Farm Equipment’s interviews with the managers of 2014 Large Multi-Store Operation Dealership of the Year PrairieLand Partners yielded some of the keys to transitioning the merger of their three separate businesses (Deer Trail Implement, Conrady Western and Pankratz Implement) in 2008, along with some lessons learned.

Pick Your Partners Well

Coming from shared values makes everything easier, says managers, explaining that the three dealerships were similar in their corporate values, commitment to aftermarket business and general customer-focus. “Paperwork and processes were different but our philosophies around customers, employees very similar,” says Darrell Pankratz, director of sales. “And there are a lot of people who are still here 6 years later because the philosophies were the same.”

Learn to Compromise

“Not everything can be non-negotiable,” says Pankratz. “We’re not the Senate; we couldn’t say 'no' all the time. We all had to give up something.”

Communicate Often

Doug Neufeld, who became CEO of the merged organization for abilities to bring the three groups together, says that the process demands open discussions, without hiding or holding back. “It’s got to get on the table. You must talk it all through, find common ground and make sure you have full buy-in before moving forward.” It’s necessary to do to avoid disagreements or problems later, when they could be devastating to getting cultures together.

Remember the End Goal

“Knowing what the ultimate merged company could do for customers, employees and our major supplier kept us going,” says Neufeld, stating that there were times when everyone at the table wanted to walk away. “We had to remember that.”

Subordinate to the Greater Good

Selfishness and turf protection can often happen in mergers, but it hurts employees and customers. “Our employees and our customers were counting on us not to mess this up,” says Pankratz. “We couldn’t put own our selfish needs above building place for customers and employees.” Interviews with the three groups yielded points about belief in simple Christian values and statements of thinking of others, being honest and unselfish.

Work the Processes ... Continually

“A business this size requires good processes,” says Pankratz. “Everyone is doing things differently and they all work. The process has to be the best strategically; not just what someone ‘thinks up’ as the way to do it. It’s not fun, glamorous or popular, but processes must be worked on continually. People drive the process and the process drives the business.”

Be Decisive

Loren Balzer, director of aftermarket explains that taking multiple best practices/approaches is unrealistic. “You can’t possibly maintain doing all the things that were working. The leader must decide what direction to go.”

Allow Individuality -- at Store Locations

“You don’t want them to all be the same,” says Neufeld. “The values and processes must be the same, but there’s room for how to get there. You don’t want the customer base to suffer in any way.”

Get the Culture Right & Overcommunicate Expectations

There will be different levels of expectations on things like communication and the level of empowerment that people are used to, says Amanda Cooper, director of human resources. “Some like individuality; others want to be told what to do.” Adds Neufeld: “What means empowerment at one company can mean something very different at another, especially when management is accustomed to doing things to keep an employee from making a mistake.”

Get the Right People in the Right Seats on the Bus

Not only are there a lot of duplication of responsibilities within a merger to deal with, but often people are in the wrong positions, particularly in family businesses. It takes time, hard work and honest discussions, says Neufeld, but he’s seen that performance evaluation is more objective and easier in the non-family businesses.

Trust & Believe

“You’ve got to believe each other will do their job,” says Pankratz. “You can’t be micromanaged, or second-guess; you’ve got to support each other. That is not automatic; it takes time.”

Get On With It

Like nearly ever other dealerships who’ve merged, PrairieLand Partners took too long “respecting” the old way of doing things before making needed changes. “We’d have gotten over the hurdles earlier and more quickly had we not been doing the soft-shoe approach,” says Balzer. Among the decisions that languished was bringing a consistency to technician pay structures, which are being finally consolidated into one plan 6 years later.

Have a Big Event

Looking back, PrairieLand says a key piece of advice it would offer to other newly merged companies would be to close all the stores down, recognize the new venture, values and successes at a big event like it did with its PrairieLand Expo in a 100,000 square foot facility. Managers reflected on the impact of seeing everyone in the PrairieLand Partners’ shirts for the first time. “Everyone had to work together to the big event,” says Balzer, noting that it included product training for customers and big event for their families and the employees, too. Through that event, says Cooper, “We got everyone thinking bigger.”

Neufeld notes that that initial event was defining because it set a standard for preparation for what would happen with customer clinics, including signage and what techs and sales were going to be doing in their sessions. “They weren’t going to be winging things; there were templates used, checklists to check and dry-run rehearsals.” They set the tone for what would follow—a new company to be part of with a new bar of expectations for it. “It brought great participation and involvement from the stores,” says Benny Ray, corporate service manager.

While PrairieLand Partners does not do the full expo each year, it has continued its annual employees meeting that stresses recognition of successes and the values champions of the year.

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PrairieLand Partners, Hutchinson, Kan.