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Wheat Montana founder speaks at Havre Chamber meeting

 

January 17, 2019

Havre Daily News/Ryan Berry

Dean Folkvord, keynote speaker at the annual Chamber of Commerce, holds up a loaf of bread as he discusses the history of Wheat Montana Wednesday at the Duck Inn in Havre.

A man with a story about the humble beginnings of a Montana business that became a multi-million dollar company was the keynote speaker Wednesday at the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce's 110th Annual Meeting and Luncheon in the Olympic Room of the Duck Inn.

Dean Folkvord, former chief executive officer of Wheat Montana, was the keynote speaker at the meeting. He talked about his family turning their small wheat farm in the Gallatin Valley into a multi-million dollar business, taking grain raised on the family farm, processing it into products and selling those products in markets across the country, including in Havre.

Several of the more-than 200 people at the meeting said after Folkford's presentation that it was inspiring.

Northern Agricultural Research Center Superintendent Darrin Boss said Folkvord's story is a huge success story for Montana and a testament to Montana growers. He said Folkvord, like many other producers in Montana, had a family business that was family-driven. But the message that he heard was that people should not be afraid of taking the leap to expand and grow their business, Boss said.

Alyssa Crawford, co-owner of Crawford Distillery and Yellow Tin Cup, said Folkvord's story was amazing, and that she found many similarities between her family's business and his. She added that what Folkvord said about people sharing their dreams with other people spoke to her.

Montana State University-Northern Chancellor Greg Kegel said the entrepreneurial spirit that Folkvord showed in his story is something special.

Not every single person is like that, Kegel said, but Folkvord had a vision and, despite ups and downs in his business, he never lost his vision. He also knew how to lead, he said.

Kegel said that he tells his students to do just that, to persevere, focus on their dreams and never lose sight of the prize. He added that sometimes these commitments can be challenging, but if people just follow through until the end, the payoff will be that much better.

The Wheat Montana Story

Folkvord said that his family started off with a small family farm in Three Forks, with his father wanting to make a living as either a farmer or a rancher. Over the years they grew their operations, he said, because his dad was willing to take the risk.

He said that one of things that helped his family in the beginning was a good harvest in addition to a spike in the wheat market in 1974. His family harvested so much wheat that year that they filled all of their grain bins and even had to start piling it on the ground because they had nowhere else to store it, although that year was followed high interest rates during the late 1970s.

He said that when he came back from college he began working full-time at the family farm, although he also had found work as an auctioneer and a crop insurance salesperson in order to help the family along.

After a while, he said, things began to get better and in the 1980s he and his wife traveled to Hawaii for a vacation. That was where they first began to get a rough idea of the business that was eventually going to turn into Wheat Montana.

Folkvord said that while they were in Hawaii they visited a pineapple plantation in Maui. They toured the facility, ate some of the pineapple that the plantation produced and saw the product being packaged for wholesale. He said he and his wife then had the idea that they could do something similar in Montana with wheat.

He quickly told his parents the idea, he said, and in 1987 the began forming the Wheat Montana corporation.

They first started off selling flour using wheat that they grew and processed themselves then delivered to a local grocery store, he said, adding it sold quickly. He said one large buyer in the beginning, Church Universal and Triumphant, would buy truck-loads of their products.

But they still wanted to grow, Folkvord said.

The first glimpse they got at how big Wheat Montana could be was when they were contacted by McDonald's Corp., which wanted to purchase their flour to make whole-wheat hamburger buns. The deal fell through, even though they received positive feedback on the buns produced, he said.

Because of that experience, Folkvord said they became involved in 1988 with a small bakery in Bozeman. Soon, they purchased the bakery outright and began manufacturing loaves of bread.

They tested a large number of products and business ideas through trial and error, he said, with that creating the Wheat Montana company that is known today. He added that a lot of the lessons he learned from those experiences helped guide the company and aid it in its growth.

Although, he added, just because the company was well-established didn't mean it didn't have to change and adapt. Over the years Wheat Montana has diversified its products from bread to cereal to chia seeds, he said.

In 2005, Folkvord said, his family sold the farm and bakery to focus on their Wheat Montana Deli restaurants. During the Great Recession starting in 2008 the family's plans to expand their Wheat Montana Delis fell through and in 2010 the Folkvord family repurchased the farm and bakery.

Folkvord said Wheat Montana now produces food products that are shipped across the United States every day and employs about 150 people.

Folkvord said he stepped away from Wheat Montana as CEO the first of this year and is working on other family investments, such as hotels and motels.

Folkvord's business lessons

Folkvord said he has learned a few things from his experiences that he wants to share with business owners.

"Give the customers what they want, not what you want them to have," he said.

He added that some of the choices that the business made with products were not his favorite ideas, and sometimes he believed the products would not do well, but the consumers loved the products and some of them are now among their most profitable items.

"What they say they want and what they buy are two different things," Folkvold said.

He said that, for example, many people talk about wanting whole-wheat products, although 94 percent of all bread that is sold is still white bread.

"If you look the same as everyone else the only difference becomes the price," he said.

Havre Daily News/Ryan Berry

The Wheat Montana logo is projected on the back of an attendee at the annual Chamber of Commerce lunch Wednesday, January 16, 2019 at the Duck Inn in Havre, Mont.

Wheat Montana, in its early years would package their products differently than their competitors, he said, because they wanted to stand out as a high-quality product and for people to know that just by looking at their products.

They have to conduct research to know the best products, he said.

"We have to conduct multiple experiments in the marketplace at any one time," he said.

Wheat Montana does this to know what is going on in the market, what works and doesn't work, and what consumers are using their products for, he said. He said one of the surprising things to him is that the chia seeds are outselling flour 7-to-1.

He talked about companies marketing hats or other merchandise from and noticed that the merchandise in some cases are more popular than the products.

"You have become successful when people buy memorabilia from you," Folkvord said.

Folkvord said that the last thing he wanted to share was one of the most important.

"If you dream alone, it's only a dream," Folkvord said.

 

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