got paid when money was tight for a few months.

Kelvin Meadows, another original shareholder, actually came and worked here, to see first-hand how the process ran. He worked in the plant for a good six months. He was a great supporter.

Another person who lead the way on a lot of upgrades was Nathalie Paquin, when she was our Director of Plant Operations (2012-2018). She was a great leader and had a lot of good vision on how to improve the process.

More recently, James Del Frari, our Vice-President of Operations (2015-present) has been instrumental in implementing new processing equipment.

Did you face unique challenges when building the plant?

The Regina plant is unique in that it was built horizontally. Most other oat mills in the world are set up vertically. The reason it was built that way is because they had leased out a warehouse with 26-foot-high ceilings, so that’s as high as we could go. A lot of the milling equipment is built for stacking one on top of another, but that wasn’t an option here. So, we designed a system that mechanically moves product to the top of bins or cleaners instead of using gravity to do most of the work.

What were some of the most rewarding experiences during that process?

I have to say the best moment ever for me at Avena was in early 2009, when we first got the stabilization project working successfully. We were pretty pumped when those first results came off the line after we’d tested all the equipment. The product had to be stabilized to provide a shelf life. We fought for practically a year, trying different processes to figure it out. The turning point came when we installed a boiler. As soon as we got steam into the process, we were able to produce a stable, useable product.

Once we could produce good product, we worked at speeding up our process. In the early days, we produced five to six loads per month. If we don’t do more than five loads a day now, we’re in trouble. We got there by slowly adding pieces to increase production. It’s been a friendly battle between me and my superiors over the years as to how much more we could fit in. We’re operating 24/7 now.

We also added unique equipment for an oat mill. It took some ingenuity and a lot of trial and error to keep it working right. It allowed us to achieve a slightly toasted flavor in our oats, which customers really like. That flavor helped get our foot in the door in a lot of places. It also uses significantly less energy than a typical kiln mill.

How have things changed over the years?

It has been an interesting evolution in what happens to our waste stream in Regina. We want to be sustainable and reduce waste. One of the most important things around here is to find a home for the oat hulls. It’s critical to our milling process to keep the hulls storage bins emptied out. If they fill up, we have to stop production. Nowadays, hulls are upcycled into new ingredients and sold into animal feed or sent to our Portage la Prairie (MB) plant to be processed into oat hull fiber for human consumption. There is a market emerging for natural dietary fibers.

What excites you about working at Avena?

We’ve seen consistent growth each year. You knew it was getting busier, busier, busier. But then you’d get the numbers at the end of the year and it would really sink in. For a few years in a row, business increased so fast it got to the point where you’re going, ‘Whoa!’.  But it’s exciting. It really is.

It’s going to be exciting to see where this company can go, as we get this other mill going in Rowatt. One of the things that intrigues me is how our worldwide business continues to grow. I love to see our oat markets expanding globally. It’s really interesting.

Since we merged with Best Cooking Pulses in 2018, we’ve added pulse ingredients to the mix, which expands our market reach.

Where would we find you when you’re not at Avena?

In summer we have a seasonal campsite at a local park that we drive out to on weekends. We really like camping, boating, fishing. One of my passions is smoking meats. I have a smoker in my yard. In summer I take it to the campground. Ribs and brisket are my favorites. We love travelling and following the Saskatchewan Roughriders football team. Hopefully, we can get back to both of those this year.