Home Month and Year November 2020 Brent Hesje: Fueled by Partnerships, Driven by Passion

Brent Hesje: Fueled by Partnerships, Driven by Passion

The CEO of Fountain Tire explains why partnerships are the key on the road to success

Brent Hesje, CEO, Fountain Tire. Photo by EPIC Photography Inc.

Fountain Tire is an Edmonton-based company with 160 stores among select cities in Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario. Overseeing it all is Brent Hesje, CEO and a recent Tire Industry Association Hall of Fame inductee. He’s enjoying a wonderful career that has spanned many roles, both in business and in the community, and his work has taken him through many of Canada’s top cities. Through it all there are two things he knows for sure: partnerships are essential to success, and Edmonton is the place he loves to call home.

Hesje joined Fountain Tire in 1992 as the marketing manager.

“I was with a multinational consumer goods company and they were talking a lot about partnerships, but more in a figurative sense,” he says. “A fundamental feature of Fountain Tire are the partnerships, and I found that very attractive.”

In addition to a partnership with Goodyear Canada, applicable managers are offered a 50/50 partnership in their stores. This practice was put into place by Bill Fountain, who founded the company in 1956.

Hesje got started with the brand when his uncle, who was working with Fountain Tire, let him know about an opening for a marketing manager. Despite liking the brand promise, deep culture of collaboration, and the business model, Hesje came to the conclusion that joining the company wasn’t for him. However, his wife suggested that he would deeply regret not working with a private company and his uncle added that this was a workplace culture where Hesje could truly be himself.

“I’m glad I listened!” Hesje smiles as he reflects on the past. “My wife and uncle knew I was more of a private company guy than I did!” What came next was nearly 30 years with Fountain Tire to date, including a role as the vice president of marketing, company share ownership, and an appointment to CEO in 2005.

But it hasn’t been easy.

“For the first few days,” Hesje remembers, “I was concerned. My background was as a sales manager and they were looking for a marketing manager. My first trip into the heartland of Fountain Tire included time and meetings with 50 of the partners. I had to use persuasion as to why marketing should be considered an investment and not an expense. There was a lot of wisdom in that field; they all came together and allowed us to create one of Canada’s greatest brands, right here in Edmonton.”

A great product and great partnerships meant the ability to expand.

Hesje says, “We came to recognize that we had a great business model we could export. For someone like me that grew up in the prairies, this made me very proud. So, we started to move the product outside of Alberta, scaling up into communities across Canada.”

In addition to being the CEO of Fountain Tire, Hesje is passionate about community partnerships both personally and in his role with the company. He sits on the boards of the Edmonton Football Club and ONEC Group; is a member of the Edwards School of Business’ Dean Circle; was involved with the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) as a board member, chair, and advisor for more than 11 years; and is a past board member/chair of the Alberta Motor Vehicle Industry Council, The Support Network, and Western Canadian Tire Dealers – to name a few.

“Serving has made me a better CEO and being a CEO has made me a better board member,” says Hesje. “In service I have never found, despite trying, a situation where I gave more than I got. It’s wonderful to be able to go out into the community and make a contribution.”

His many years at NAIT have given him insight into the next generation of the workforce, and Hesje is excited about how Edmonton’s young people are gearing up for the future.

“In a polytechnic like NAIT, there is a real partnership with business,” he explains. “I think over half the students at NAIT now already have some post-secondary education before enrolling. They are coming into NAIT to fine tune their profession and contribute to their communities.”

“One thing I’ve seen with Fountain Tire as we navigate through COVID,” he continues, “is resilience, and that is because a lot of businesses are run by young people. There is a resiliency about young people that bodes well for the future of the country. Fundamental to resilience is adaptability. To be adaptable, you must be innovative. This generation checks all those boxes.”

The many contributions to business, community, and charity have not gone unnoticed. While Hesje is very humble about his achievements, he feels honoured to have received, among other recognitions, both a Northern Lights award and the induction into the Tire Industry Association Hall of Fame.

“The Northern Lights Award was very meaningful for me because it capped off and validated my decision to join Fountain Tire. When you look at some of the other people that have received that award, being recognized was quite an honour. Being inducted into the Hall of Fame was also quite an honour. The award was presented in Las Vegas and I was proud of getting international recognition for our fine city of Edmonton. There were previous recipients there from all over the world and from all different parts of the tire business.

Being in business, and in Edmonton, for so many years, Hesje has dealt with many challenges. Now he faces one that is affecting the world in devastating ways. How does he feel about Alberta’s business community during COVID-19 and a rapidly changing political and economic landscape?

“You just don’t count Alberta out, and Edmonton is key to that attitude,” he says firmly. “Of all the nine cities I’ve lived in in Canada, and they were all awesome, I don’t know that I fully felt at home until I came to Edmonton. I really appreciate the down-to-earth nature of Edmonton. Here you can’t tell who has wealth and influence. I like that; it shows humility. Edmonton is not a small city, but it has a community feel. You have thought leaders, community leaders, and driven folks that take action. It’s wonderful to be a part of it.

“I’ve lived half my life in Alberta but even before that, I saw how the province would deal with ups and downs, and how it always seemed to be the last province helped by others. There is an inner strength in our province and a sense that we are in this together. There is deep pride in Alberta leading into opportunity and out of challenging times. Everywhere you turn, you see adaptability. Edmontonians have a history of picking each other up in hard times, on a business level, as entrepreneurs, and with a collaborative spirit.”

He pauses, then laughs, “Maybe it’s the long winters that make us so resilient!”

As a tire dealer, Hesje takes winter very seriously.

“Our business is one with high stakes if the work is preformed incorrectly. Customers need to trust that things are being done safely and with the highest level of skill. This is why we are not looking for absentee partnerships and owners. We are serious when we say, ‘we are on this road together.’ Whether you drive a light passenger vehicle, commercial truck, or a combine, we partner with you so you don’t have to find solutions on your own. To do this we have to build long-term relationships. That takes time, but we grow the relationship and learn together.”

He continues, “I think it’s very important to spend as much time as you can learning from others and being coachable. My definition of surrounding yourself with great people is not just people that work for you, but people that coach you and teach you. I spent a lifetime with the belief that the biggest thing I do is make decisions on who we partner with. The vast majority of the time, being a partner with someone in business makes you stronger than being on your own. The death of a partnership is when one side expects the other to be perfect. At Fountain Tire, we strive to improve every year. There is something perfect about improving together.”

Thanks to those partnerships over the many years, Hesje has many people he’d like to thank for influencing his journey. In addition to clients, store owners, and his family, he thanks the Fountain Tire board of directors.

Fountain Tire has been an Edmonton-based success story for more than 60 years, and with Hesje at the helm, the story of this brand keeps driving forward.

“Right now, and even more than usual, we are focusing on the safety of our customers as we navigate the pandemic,” he says. “Many of our customers are essential service workers, and we help maintain their emergency vehicles as well as their personal vehicles. It’s important to help those folks get to where they need to go safely.

“In the longer term, we are focusing on more customer-centric initiatives and technologies. We have recently rolled out a Digital Vehicle Report, representing the gold standard in customer communication. It allows us to show exactly what is going on in our customers’ vehicles by showing them on their own cell phone or computer. This facilitates a discussion about the vehicle. We’re finding when a customer can see what needs to be done, they’re more likely to make needed repairs, which increases safety on the road.

“We also keep pushing to remain a top employer and have started to get interest from universities about doing co-ops. We continue to grow our robust training and professional development programs. Because our model is so unique, we have the ability to do some internal things to help advance management. Our aim is to teach success through education with future store managers; our DRIVE and Manger in Training programs help qualified managers to become successful store owners. Becoming a partner is not just a financial decision. Responsibility and maturity are required.”

A major component of Fountain Tire’s future development is in product sustainability, something Hesje is very excited about.

“We have plans for growing our retread offering, which is an opportunity for reuse,” he informs. “We are also working with our customers to understand maintenance schedules, which help minimize a driver’s footprint. Right now, at best, just 50 per cent of vehicles on Canadian roads have fulfilled maintenance as per their owner’s manual. We have an opportunity to help build our brand by simply doing the right things.”

For the man and the business, doing the right thing means creating one solution, then moving right onto another.

“There is more work to be done,” Hesje concludes. “There are more opportunities for expansion and for successions at the store level. We have younger managers taking over from seasoned managers and we must make sure that wisdom is transferred. We always want to leave the business better than how we entered it.”

Fountain Tire, and Hesje, are intent on fulfilling the company’s core purpose “helping people get there – safely, sustainably, and successfully,” and they will continue to do so one partnership at a time.