In 1949, Gar and Esther Tootelian, second-generation immigrants, scraped together their meager savings and launched a small fertilizer business in Reedley, Calif., just 30 minutes south of Fresno.
Those were the days when everything was sold by the bag. Farmers would drive up to the Tootelians’ tool shed and pick up a few bags of product as needed. The bookkeeping process was equally uncomplicated. Farmers would walk over to a piece of paper tacked on the shed wall and write down what they took. Once a month, Gar took the paper off the wall, and Esther would tally everything sold and mail out the statements for payment.
“He trusted people, and they trusted him,” says Greg Musson, Gar’s son-in-law. “Everything was done on a handshake deal.”
Fertilizer and bookkeeping are both more complicated now than they were in the ’40s. But the mutual respect that Gar and farmers in the Central Valley had for each other is still an essential focus for how the business that bears his name operates today. It’s just one of the many reasons that Gar Tootelian (GAR) was named the 2016 Retailer of the Year by the Agricultural Retailers Association (ARA), during the association’s annual conference and expo in Orlando, Fla., last month.
“We’re not the biggest or the oldest retail business, but we work every day to be deeply invested in faith, family and our community,” says Karen Musson, who accepted the award on behalf of GAR.
The Tootelians’ two daughters, Karen and her sister, Linda Salwasser, co-own the business. Karen’s husband, Greg, serves as president and CEO of the company.
The award, sponsored by Monsanto, ARA and AgPro, honors retailers who represent the best of the industry. Retail outlets are awarded the honor based on innovative business practices, community and industry leadership, environmental stewardship, reliability, technology utilization, customer service and effective employee development programs. Recent winners have included The Andersons, NEW Cooperative, Morral Companies, Wheat Growers, Lyman/Tremont Group, Central Valley Ag and
Still A Family Operation. Today, GAR is the nation’s largest, single-location retail operation. The facility covers a little more than 15 acres and includes a new 55,000-square-foot warehouse. Since 2012, the company has invested more than $10 million in expanding and improving its facilities and ability to rapidly meet the needs of area growers. GAR’s annual sales of nearly $100 million are generated through its staff of 40 Pest Control Advisors (PCAs) who provide fertilizer and crop-care products, along with water and regulatory advice, to more than 1,400 area farmers.
“I think how we designed this facility could serve as a model for how business will be done by retailers in the future,” Greg says.
Despite the retailer’s success, Karen says what she values most about GAR is that her parents’ legacy is still alive and thriving. It’s a legacy Karendraws on and continues through daily radio commercials that she writes and voices for local Fresno radio station KMJ 580/105.9. The passion and commitment GAR has for California agriculture, farmers and families are evident in Karen’s voice. She’s often heard speaking direct to area moms and telling them about the quality of Central Valley food crops and how farmers are “like our veterans and should be deeply respected because they feed and fuel our freedoms every day.”
Respect is integral to how GAR functions day-to-day.
“Customers and employees are considered family,” Greg says. “When someone comes to work with us, they’re treated like family and with a great deal of respect. That’s something Gar insisted upon, and that’s been a great philosophy and tradition to continue.”
An Industry Pioneer. While GAR is steeped in tradition, it is also a progressive operation whose leaders are constantly evaluating how to do business better. Karen credits Greg for the company’s almost relentless drive to improve and adopt more services for area farmers.
“He’s the right person at the right time for us,” Karen says. “He’s a visionary, a strong leader, and he understands the nuances of making and keeping a business successful.”
Under Greg’s leadership, GAR has developed a number of enterprising programs. One is an in-house, two-year field training/mentoring program for new-to-the-business PCAs. Training and mentoring by senior staff help newly minted PCAs get a strong start with farmer-customers and minimize their potential for mistakes. That’s no small feat in the Central Valley, where farmers raise more than 400 specialty crops and are subject to rules and regulations enforced by 95-plus state agencies, not including the Environmental Protection Agency or state agencies in the departments of conservation and transportation.
Regulations in California are so varied and numerous that even the most detail-oriented farmers have difficulty staying informed and up-to-date on them. Greg saw the need customers had and decided to address it by hiring a compliance manager. That’s when Patty Cardoso came on board and started updating and training GAR employees, farmers and farm workers. Cardoso and her team are in fields daily. They conduct “tailgate training” sessions on everything from spray re-entry restrictions to emergency response plans.
“GAR does a great job,” says farmer-customer Don Klassen, who is based near Dinuba, Calif. “They have helped us with regulatory compliance and keep us up-to-date on rules, regulations, safe product handling and employee practices.”
Focused On Service. In addition to its laser-like focus on business, GAR is actively involved in the Reedley community, supporting dozens of local charities, schools and activities. Last year marked the third time GAR raised funds, a total of $231,000 in 2016 alone, to provide meals through the local Community Food Bank for those in need in the Central Valley, according to Andy Souza, CEO of the food bank.
To demonstrate GAR’s influence in the Reedley community, Souza tells a story about how another area retailer showed up one time during a food distribution day and handed him a sizable check.
“He said, ‘I’ve worked with GAR Tootelian for decades, and I know their work and reputation, and if they’re going to support the Community Food Bank, then I should, too,’” Souza recalls, adding, “GAR is a huge blessing to us.”
As part of its community service, GAR has ongoing partnerships with various groups to build awareness and appreciation for agriculture. The groups include 4-H, FFA, Ag in the Classroom, Center for Land-Based Learning, World Ag Expo, California Women for Agriculture and numerous Farm Bureaus across the state.
In 2003, GAR established the Gar & Esther Tootelian Charitable Foundation (GETCF) to engage, develop and direct its philanthropy. Four years ago, the foundation developed the “Valley Farm” as an interactive major exhibit at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo. The exhibit includes farm animals, permanent crops and seasonal vegetables that zoo-goers can experience. It attracts more than 700,000 visitors annually and is used as an educational resource for teachers, students and their families.
Greg’s perspective is that any retailer in the country could do what GAR does for its community and customers. He refers to it as “giving an extra 2%” in time, money and effort. It’s a tangible philosophy that the retailer models every day.
“I tell all of our people the same thing,” Greg says. “Always do what Gar would have done—you are Gar. You just do what’s in people’s best interest, and never waver from that.”