Every once in a while, if you’re lucky, you cross paths with someone who reminds you that every day is a gift. From the time Katherine Chisholm walked through the doors at UFA, she has been doing just that for those around her, in the most beautiful and subtle way.
To truly understand how special Katherine is, it’s important to know her story.
Sixteen years ago, she and her husband, Doug, were faced with the difficult news that he had a rare, life threatening blood cancer. Doctors told the couple they should make the most of their time together, as it was limited. And so, they created a bucket list. Katherine, a born and bred city girl from Calgary, was surprised to learn that first on Doug’s bucket list, was to own a horse.
“We sold our home in the city and began checking off that list, first by purchasing a 95-year-old farm house with ten glorious acres, located between Olds and Sundre,” says Katherine. “We bought Doug his horse, a big black mare.” Katherine has a dry, fantastic sense of humour and she jokes that months turned into years and they continued to check things off the list; another horse, dogs, chickens, a garden, a John Deere tractor. “Doug kept thriving and my plans of being a widow on a cruise ship were put on hold. Thankfully.” she laughs.
Katherine continued to commute to her job as a retail store manager in Calgary but as time went on, the travel became harder. One morning, Doug happened to see an ad in the local paper that the UFA store in Olds was looking for an assistant store manager. He encouraged his wife to apply, and when she said she was too busy, he took it upon himself to apply for her.
“Well imagine my surprise, when I got called for an interview,” says Katherine. “To be honest, I had never been in a UFA store and to top it off, I knew nothing about farming!” Katherine did some recon, scoping out the store the day before the interview, and was shocked to see that it had something for everyone. “I was excited to see the paint aisle. I knew a bit about that, so I thought, at least I’ll be able to explain the difference between egg shell and semi-gloss.” She laughs when remembering her interview. “The store manager asked me one question and then he never got a word in edgewise. I left thinking I blew it, I literally talked this poor man’s ear off, and I thought there’s no way I’ll ever get the position.”
The next day she was offered the job.
One of the most endearing things about Katherine is that she is honest and doesn’t make any bones about her lack of farming knowledge and she certainly doesn’t see herself as a trail blazer. Truth be told, Katherine has been a role-model for many women at UFA and in her community. “I was the first woman assistant store manager, and it didn’t seem like a big deal until I picked up my uniform. I was given a starchy men’s shirt, that I tried to figure out how I could tailor to fit me. I had to wear jeans, which I hated, and I’d never owned a pair of boots, let alone steel toed boots.” I knew that this was a far cry from my life in women’s retail fashion. But what Katherine did know was how to serve people and how to build a team that feels like family, something she does better than anyone.
“Some of my staff had been there for twenty years and here was this city girl, their new boss, with no farm experience,” she says. “I knew in order to have a successful team, we needed to feel like family. I found an old stove in the classifieds, picked up dishes from the thrift store, called in some favours and before we knew it, we had a fully functional kitchen at the store. The deal I made with my team was that if you attended a staff meeting, after hours, I would prepare dinner.” Needless to say, the Olds Farm Store always had 100% staff meeting attendance.
“I think I learned early on that food unites people and it’s a way of showing love. As a young girl, I was always in the church kitchen with my mother helping prepare meals. And as a family, we had big Sunday dinners, some of my favourite memories have been created around the kitchen table.”
And over the years, whether it be at the farm store or at the Calgary support office, Katherine continued her tradition of showing love and building camaraderie with her work family, by organizing pot lucks and cooking delicious Christmas turkey dinners.
A few years passed and Katherine was asked to become the store manager. A position she reluctantly accepted. Not only did she think she wasn’t ready, but in many ways, she thought UFA wasn’t ready. “First woman assistant manager was one thing, but head store manager, quite another first. There were definitely some who questioned my abilities, I learned that sometimes, with the right approach, your adversaries can turn into your biggest allies, and yes, there is a juicy story behind that.” If Katherine knew there was an issue, she faced it head on, and she continued to blaze trails.
Katherine is one of those people that has a way of building fierce loyalty and trust with incredible subtlety. Don’t be fooled. She comes across as the den mother, a loving and patient, kind-hearted woman and very sweet, but she has an edge, a quiet strength that has carried her far…she may bake pies, but she’s no push over.
“I learned early, you can’t fool a farmer. I went to every training session, every crop tour, sales conference, trade show, and farm visit that I could,” she says. “I needed to learn enough to be helpful. I had this big orange product binder that became my bible. I still have it today, it’s so tattered and worn and filled with sticky notes and index cards. If I didn’t know something, and it didn’t exist in my binder, I was honest and said, let’s figure this out together.”
Katherine may not have known everything there is to know about farming, but she certainly knew customer service. She set the gold standard as store manager and not only did her team love her but most importantly, her customers adored her. It was no surprise she was asked to move to Calgary to form what would become the Customer Service Team.
Customer service – serving others – is not just a job for Katherine, she says it’s a privilege and something she learned early. “My dad was self-employed and he always told me, you may win an argument with a customer, but you’ll lose the customer.”
“There is no greater job than helping others. The bottom line is, to say you’re sorry for something that you didn’t do, albeit humbling, can make all the difference. Sometimes all people want is to be heard, and to know that someone is there to help, whatever that may look like. I would always encourage members to please care enough to call.”
And her attitude toward service doesn’t end with the customer. Ask anyone Katherine has worked with and they will echo the same. Whether it be changing schedules dozens of times in a week to accommodate team members, or arranging special training, or sending flowers when someone needs a pick-me-up, or dropping by for tea, she is so much more than a supervisor.
“Your team is what makes you and I’m here to serve them as well. You find out what’s important to people and you value that, then you give them what they need both professionally and personally. And then you let them do their job. You can’t put people in a box, no one is the same and what motivates everyone to get up in the morning is what makes us all unique,” she says.
“I remember when I first came to the support office and how hard some people, like Jim Watt, fought to ensure that we weren’t called head office, but rather the support office. I hope people in the building understand that the privilege of working from home during this pandemic is only thanks to those who have continued to work in the field and in our stores. As a co-operative, service doesn’t start and stop with the 1-800 number. We all serve each other, and for that I am so grateful.”
When asked about what she will miss most, there’s an indelible pause. She says there are two things she will miss most.
“One of the biggest thrills has been working with the investment program. It makes you realize the depths of trust and commitment people have with UFA. They not only patronize our co-operative, but they choose to invest with us because of years of foundational trust and belief in our work. You can hear it in their voices, and it’s been such an honour, it has made me feel so incredibly special and it’s been a reminder that what we do does matter.”
“And of course, I will miss my team and my UFA family, so much. I actually can’t believe that this chapter is coming to a close. We’ve been through happy and sad times, from children being born to losing parents, marriages to illnesses, and everything in between. We’ve laughed and we’ve cried together. I’m not sure I’ll ever have these kinds of relationship again and I’ll forever treasure our memories.”
As for Katherine and Doug, she believes they have been given a second chance at life. “I have been so blessed and everyday is a gift. Right now, it’s time for the next adventure. We checked everything off the first bucket list and now we’ve made a new one, and it’s time again to start ticking boxes, the first box is seeing the country in their RV they’ve named Rex.”
Katherine has worn many titles. She has been Doug’s partner, care taker, best friend and wife for decades. She is a mother to four children, and grandmother to nine, plus those two fur babies. For those at UFA, Katherine been a colleague, supervisor, confidant, mentor, office fridge constable, trail blazer, den mother, and for so many a kind voice over the phone willing to serve. But for everyone, she has the title, friend. And she will be missed.
Congratulations on your retirement Katherine. There are indeed miracles everyday if you look for them and may we all be left with a pinch of that magic ingredient you sprinkle on everything.