Sean Fortin, left, and Jeff Fortin of Fortin’s Auto Supply in Chilliwack, B.C.
Call it a family tradition.
This year’s Jobber of the Year winner may sound familiar. In 1986, Laurence Fortin of Fortin’s Supply won the recognition from Jobber News. The award was in its infancy, having been first handed out in 1983.
The award meant a lot to the Fortin family. It acknowledged the hard work put into a business that started in 1946 in Chilliwack, British Columbia.
Fast forward more than 35 years later, the family has been honoured again — except it’s Laurence’s son and grandson taking home the honour of the 2022 Jobber of the Year for Fortin’s Supply.
It’s the first time one store has been recognized twice with the honour. For Jeff, to follow in his father’s footsteps was something to be proud of.
“One of the things that kind of pulls at my heart a little bit — my father won it in 1986,” he said. “It’s a real honour, and nice to be recognized by your peers.”
But Jeff and Sean have received the recognition in their own right. Chosen by a panel of industry professionals, Jeff and Sean stood out in a number of ways, including their dedication to customers, growth and expansion, longevity and industry and community involvement.
And it’s the latter that are most important to both Jeff and Sean.
Jeff has served on the board of Modern Sales — Fortin’s is celebrating 40 years as a member in 2022 — twice, including a term as president. Sean worked at Modern Sales before joining the family business and now sits on the board himself.
Jeff didn’t know much about the board when he first joined. He was in his 30s and was asked by people almost twice his age to work alongside them. He called that “an honour.”
Sean felt the same way when he was approached about serving on the board. “I was like, “You guys want me?” Because I look up to these people. People on the board have been mentors of mine — I used to reach out to them.”
To both Jeff and Sean, the industry has served them well. It was only natural to try and give back as much as they could.
It’s the same reason they are dedicated to their local community. Jeff makes it a priority to work with the local hospital. Sean spends time with the Chilliwack Bowls of Hope Society, which, among other things, feeds children in many schools across the community.
“It means a lot to me personally because I grew up going to those schools — my dad went to those schools, too,” Sean said. “It’s our community.”
Jeff Fortin, left, and Sean Fortin stand by the plaque awarded to Laurence Fortin in 1986 for the Jobber of the Year Award.
Fortin’s Supply has been around for more than 75 years. And it will go on for many more as it transitions to its fourth-generation family owner in Sean.
“It’s gratifying to see a fourth-generation family business continue to thrive and be passed down successfully through the generations,” said Modern Sales Co-op president Reid Ferguson.
The company has grown to four locations. It has two stores in Chilliwack and another in Abbotsford. In September, it acquired a new location in Hope, about a half hour northeast of Chilliwack, expanding the vast geographical coverage of Fortin’s.
“It fits very well into our business plans,” Jeff said of the acquisition.
Sean agreed. The new location is unique but also similar to their own in the way the business operates.
“Hope is unique, but also has very good people, similar industries, it’s the next city over — so it makes sense,” he said. “The staff there and the owner, we have a similar culture and similar mindset. I enjoy going there and working with them. It’s very positive.”
Culture is a major sticking point in the Fortin’s family. They not only want to be a good place to work but a place where staff feel empowered. They like to embrace a culture of change and have their staff provide ideas on how to make things better. They’re happy to talk about new initiatives.
“I think that’s rewarding for staff to have, that open culture of [believing] they can change things; they can make a difference in their everyday,” Sean said.
Its two Chilliwack locations are also Home Hardware stores – so apart from auto parts, customers can buy everything from kitchen faucets to paint. Sean credited Ferguson’s way of thinking for it being a success: A customer has a personal life along with the professional side. While they’re coming to Fortin’s for auto parts for their business, they may need a new barbecue at home.
“Why wouldn’t you want to talk to them about those things?” Sean remembered Ferguson saying.
Watching from the outside, Ferguson sees the attention to detail the Fortin family has.
“They know all their customers; their staff has been with them a long time. They’re very hands-on as it relates to their business,” he said.
“Not everybody spends as much time immersed in their business as the Fortin family does. So that stands out to me. They’ve been there a long time. They’re involved in a number of different things. They network very well; always have time to talk to people, to learn and understand what’s going on in the world around them.”
The team at Fortin’s Auto Supply in Chilliwack, B.C.
Perhaps you’ve noticed a theme about Sean and Jeff: They’re open to new ideas. They like feedback.
And so it’s perhaps no coincidence that they put a big emphasis on coaching. They don’t act like they know everything. They know they need not just an outside perspective, but someone to keep them sharp.
“It keeps you focused on what’s important. And you can get a little carried away with yourself if you’re not careful [and] if you don’t have someone challenging you,” Jeff explained.
Keep in mind, he’s been in the business for 40 years and still meets with a coach. “If you got a good coach, and so I’ve been doing it for 30 years, it’s just like having a coach at the gym — it keeps you focused and it keeps you accountable.”
For Sean, who officially joined the family business eight years ago, he knew a coach would help but didn’t exactly know how at first. Now it’s clear. “He challenges me — I have to show up with certain things to talk about. Challenging me is the big thing. Like, ‘Why are you doing this?’ I have to explain it; I have to go through my logic about it,” he said.
He finds it essential to step out of the business, the day-to-day grind, and think long-term about the business.
“You don’t get tunnel vision. It’s like I’m jumping on an airplane — I’m looking over everything with him. I get that 1,000-foot view on everything: Long term strategy, what really matters, how should I spend my time, what are my real priorities?” Sean said. “It helps prioritize myself and what all my managers are doing, too.”
Outside Fortin’s Auto Supply on Airport Rd. in Chilliwack, B.C.
If the Fortins had a mantra, it would be the famous line from author B.J. Neblett: “We are the sum total of our experiences.”
The path to working at Fortin’s Supply was similar for both father and son. When Jeff was young, he didn’t know what he wanted to do career-wise, but he certainly knew he wanted to sail the Atlantic Ocean. But he had no money. His father, Laurence, loaned him the money to go to business school.
But even when finished, the itch to sail was still there. So he worked for an oil company, paid back his father and hit the ocean in a 35-foot boat. He went from St. Thomas to Bermuda to Portugal’s Azores islands and to France. When he got back, his father handed him a broom so he could sweep the floors of the family business.
Like his father, Sean didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do with his career after high school. He had worked in the family business during summers but he didn’t think it’d be his calling. Then, after a year at university, the bug hit him. He knew he wanted to be involved. He just didn’t know to what extent.
Outside Fortin’s Auto Supply on Airport Rd. in Chilliwack, B.C.
He worked in other industries during summer breaks. But as time went on, it just felt right to get into the Fortin’s business. But when he talked to his dad, Jeff felt his son didn’t have enough real-world experience. Sure, he’d spent his summers working away. But Jeff was keen on Sean venturing out and working more, gaining new experiences and then bringing that level of knowledge back with him to the family business.
In other words, his young career mindset would be moulded only by his experience within Fortin’s if he only worked here. By taking on different opportunities, he’d gain insights into how other companies operate — what their procedures are and why they do things a certain way.
“Working somewhere else would let me get other ideas outside of how we do things so I wouldn’t just come back and think, ‘The way we do it, it’s right because we’ve always done it that way,’” Sean explained.
“We’ve been around since 1946. My dad’s been progressive — he changed things. It’s always good to have an open mind.”
So he worked in an accounting firm doing accounts payable and the like. He spent three years working at Modern Sales’ head office in Barrie, Ontario.
“I enjoy the relationships,” Sean said. “I’ve got a lot of mentors through Modern Sales, with other jobbers; it has really helped me out a lot. It can be a very friendly industry. I think we’re lucky in that way. And customers — a lot of friendly customers.”
Sean considers Ferguson a mentor. So seeing this award go to Sean gives Ferguson a sense of pride.
“He’s worked very hard at a number of different things in his life — his education and his knowledge of the way the business works; finance and all of those various things that you need to do to run a business,” Ferguson said. “He’s worked very hard at that to make sure that the fourth generation isn’t where it ends.”
Fortin’s is transitioning. Jeff is stepping back, working about 50 per cent in the business, as Sean increases his role. He now runs the operations part of the company.
“My dad was very upfront of saying, ‘Don’t feel any pressure. No one has to do this,’” Sean recalled. He has two other siblings and neither had an interest in the family business.
But as Sean expressed interest, Jeff began the process of making way.
“There comes a time where you have to move over. And with my experience with Modern Sales, I’ve seen quite a few family transitions, and they’re not easy,” Jeff said.
Indeed, he’s seen some good transitions and some where there were difficulties. Two problems he’s seen are either the parent leaves too quickly — or doesn’t leave quickly enough. The latter is the most common issue.
“More often, I’ve seen fathers hang around too long and stifle the son or daughter and stifle the company,” Jeff said. “I’ve seen the problems come in when the father doesn’t want to move aside. He’s liking what he does and so he just wants to come and play in his playpen.”
Sometimes, the kid taking over the business is in a bit of a rush to grab the wheel. Sometimes there are disagreements on how to do things.
It’s a road Jeff knows well. He’d been through the process before with his father, except he was in the position Sean is now. The experience works in the family’s favour.
Kyle Bury, outside sales and account manager
“I had the exact same thing with my father, too. But dad was pretty good at moving aside,” Jeff said.
That doesn’t mean the transition process is sunshine and rainbows. There are disagreements, both admit. But it’s working out well.
“I think Sean has seen that this gradual process has been good. It’s given Sean the foundation that he has now so that he is very well equipped to take Fortin’s to the next level.”
The staff knows Sean is in charge of the day-to-day. “They don’t come to me anymore. They know that Sean makes the calls,” Jeff said.
Ferguson has watched the process unfold. “It’s not always easy in family business to transition from one generation to another,” he said. “We’ve seen this happen through multiple families who’ve done it successfully, but not everybody has that same success.”
It’s a rewarding experience for the elder Fortin to see his son take the reins. “And he’s putting his fingerprints on where we’re going and what we’re doing.”
One example would be texting with customers. While many shops are familiar with texting with clients, few may text with their jobber.
Customers can send a list of items needed or a photo — they find it saves time from transcribing numbers or having to describe items. Not to mention reducing miscommunication. It’s an idea Sean got from another Jobber of the Year, Doug Borland at Western Bearing and Auto Parts in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba.
“So many people, regardless of age, are comfortably texting and using cell phones,” Sean explained. “It’s a universal thing now. And the idea that you could text and a customer is not on hold — I was all over that because of time savings for the customer or time savings for staff.”
And everything Sean has achieved has been earned, Jeff pointed out. He hasn’t handed his son anything — Sean had to prove his worth. It’s the same thing Jeff’s father did for him.
“So Sean has been given an opportunity to, just like in a public company, earn shares in the company,” Jeff explained. “So if Sean does well and makes good decisions, he’s going to buy me out quicker.”
Jen Bartha, janitorial sales and account manager
A question posed to every Jobber of the Year winner is what advice they would give their industry peers.
For Sean, it was simple: It’s all about your people. “Take care of your staff. Invest in your people and talk to them.”
That advice is evident from the number of long-term staff Fortin’s Supply has. “I really enjoy seeing our staff grow. We’ve got a number of people who started here as drivers and then now they’re managers, they’re key outside salespeople or key inside salespeople,” Sean said. “And it’s cool to be here and see people grow and then start mentoring other people too. That’s really rewarding.”
Jeff agreed but had one other important tip. “Take the time and effort to work on the business. Don’t be buried in it all the time.”