Sarah and Bill: Canada
Updated: Mar 25, 2020
Where were you born and raised?
Born in Ottawa and Lanark County, Bill and Sarah have deep roots in Eastern Ontario. At the age of 21, Bill moved from Ottawa into Lanark County where he stayed until 1975. He then relocated to the Frankville property that currently hosts Gibbons Family Farm. An old stone farmhouse was his and Sarah’s first home on the property. In 2010 Bill built and moved into another house where he currently lives. Sarah has remained true to her country roots and now lives in Mallorytown with her husband.
Bill: Before opening Gibbons Family Farm as a business, you were a dairy farmer. What made you turn your hobby of maple syrup, into a business?
Bill explained that he worked with dairy cows for 20 years but always dabbled in maple syrup production. He made a living from the cows but eventually, wanted a change. He began putting more time and effort into maple syrup production, making it into what he calls a ‘glorified hobby’ that he affectionately says ‘just got out of control’. Bill never expected the business to blossom into what it is today!
Sarah: How did you get involved in the family business?
Sarah’s first memories of involvement with the family business were from a young age when she would take time off from school to help with sap collection. After a long hiatus from sap collection that spanned through university, overseas travel and various social work jobs, Sarah began helping on the farm during the 2001 season, working the off-season on local cruise ships. She alternated between farm and tourism work until 2005 when she was asked to manage the business while Bill cared for aging parents. Weeks morphed into months and eventually, Sarah became a full-time fixture of Gibbons Family Farm. This was very unexpected. When Sarah left Frankville to study at the University of Guelph, she did so with little intention of returning to Leeds Grenville. Sarah exclaims with a smile that, “By no means did I think I would be the one staying on the farm!”
What’s the best /most challenging part of running a family owned business?
Both Bill and Sarah agree that not having a boss is a big perk of running a family owned business. But with that perk comes significant responsibility. As Sarah explains, ‘being self-employed means being solely responsible for your own pay cheque.’ As the maple syrup season is very weather dependent and only occurs for a short period of time, challenges also include hiring staff. Bill and Sarah explained that it is hard to find people who can essentially be on-call and willing to work extremely long hours until Mother Nature says that sap season is done. They continued by saying that it can also be hard to remember that as business owners they can’t expect employees to have the same level of commitment to the business that they do.
If you were sitting down and having a conversation with a newcomer/immigrant who was thinking about starting their own business, what is the best piece of advice you would offer?
As English is the primary language of Leeds & Grenville customers, Sarah feels that having strong English skills is an important contributing factor to a newcomer entrepreneur’s success. Bill agreed with Sarah but went on to say that one needs to be friendly too and “probably personality is even more important than good English.” Finding a business that is needed in this area would also contribute to success or if planning to be home or web-based, ensuring the product or service is needed in Ontario or Canada. Bill and Sarah recommend ‘starting small’ and not borrowing more money than you are comfortable with.
Maple syrup is symbolic of Canada and trips to the sugar bush are a spring-time tradition for many Canadian families. Do you have any personal, cultural or family traditions you love to celebrate?
Maple treats in the springtime are a Gibbons family tradition but instead of driving to Lanark County to buy them, like the Gibbons family did when Sarah was young, the Gibbons now produce their own sweet goodies! Christmas crackers on the holiday table have also been a longtime Gibbons family tradition and Sarah tries to carry this on from her Grandmother. Members of the Gibbons family can also expect Polish treats at each family gathering as Sarah’s mother hails from Poland.