When Shana Rowlette joined beekeeping supplies manufacturer and retailer Mann Lake Bee & Ag Supply 12 years ago, she didn’t plan on staying long. But the company’s rapid growth and “let’s do what it takes to get the job done” culture combined with an industry that was far more interesting than expected turned out to be the honey that kept Rowlette sticking around like that proverbial fly.
Back then, when Rowlette’s fiancée accepted a position in that part of Minnesota, she didn’t want to relocate without having a job of her own lined up. “When I started here as our first staff accountant, it was just supposed to be a job that got me to the area before I found a different one in an industry that I thought was more interesting than agriculture,” said Rowlette, who was named CFO in 2019.
Just two years out of college, she quickly discovered that the beekeeping industry is uniquely interesting. Helping it thrive is important work, too. “You really feel proud that you're doing something not only for Mann Lake but for the food supply,” she said. One out of every three bites of food is created with the help of pollinators that include bees.
The team was small at the time — just Rowlette and the CFO who brought her on board, plus two staffers to help with data processing as needed. That meant the young accountant had more opportunities to learn and grow than originally anticipated. One of the first involved implementing a new enterprise resource planning (ERP) system that moved the manufacturer from a DOS operating system to Windows.
“Our former CFO’s exact words were, ‘Hey, new girl, figure out the ERP system.’ It turned out to be one of the great stepping stones of my career because to make sure everything flowed properly, I had to go to every department to learn how they processed things,” said Rowlette. Success with that project led to others that aren’t part of the typical staff accountant’s responsibilities, including setting the company up with a new cloud-based server.
That “Who’s the best person for the job?” approach to problem-solving rather than “Who has this in their job description?” is typical of Mann Lake’s corporate culture. And Rowlette loves it. “I like having my hands in everything,” said the finance executive, whose next job title was controller.
Leading the Finance Team
When private equity firm Grey Mountain Partners acquired the employee-owned company in 2018, the CFO who hired Rowlette retired after leading the company through the acquisition and transition. That didn’t mean Rowlette was automatically elevated from controller to the CFO position, though. Instead, the investment firm floated the idea of an outside search.
Mann Lake’s CEO sunk that plan. Rowlette had the skills and experience required, he asserted, and her beekeeping industry and Mann Lake operational knowledge couldn’t be matched by any outside candidate.
“It was a little nerve-racking for me because, at that point, I was only 32 years old. Was I ready? But everyone pointed out I was doing a lot of the job already,” she admitted. She also oversees human resources, legal, compliance, warehouse operations, and transportation. With no chief operating officer, she shares supply chain responsibility with the CEO.
Today, the two-person finance department when Rowlette was hired has expanded to 19 people while the company has grown from fewer than 100 employees to 550. The Grey Mountain Partners acquisition has fueled much of that growth. Since then, Mann Lake has invested in more sophisticated logistics and supply chain technology; entered the backyard chicken-raising market by acquiring a poultry company; and added a Florida retail, manufacturing, and distribution facility. The latter mirrors five other multi-purpose facilities strategically located around the country to help the brand reduce transportation costs and deliver orders quickly.
The ongoing growth and expansion driven by the organization’s signature high-quality customer service and industry education initiatives are expected to support Grey Mountain’s plans to eventually sell the company. Participating in the acquisition experience five years ago helped prepare Rowlette for that next phase in the company’s now 40-year history.
“As an employee stock ownership plan, we focused on employee stock value. We still absolutely want the best for employees, but now we're also looking at our equity firm and investors and consider how we can get to the next level that will attract new ownership,” she said.
Rowlette’s supporting role in that first acquisition combined with experience working with the equity firm have prepared her to shepherd the next opportunity. “Back then, I learned how the investment world works and how investors look at deals, a company’s ROI, and growth strategies. It helped make me a little more forward-thinking, too, and that’s what’s needed now as we continue to grow,” she said.
“It was a little nerve-racking for me because, at that point, I was only 32 years old. Was I ready? But everyone pointed out I was doing a lot of the job already.”
CFO of Mann Lake
In the meantime, Rowlette focuses on continually improving the organization’s financials, often by refining processes. For example, a recent investment in more powerful order processing technology will help reduce shipping costs. “We grew really fast and because we still prioritize fast-paced sales growth, we need to hone in on our processes and systems to get ready for that next growth spurt,” she said.
But Rowlette’s not always leading that effort from her office. “I don't just sit behind my desk and crunch numbers all day. I’m very involved in all aspects of operations,” she said, adding that her connection to functions other than finance and ability to spearhead new projects keep her challenged. “With so many areas to support, I'm never bored,” she said.
This is part one of a two-part series. Next, Rowlette discusses the unique challenges of working in the beekeeping industry (11/7).