Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series. Part one, found here, explores Shana Rowlette’s journey from staff accountant to CFO.
Every March, Minnesota beekeeping supplies manufacturer and retailer Mann Lake Bee & Ag Supply’s warehouses buzz with a “madness sale” that requires extra hands to process orders. On occasion, some of the hands helping in the hive of activity belong to the staff of Grey Mountain Partners, the Boulder, Colo. private equity firm that acquired the 40-year-old company in 2018.
“They are all for any chance they get to help and learn more about the industry,” said Shana Rowlette, Mann Lake’s CFO. Rowlette joined the company 12 years ago as its first staff accountant and was named finance chief in 2019.
That willingness to pitch in where and when needed, while perhaps surprising for an investment partner, reflects the 550-employee company’s family atmosphere. To maintain essential product quality, the company manufactures close to 60% of its merchandise. This includes lumber products such as wooden hives branded with commercial beekeeper logos to reduce theft. The other 40% are private label-manufactured to Mann Lake specifications or items the company resells.
Multiple Sales Channels
While e-commerce sales to hobbyists and more complicated telephone orders from commercial customers comprise 85% of sales, Mann Lake also sells through 200 authorized dealers worldwide and six combined retail, manufacturing, and fulfillment outlets. The latter facilities, established as distribution centers first and retail stores second, are strategically placed in California, Florida, Kentucky, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Texas so the company can reduce transportation costs and deliver orders, on average, in two days.
“The weather changes so quickly. As that’s happening, beekeeper needs change – especially on the commercial side – so we’re hyper-focused on getting them what they need as fast as we possibly can,” Rowlette said.
In addition to continually working to make sure the company has the right products in the right place at the right time, it pays close attention to delivering orders cost-effectively. Rowlette, who manages transportation negotiation, says Mann Lake’s strong partnership with transportation provider C.H. Robinson allows access to that company’s transportation decision-making tools.
But transportation efficiency involves more than selecting the right modes and lanes, so Mann Lake also recently invested in software that determines the most cost-effective packaging and shipping options. “You might think that putting everything from an order in one box is the best approach, but additional charges kick in over a certain weight, so it's often better to break the order into smaller packages,” said Rowlette.
The software considers the company’s transportation contracts, product weights and dimensions, and available packaging options before instructing warehouse staff on how to package each order. “I was blown away by how much that's going to help us save on shipping costs,” Rowlette added.
Growing the Business
Mann Lake’s ability to invest in increasing logistics and supply chain sophistication improved when the Grey Mountain acquisition five years ago brought an infusion of capital. It also allowed Mann Lake to add the Florida facility and acquire a poultry company, providing access to what the American Pet Products Association estimates to be 12 million people with chickens in their backyards.
“When we explored what else hobby beekeepers were into, we found that a lot of people who have bees also have chickens. Poultry was just a natural step for us as we looked at how to become a one-stop shop for them,” Rowlette explains.
Even so, the same talent challenges that plague other companies might impede growth in that segment. What’s more, even when fully staffed, in-depth customer service training on the company’s products and industries takes time. There’s no short-cutting that training, either, since customer service knowledge is a hallmark of the brand.
Keeping the Industry Buzzing
In-depth training is essential because customer service employees and commercial sales representatives are more than order-takers. They also answer how-to questions and help solve problems. It’s not unusual for commercial sales staff to don protective gear and work alongside professional beekeepers while learning more about bottlenecks, struggles, how customers feel about certain products, and what they’d like from Mann Lake that they aren’t getting.
“The weather changes so quickly. As that’s happening, beekeeper needs change – especially on the commercial side – so we’re hyper-focused on getting them what they need as fast as we possibly can.”
CFO, Mann Lake
Mann Lake’s attention to customer needs and challenges is about more than salesmanship. It’s also focused on making sure that bees, which are dwindling in population, survive to help feed the planet. The more beekeepers know about how to keep hives thriving, the better it is for both product providers and surrounding communities.
“Yes, we're a business and I want to sell you a product. But we also want to have a large presence in [beekeeping] education and we want to get more people involved,” Rowlette said. When a hobbyist’s hive dies, she added, there’s a 50% chance their hobby will die with the insects.
Helping customers problem-solve before this happens is an investment in Mann Lake’s future with that customer – and with the world’s food supply.